EDITOR’S NOTE: Donna Kallner lives in northeast Wisconsin, where she is a fiber artist, fire department volunteer, and sometimes Census worker. She’s been writing about her patch of rural America for the Daily Yonder since 2013. We’re tardy in acknowledging Donna’s substantial body of work as a column, but we’re fixing that omission today with the first installment of “Forty Degrees North.” We hope you’ll make her feel welcome.
When you’re a short, blonde farmer’s daughter of a certain age, you learn to laugh off some pretty bad jokes. It’s the same for many rural people. We can appreciate the humor in Hee Haw and Schitt’s Creek, even if those shows don’t really represent us. It’s a bit harder, sometimes, to shrug off stereotypes perpetuated by people who parachute into rural areas with assumptions and leave before you can say “confirmation bias.” Pardon me for stereotyping them, but can’t you imagine some of our lawmakers swapping stories with their worldly Washington friends about how international travel helped them understand a different culture? In northern Wisconsin we sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road — generally to get around fallen trees, snow drifts, or dead skunks. But maybe our culture isn’t different enough to merit the same effort at understanding. And to be fair, it’s not easy to sort out our complicated views on voting, vaccines, race, the environment, the economy, and whether rap has a place in country music.
Maybe it would help if they watched a few old episodes of The Red Green Show. The fictional town of Possum Lake does remind me a bit of where I live. My favorite segment, “Handyman’s Corner,” usually featured a generous application of duct tape and ended with, “if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy”. Like any stereotype, it certainly doesn’t apply to every rural person. But most of my neighbors (even the handsome ones) are in fact pretty handy.
I got to thinking about that recently when I heard a young city-bred friend learned to fold fitted sheets by watching a YouTube video. My late father loved YouTube, particularly videos of tractors and combines stuck in mud (they’re funny if it’s not your machinery). I can’t imagine Dad having much interest in neatly folded fitted sheets. If he had, I’m sure he would have built a jig for folding them.
Like many rural people, my dad could jerryrig just about anything well enough to get by. My home is filled with reminders of times he saw a need, scrounged up materials, made something, and immediately realized there were five or six ways to do it better. He once built himself a 20-pound post hole digger. It’s greatest charm was it inspired you to think of other ways to get the job done besides using a post hole digger. When he could no longer use it, he sold it at auction to someone who actually hefted it before bidding.
My husband is also pretty handy. Recently, he told a friend about our plan for dealing with a ground wasp nest built in an old gopher hole. “Okay,” she said, “and where are you going to get a flamethrower?” That device’s original owner would be delighted to know the one we have came in handy. When another friend suggested flooding the hole instead, a third asked, “Why would they do that when they have a flamethrower?” Born and bred rural, that one.
Handiness isn’t exactly a box you can tick, like telling the real estate agent you want to be in a good school district and walking distance from a brewpub. It’s developed through trial and error — and generally lots of error. Good shortcuts (which you can read as “little potential for embarrassing stories”) are few and far between. I suppose there’s real-world potential for an instructional program like the School for New Vermonters in the book Radio Free Vermont: One character in the novel teaches retired attorneys and CEOs how to drive on muddy roads, operate a chainsaw, and behave at town meetings. I’m just not sure the target market would recognize how they might benefit.
To others, it might seem like handy folks were born knowing how to do things. The truth is, most of us are handy because we saw our parents making do, and our parents either encouraged us or at least looked the other way as we broke stuff and tried to put it back together. Long before STEM became a curriculum, country kids were building foxhole radios, launching backyard rockets, and learning plant and animal science lessons from our 4-H projects.
Sometimes I forget that I’m capable of much I was not born knowing. Last month I was mad as a hornet trying to interface a new cell phone with a new printer in a home that doesn’t have WiFi. Apparently, the people who design and market home office technology are unfamiliar with rural areas where WiFi choices are limited or non-existent. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated example of challenges integrated into rural culture that people just passing through might find hard to live with. Luckily, when I feel nearly defeated I have a memory vault that includes things like my mom chasing a bull out of the garden with a broom. Compared to losing a year’s vegetables, having to complete five or six steps to print a document is small potatoes. I’m sure there are better ways to make that interface than what I’m doing. But it’s working better than a 20-pound post hole digger.
One day when we were dealing with a trifecta of tribulations (technological, financial and bureaucratic), my aging father said, “My girls are so capable.” That’s not quite handy, but still high praise from the man who saw you take a tractor and disk through a gate slightly too narrow for the harrow dragging behind. It’s a good thing he could weld. I can’t weld, but I can (mostly) fix my other mistakes. And I still make plenty of them, even if I should know better. Mistakes are a natural part of learning. They’re nothing to be ashamed of, unless you keep repeating the same ones over and over.
Luckily, many lessons can be cushioned by help from good neighbors. The kind who, when they see you using a come-along to winch a pickup off the snow berm at the end of the driveway, come back with a tractor and logging chains.
Usually handy rural folks will ask if you want help before jumping in on a job that’s going sideways. Sometimes that’s because it’s entertaining to watch you try to figure things out on your own. Sometimes it’s because they might learn something from watching. Sometimes it’s just the polite thing to do.
It seems like the rest of the world has forgotten how to be polite even to people who have different views on voting, vaccines, race, the environment, the economy, and whether rap has a place in country music. But we and our rural neighbors? We can save scorched earth solutions for the hornet nest, and work together to find respectful compromises. They may be as imperfect as my dad’s post hole digger. But they might lead us to ideas that don’t involve digging ourselves deeper holes.
With that in mind, here’s a lesson from Red Green on the art of conversation.
Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.
Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where political candidates on the campaign trail still mimic the sartorial style of Red Green.