Opening Letters

Rightly Placed

reflections on six generations of Chippewa Valley locals

Bill Hogseth, illustrated by Catlin Felix Kramka |

When my son, Frank, was born last year, he became the first member of my family’s sixth generation to reside in the Chippewa Valley. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to say that I live in the same place that my family has lived for so many generations. It’s embarrassing because it implies that I’m a simpleton.  Maybe, the trajectory of my life has not generated enough force sufficient to overcome the gravity of this place, my home. Maybe, you might think, I’m stuck here.

By staying here, I’ve traded in the thrill of travel and mobility for something less intoxicating: a settled life in a seemingly ordinary place. I’ve forsaken the opportunity to create a slick new identity in a new geography, to reinvent myself by simply moving to a new city, state, or country. Instead, I’ve chosen to surround myself with the ghosts of my family, landmarks freighted with memories, the absolute mass of my personal history, and the comforting gestures of a familiar landscape.

Alongside my embarrassment, however, I feel a quiet yet tremendous pride. The longer I stay here, the deeper I sink into the nuances of this place. I allow time to work and gradually reveal new layers. I’m surprised when I discover new things. My residence here has come to resemble a sort of companionship – as if it were a friendship, but with a place instead of a person – a type of relation that can only be arrived at through the accumulation of years and the unspoken commitment of a shared future. To belong, literally, means to be “rightly placed.”

Now, I’ve woven myself into the context. I can’t see past the sprawling oak trees, hills tumbling into valleys, trilliums unfolding across the forest floor. I can’t feel anything but the throbbing weight of July humidity and the crackling air of freezing January nights. It’s not springtime unless I hear the flute-like song of an eastern meadowlark. These things define me as much as they define this place: big wide rivers, venison tenderloins, the smell of freshly chopped alfalfa, summer tomatoes, the Packers, fish fries in church basements, games of pick-up hockey, the pre-dawn wail of a whip-poor-will, one-room taverns along empty county roads, and the steady plain-spoken practicality of these good people.

It is, however, a less than perfect place; there are plenty of things that I don’t love, things that I would like to change. As with anything, the good comes with the bad, which marks the test of patience and the struggle to stay put somewhere. When we encounter something we don’t like, the temptation is to reject it and replace it. Geographically speaking, that means we might search for a “better” place and there are plenty of other places that are sexier, hipper, and more dramatic than this one. But, this place is my home – I don’t have the luxury of choosing my home. It chose me, and I am proud to have not abandoned it. As I continue to live here, I slowly and deliberately work to change the things that I think need to be changed.

But, still, I haven’t fully overcome the embarrassment that I’ve stayed put here in rural western Wisconsin. Shouldn’t I have gone to greater heights and farther distances? Have I suffered from a lack of ambition? I don’t think so. My embarrassment is counterbalanced by the knowledge that the things that I crave – connection, groundedness, community – can only be achieved by staying right here, in this place.  I’ll choose to measure my life’s success by the depth of my relations with the world. For me, this place is the world. I’ll probably die here, and that’s fine with me.