Guest Columnist

In winter, civilization in small doses, and a small doe

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
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By the time you read this the worst of the cold will be past. But right now I’m watching a very small doe hunkered down on the edge of my drive, curled up in whatever warmth the sun can offer, occasionally lifting her head when other deer pass by, high stepping in the deep snow. I worry about her.

I have bigger concerns about human beings who cannot get warm, human beings who live on the margins, those who can’t even afford a decent car, let alone snow tires. But my world is small, so I worry about living creatures within a stone’s throw of my windows.

Deliberately I have stepped back from civilization but I am not the hermitic, misanthropic sort so I drive in to town for groceries and gas. Even Thoreau spoke with other people on a daily basis. Being of the world is important, even if it’s disagreeable and maybe a little confounding.

The other day I was filling my tank when I heard a man yell, “I thought you was a colored boy!” And then he said it again, as a follow-up, “Yep, I thought you was a colored boy.”

This was a chubby, middle-aged guy getting out of his vehicle at a convenience store in a nearby small town and he was addressing a young man he obviously knew, a young man who looked pretty dirty, probably the result of whatever job he was doing that day, cleaning chimneys maybe.

For a moment I thought it was 1963. Where does this stuff come from? Who is to blame for our profound cluelessness, our bigotry, our refusal to accept others as equals? Why has this not ended? I used to blame poor public schools but now I blame politicians. Every day we are confronted by small men and women who claim to speak on our behalf but who, in fact, speak only for those with money who will assure they stay in power. I’m profoundly tired of it.

Those who aspire to the U.S. presidency have begun showing up out here, politicians with extraordinary egos, men and women who will for the next year try to convince us that they are just like us, that they understand farming and rural America, that they too come from humble beginnings and perhaps grew up in a log cabin without electricity.

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I love these people. They will be sashaying around the state, smiles fixed in place, television cameras whirring, chewing on stuff on a stick at the state fair, all the while oozing earnestness and sincerity. My own cynicism tells me not to believe a word they say, a cynicism I can date back to the war in Vietnam, wherein I blame Richard Nixon.

Meanwhile the doe still is out there. Maybe later I’ll go in to town and pick up some alfalfa cubes for her, perhaps a block of salt. Like almost everything I encounter, both here and in a town, I wish I could do more.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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