Sunday, 17 July 2016

Independence Day : Bluegills and Freedom

In the not too distant past, as in within the last month, a man who never really expected to achieve his goal in the first time of asking stood and like a proud Olympic gold medalist made a bold triumphant statement, his name was Nigel Farage, the leader of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)and his nation, the United Kingdom, had just voted to leave the European Union. As he basked in the glow of the slightly unexpected referendum result, he declared with typical grandiose verve and overly dramatic flair that that day should from now be known as the U.K.s Independence Day.

Now I'm not passing judgment on any of the various arguments that have been made or will be made before, during and after that monumental referendum campaign nor am I passing judgment on Mr Farage himself. Far too many words have been written in anger, sarcasm and arrogant superiority, by both sides of said debate and upon every single medium of information dispersal available to the world. I would only point out, however, that no part of the United Kingdom has been conquered by an external force for nigh on a thousand years and so his statement while it will be loved by his supporters and hated by his detractors will probably be considered in the light of history as excitable ideological hyperbole.

The reason being, the UK is one of the oldest states in the world, has one of the oldest Parliaments and was formerly a major colonial power. The whole reasoning behind the “Leave” campaign's stance is that the United Kingdom has never bowed to anyone, least of all, in their mind, to a group of faceless bureaucrats in some European city somewhere eating foreign food and trying to get rid of pounds and ounces and other British ways of doing things. “Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves” displays the attitude of a people who have never needed an Independence Day.

The truth is, Independence Days are the reserve of colonies. They are a commemoration of the moment a new country cuts the constitutional apron strings that ties them to a mother country and step out onto the international stage, like a newborn, blinking in the light. It is for new countries to lay claim to, not former imperial powers. Independence Days remember violent births not the slightly bad tempered “conscious uncoupling” of recent European debate.

I say all of this by way of introduction to this addition of my impossibly popular blog ( I say impossibly popular, I do know that it gets read. I think...) and to acknowledge that due to the interruption of everyday life into the complex act of electronic epistle composition, I find that I now don't just have to recount the events of my friend Neil's visit over Memorial Day but also now I find that the United States Independence Day has come and gone and I should say something about that as well. Neatly both occasions took place in the same location. I spent Memorial Day in one place and then we were back there for Independence Day. Which gives the events a certain symmetry and also makes it easier to write. I don't have to describe the same place twice and being a slightly lazy writer, that does have an appeal to my desire for an easy life.

And what was that location, I hear you query. It was a cabin and a lake under open skies, the shallows all sun dappled under the trees. It was a dock and a boat, with fishing rods and lazy moments where time seems to stand still and all is well in the world. Which is admittedly about par for the course around here.

Despite the fact that I have waxed poetic about my wife's home state of Minnesota and when I last wrote, I left Neil and I stuck in the largest Mall in the United States which is situated in Minnesota. Despite all of this, the lake was in Wisconsin. Admittedly it was situated in the North West of Wisconsin and was far closer to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul than to our humble apartment here in Madison but it still lay in Wisconsin.

The cabin belongs to my wife's aunt and uncle who own an agricultural supply company “up North” as people in Wisconsin say. They are a wonderful couple who have always been wonderfully supportive of my wife and I throughout the length of our courtship and actually were able to travel to the UK for our wedding which was a blessing. They are also accomplished in all the things that people in the north of Wisconsin should be.

Wisconsin is a beautiful state and each day I live here I find that I fall in love with it more. It is a state of great forests, lakes, rolling hills, lazy rivers, exciting and thriving cities. It has the Mid-West's continental climate of warm humid summers and freezing cold winters, its no exaggeration that Lambeau Field, the home stadium of the state's NFL team, my beloved Green Bay Packers, is known far and wide as “The Frozen Tundra”.

The state was originally settled by the French and discovered by them as early as 1634, barely twenty years after the first British settlement in the New World. They came for the furs, trapping animals such as beavers and trading their pelts back to the old world. Then came miners, many originally from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, who when the harsh winters came used their mines as shelters burrowing in like badgers, giving the state it's nickname, “The Badger State”.

Milwaukee grew and developed a famous brewing industry. Kenosha became known as a stereotypical 50s Mid-Western town twenty years after the fact when “Happy Days” was set there. The Republican party was founded in the state in a small white schoolhouse in the equally small settlement of Ripon, Wisconsin. Madison's radical university politics of the 1960s led to it being named “The Berkeley of the Mid-West”

It is an agricultural state, famous for its dairy farming, cheese and bizarrely enough, its cranberries. Wisconsin produces more cranberries than any other state in the Union. And you thought it was only New England states that got in on that kind of action. It also produces a good proportion of the United States' cheese, which is why Packer fans wear foam hats in the form of cheese to games (Go Cheeseheads)

Everyone, it seems in Wisconsin, fishes, hunts and camps or knows somebody who fishes, hunts and camps. This is especially true the further north you go in the state. Wisconsin has a population of roughly 5 and half million people but a total land area of over 54 thousand square miles. And when you consider that Milwaukee and the surrounding area account for somewhere in the region of 2 million people out of that total and that Madison and its metropolitan area account for approaching 600 thousand people, that means there's a lot of empty space out there to hunt and fish in. Another point to take into account is that all the state's large cities lie in the bottom half of the state which means the North is full of excellent opportunities for fishing, hunting, camping and all those other things that John Candy failed so badly at doing in “The Great Outdoors” (and yes, there are bears), When Wisconsin feels like some outdoors recreation, they head North.

Which brings me back, via a wide tangent I know, to the point that Mrs Geekrant's aunt and uncle are real Northern Wisconsin people, he hunts upon occasion, they both fish, they both ice fish which is a pursuit which I would approach with some trepidation. They once woke up one morning to find a bear on their porch and as I previously mentioned they supply some great agricultural machinery.

So being born in the United Kingdom, in the untamed semi urbanised wilds of the North of England and having very little training in outdoorsy things, (other than how to make a fire and pitch a tent.) when they bought a cabin on a lake, I was obviously ecstatic to spend some time up there.

On Memorial Day, we drove up from my In-Laws place in Minnesota in Melissa's convertible with the top down, (a new experience for me as let's face it, an open topped car in Britain is a recipe to get rained on and after my mother finally dragged my father's hands of the keys of his beloved, yet apparently slightly dilapidated, MG long before I was born. She was never allowing him to buy a new one... well its not really practical with four kids.) We crossed the Mississippi at Red Wing and wound our way through quiet small towns and past red painted barns and eventually reached the cabin.

The name of the cabin is “Bluegill Bay” and it lies next to the road as it curves to turn around the edge of the lake. It lies shaded by trees with a little dock from which to fish from and a pontoon boat anchored there. Mrs Geekrant's Uncle Jim greeted us as usual wearing dungarees or bib overalls as they're known here. He's an authority on many of the things you didn't think you needed to know about living here, but later find out that you really, really did.

Not long after we got their, my brothers in law turned up, one with his children, all sun bleached blonde hair and blue eyes. It turned out that Mrs Geekrant's other aunt and uncle were already out in their own boat they'd bought with them fishing. So Neil's first American holiday was spent with my wife's extended family, messing about on the lake. Which, I'm learning, is exactly how its supposed to be.

We fished, hanging rods of the end of the dock, wrapping worms around hooks and angling for the bluegill, sunfish and crappie that make up a lot what are known as panfish here. The fish could be seen, the sun cutting through the water reflecting off their scales as they took the bait.

The lake is surrounded by trees, shading the banks and creating privacy for the other cabins one could see poking out in places from gaps in the foliage. The sun was brilliant overhead, we ate brats and salad and chips and all the other foods that make American picnic food some of the best in the world and time stops and slows down and you know what peace is, and solitude is, away from cellphones and business meetings and the next season of “Whatever Country you happen to be in right now's Got Talent” And then we took the boat out.

We went out twice, the pontoon speeding its way round the relatively small lake and floating slowly past lily pads and mini marshes. We marvelled at the size of the cabins on the shore, less cabins than mini mansions with outdoor kitchens and guest quarters bigger than the house I grew up in.

Then my wife grew nervous, as here Uncle Jim asked me if I wanted to drive the boat. Now I can't even drive a car and mechanical things have never exactly been my forte but I've been getting quite comfortable on my father in law's ATVs after I nearly flipped his brand new one last autumn so I took the plunge and hoped that I didn't make everyone else take the plunge as well.

The controls aren't that difficult, just a steering wheel and a hand operated throttle. I drove us around one of the lakes of the chain we were in for a while, grateful that my niece and nephew were wearing life jackets and then with my wife mentioning slightly stridently in my ear that we didn't want to crash the boat and ruin our relationship with her relations, I steeled myself. In one place, a roadway crossed a narrow channel that separated one lake from another and that was the way Uncle Jim wanted me to go. So I decided he must know what he was doing trusting me, so I went for it.

I succeeded, with Uncle Jim and my brother in law standing in the stern to push the boat of the wall if I ran into them. The irony amused me, I have successfully steered a boat for a good ten minutes before I've driven a car successfully for ten seconds. I was stupidly impressed with myself.

Neil fished most of that day, sat with a fishing rod hung over the edge of the dock, I think he enjoyed the solitude, even in the midst of the crowd of family. Maybe that it something we've lot in the United Kingdom over the years. The ability to be alone. To be separated from the rest of civilisation and find ourselves in a place where nature has more hold on the land than we do. I wonder if that is something that my friend found there, for he certainly enjoyed his time at the cabin that day.

When we returned for Independence Day, we found more of the same solitude. This time only myself and Kelly (Mrs Geekrant), joined her Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue at Bluegill Bay.

We also stayed there for two nights, sleeping in a small extra cabin behind the main cabin that Sue called the “shiner shack”. Being uninformed and arrogantly certain of my own deductive skills, I assumed this referred to moonshine, but I was put right on that score, a shiner is apparently a small fish used a bait, traditionally prepared before being used to fish with.

It was a beautiful cabin to stay in, simple and peaceful, the reflected sunlight from the lake breaking through the shades and dancing on the wooden ceiling. It bought to mind boathouses in the years before the Second World War, where the aristocracy had whiled away their time.

I slept peacefully there that night, as far from the lights of towns and the endless noise of never ceasing traffic as I have ever been. Outside, the stars were as bright and as numerous as I have ever seen them. Somewhere in these woods, bears make their home and raccoons scurry along tree branches. Herons flew down to the lake shore merely feet away from us and geese, ironically, played chicken on the road.

We fished off the boat on the Sunday and I caught a large Bluegill, which was an achievement for me, as I was worried that it would prove to be similar to a lot of my practical endeavours, fruitless. But it proved to be otherwise. We fished off the boat for most of the weekend, ending up terribly sun-burnt (at least in Kelly's case) and bitten up by mosquitoes (in my case, I must get used to the fact that if I wear shorts at sunset, I am presenting an all you can eat buffet to the little blighters.) but happy and relaxed at the end of it all.

We lay in giant inflatable tyre toys for two or three hours, floating on the lake, completely relaxed. However when I came to extricate myself from said device I found that my short legs and tubby tummy left me in the same state as a tortoise. There was much flapping around until I was able to get out. Kelly thought it was funny... it very well may have been, I could not possibly comment.

There was a boat parade the next day, the 4th, the inhabitants of the cabins choosing to celebrate Independence by a flotilla of craft bedecked, for the most part, in the Stars and Stripes. Their identity wrapped up in all that that flag represents.

For it is to that flag they pledge their allegiance. They are not tied to a Queen like we British, or to similarity of tribe like the Germans or France or even to a hardcore hard-line ideology like the Chinese or the Cubans. They pledge their allegiance to Independence and to Freedom, acknowledging that those two principles mean something different to everyone else but that their nation was founded and still exists to discover whether a people can reconcile those differences and establish “a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people...” and that such a government “shall not perish from the earth.”

This blog started talking about one man declaring the United Kingdom's independence, I have already made the point that this might be a little over the top but once upon a time, men truly did break away from a larger power in a way that cost them their lives through war, not their sanity through pathetic mean spirited vitriol on social media and established “on this continent a new nation”.

I am a subject of her majesty and her United Kingdom lately moved to this great nation and all its contradictions. All its potential for good and for ill. I love it as only a immigrant can, looking in from the outside. I first went to the cabin on Memorial Day and returned on Independence Day. In this article I have quoted Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given at the dedication of the Civil War cemetery in November of 1863. I am realising all the more, the people still hold their flag in the same honour as they did on the fields of Gettysburg, 153 years ago.
Our flag represents the union of three kingdoms, a physical reality, theirs represents the ideal of a their nation far more than just a reality. This is their symbol of their nation, all its successes and failures and as it fluttered behind our boat on a sun drenched 4th of July, I caught a glimpse, maybe, of just what that means to an American.

P.S. For those who wonder how Neil and I got out of the Mall of America, think about it. Neil knows his way around Abercrombie and Fitch, he is an accomplished shopper. The only difficulty was getting him to make a decision on a sweater.

1 comment:

  1. Great read Stephen, and really enjoyed learning more about my own history, as I always do from you :-)

    PS-I think you should've subtitled it "Bonus thoughts on Brexit & The Mall-of-Merica!"