Thursday, May 20, 2021

The #Midwessay: Laura Johnson Dahlke, About a Year In

A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.

Nebraskans: we'd love to have more essays complicating/confronting the #Midwessay! Contact me at kristinelangleymahler at gmail and I'll get your viewpoints included in this project.

—Kristine Langley Mahler

About a Year In

Laura Johnson Dahlke


We are plants—which—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must with our roots rise out of the earth in order to bloom in the ether and to bear fruit. —Johann Peter Hebel 

About a year in, I realized it wasn’t going to work. Sunshine, temperate weather and ocean breezes were not going to work. Fish tacos and fresh sushi were not going to work. Walks along rocky, coastal cliffs were not going to work.
     Instead of relishing living someplace always warm and fashionable, I felt a strong and enduring tug to return. Why would anyone be drawn toward that kind of boring, slow-paced, get-out-while-you-can, featureless kind of place?
     By nearly anyone’s standards, it was easy to recognize I had no taste.
     Try and be in denial as I might, I was a Nebraskan. Like it or not. I would never feel at home in California. 
     I had anticipated, like many young residents of Midwestern states, that moving away would be liberating, exciting and desirable. I would relocate and never look back.
     I was flat out wrong.
     My identity as a Nebraskan, my story, became a nagging, visceral force that simply wouldn’t let me go.
     My friend derided me when trying to explain it over beers at Omaha’s Pageturners Lounge (a former used bookstore turned bar). You feel drawn to Nebraska? You feel connected to your family’s former farm but you never lived on it? You wonder if the land can seduce you back—it’s smooth steadiness a tonic for the rough waters of overpopulation and superficiality?
     Not possible.
     I had read just the opposite. Science has now proven what our ancestor’s experiences, especially our, great grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers, stays with us. Their childhoods, struggles, traumas and joys alter the epigenetic expression of our very own genes. It turns out that “the experiences of our forebears are never gone, even if they have been forgotten,” or only remembered in the mysterious deep of a longing.
     My maternal family had lived in Nebraska for what now will be seven generations, first on the high prairie that Willa Cather once called the Divide. They shared a “bioregion with similar topography, plant and animal life, and human culture” (The Bioregional Imagination) that bound their lives together. Ridges and horizons, grasses and fields, growing accustomed to the sky’s offerings and shrinking from wild winter winds. This earth, this climate, wrote on the topography of their bodies and imaginations, orienting them toward what will be, will be.
     Such DNA alterations can evolve quickly, perhaps to ensure we know where we’re from and how to live. Maybe when my family was surrounded by such a solid earth, exponentially expanding, it rooted them deep. Not easily swayed.
     It was Martin Heidegger who asked the people in his homeland during his famous Memorial Address, “Does not the flourishing of any genuine work depend upon its roots in a native soil?”  He advocated for staying home and coming home to ourselves.
     If I was going to do thoughtful work--break any new ground--I would first need to return to my foundation.
     Even if I didn’t live on the Divide myself, it had somehow picked me.
     I didn’t always understand this attraction--one that reason could not calculate. I knew only to accept it and be where I was from. 


Laura Johnson Dahlke is currently a PhD candidate at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. She is writing about the future of reproduction and the impact of technology on pregnancy and childbirth. Johnson Dahlke has an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and also holds an MA in English from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. Johnson Dahlke's work appears in publications such as The Good Mother Project, Pathways to Family Wellness, Hippocampus Magazine,, and Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She lives and dreams in Omaha with her husband and five children.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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