Rural America

Friday, Jul 3, 2015, 11:59 pm

Happy 4th of July: A Celebration of Community

By John Collins

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A crowd gathers in front of the Madeline Island Historical Museum.   (Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce)

A 4th of July Speech for the Town of La Pointe on Madeline Island in Lake Superior:

I spent a lot of time this winter reading science fiction. And somewhere in the middle of December, it struck me that Madeline Island is a great place to explore that particular genre. I've been told that my Grandfather used to sit on the porch in the summertime, stare out at the lake, and say that it looked like another dimension. I think there's something to that. This island has never had any trouble coming across, to me, like its own separate universe. It's micro or macrocosmic, I'm not sure which.

I was raised in Los Angeles—La Pointe's bipolar opposite. And there was a time, not too long ago, when I would sit in traffic on the 10 freeway, hopelessly trying not to be late for the most boring data entry job in the world. That changed, pretty quickly, when I came to Madeline Island for the first time in 2008. It was for my Grandfather's funeral—his ashes are buried at the cemetery on Middle Road. I was 25 years old at the time but I'd heard stories about this place all my life.

My Dad would tell me about a small island in the middle of a really big lake where my great-grandfather built a house in 1905. It sounded interesting but far away. Then, one weekend in August we flew to the twin cities, rented a car and drove the rest of the way up.

I distinctly remember looking at my Dad on the boat ride over and saying something like “Why (the blank) is this the first time I'm seeing this?” Something clicked almost immediately. By the end of that weekend I had decided to get out of Los Angeles. I went to school in another state. Mostly, now that I think about it, because I knew going to college would free up my summers. I spent the next 3 of them learning how to build houses here until I finished. Then I just stayed.

Why Northwoods Construction ever hired a kid from LA wearing skinny jeans who'd literally never swung a hammer, I'll never fully understand ... but I'm grateful for it.

Long story short, now my commute takes 5 minutes at the most, I get to drive a skid-steer and I'm helping build beautiful houses.

This island literally teaches me something new every day. In one year, I've learned how to turn trees into lumber, fix up an old boat and relocate bats. I know what an eagle's nest looks like and I'm playing guitar in a punk rock band. I've seen bon fires so big that they redefined the word for me. And my misconceptions about the game of croquet have been corrected—it's a bloodthirsty sport.

I guess if this speech has one specific point, it would be to highlight that there's a community that made this experience possible. And it's a community that thrives just as much on independence as it does on interdependence. Being surrounded by people you can count on might even be what makes independence possible.

There is freedom here—vast quantities of the stuff. Show me an islander and I'll show you a person bound only by the impossible scope of what they're trying to accomplish on any given day. Fortunately though, in this relentless frenzy of action, these are people who remember the importance of staying (how should I put this...) hydrated.

There is imagination here. There is joy here. There's struggle and compassion and there's innovation and progress.

There are my buddies who go to the dump, not to throw anything away, but to acquire. Where I see two shipping containers filled with fragmented demolition, they see endless reusable potential.

There is a roofing crew who, despite finding myself on top of St. John's Church in the middle of January, kept me laughing until the job was finished.

We have carpenters who can recite Shakespeare.

There is a woman who sings songs at Tommy's Burned Down Cafe with the kind of passion that can't be bought, sold or bottled.

She has a husband who's one hell of a mason.

There are the guys at the marina who patched my flat tire for a six pack and then taught me how so I could do it myself the next time.

There are my friends at the ferry-line who, when they heard I was going to visit a sick friend in Washburn, “forgot” to ask for my round-trip ticket.

We have authors and businessmen.

We have bartenders in possession of saintly patience and a devil's wit. I suggest tipping them.

We have a coffee shop that, if it wasn't there, I often wonder how this island would wake up as routinely as it does.

And there are guys and girls learning how to farm organically which, if I understand this phenomenon correctly, just means “the hard way”.

We have a Volunteer Fire Department comprised of exactly the kind of people you want showing up to your house if all hell breaks loose.

And there are the EMTs who quietly do some remarkably brave things.

We have new mothers and new fathers

We have a library.

I think what I'm trying to say is that when I look around this island—at the land itself and the people who live here—I see something very different than when I check out the 24 hour news cycle. Times might be tough, and politics might be stupid, but there's no way we're going down the tubes. Not as long as there are communities like this one. And not ever if we instill the importance of looking out for each other, working hard and remembering that every single one of us here right now is pretty damn lucky.

Happy 4th of July

And so goes the speech I delivered 3 years ago today, following the annual Independence Day parade, in the small town of La Pointe, Wisconsin. In the years since, some things have changed (as things do) but the aforementioned community—a factory for joy, struggle, compassion, hangovers and other daily lessons—hasn’t. I've since stopped working construction to give writing a fair shake. The goal is to write about communities like this one. They’re out there, having their own parades today.  



John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

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