We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.
Apples to Apples
Six miles from the house where I grew up, along the leaf-carpeted bank of the Huron River, sits the oldest continuously operating cider mill in the state of Michigan. The car or bike ride over is cinematic, a stretch of narrow road that bends to the water’s S-curves and fluctuations, packed tight with oak and birch trees on either shoulder. A fire of leaves in autumn. Winters glassy with ice and snow. Drivers and cyclists are constantly feuding for space. In early June, hundreds of runners follow the road for the majority of a half-marathon route from rural Dexter to downtown Ann Arbor.
The Dexter Cider Mill boasts being family-owned and operated since 1886, and holds strong to the brand of midwestern nostalgia that helped bring dressing like Paul Bunyan back en vogue. On weekend mornings, a line of locals snakes out into the parking lot. They wait to enter the big red barn where you pass by apples being pressed to cider the old-fashioned way on the walk to the register. Employees send fruit and other parcels from the basement to the front counter by a basket tied to a fraying rope that passes through a hole in the wood flooring. The smell of apples, that ripe funk of fermentation, mixed with hay, hangs heavy in the cold air. The cinnamon sugar doughnuts are unmatched, though I am biased, since they remind me of home.
In Pappyland: A Story of Family Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last, Wright Thompson argues, “Longing for a vanished agrarian past (that possibly never existed) dominates much of the American story. It’s human nature.” While Thompson is reflecting on the craft of bourbon and Southern culture, the sentiment carries across other vast swaths of the stolen American landscape. The Midwest is no different. The region has been cultivated toward a “Midwestern nice” aesthetic that whitewashes its realities. Regionalism offers a sense of uniqueness and mysticism, a nod to specific traditions and colloquial charms (even if those charms were only accessible to certain populations). Our sense of place might be smudging at the edges, but it was likely never as distinct as we imagine. Nostalgia is a powerful eraser.
My father worked for Ford Motor Company for more than thirty years, specifically focused on evaporative emissions. He’s modest about it, but I like to think he played some small part in mitigating our catastrophic environmental footprint. Again, nostalgia, I remember my father in suit and tie returning home after a long commute in one of the cars he could have very well helped engineer. I mostly write and teach writing for a living, skills that feel valuable until the moment I need an oil change. I drive a hybrid car. A Ford. That familial brand loyalty remains. Much of the Midwest is this way, tied to industrial inheritances. I am not particularly handy. I worry constantly about sustainability, but haven’t taken much action to fight climate crisis outside of what I can control in my own household. The nostalgia returns when I fret over erratic cold fronts and crop yield and whether or not the cider mill will be open the next time I return home. It’s easy to step into a barn that’s been in business for nearly 140 years and think it has more staying power than some corporate factory churning out subpar product and in constant hunger for resources.
Consider West Coast apple juice giant Martinelli’s, famous for its rotund glass bottles found in big chain grocers such as Whole Foods. Strong branding, but an understanding of craft as watered down as their translucent sugar water. The company’s FAQs page notes, “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”
Find me a Michigander who doesn’t scrunch their brow. Apple cider differs from apple juice in that it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized. You’ll catch the occasional fleck of pulp in your teeth from the good stuff, a brown sludge of apple mush stuck to the bottom of a plastic gallon or half-gallon when you’re through. Michigan ranks third in the nation’s apple production behind Washington and New York. The state produces more than a billion pounds of apples each year or about ten percent of apples across the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture. Michigan also accounts for nearly 74 percent of tart cherry production in the country. Yet, the only time I’ve walked across these orchards has been as a tourist, thirsty as anyone for a sense of connection to the land I’ve been privileged enough to call home, even if I’m distant from its quotidian labor.
Ann Arbor is in many ways a blue bubble. In “Some Houses (Various Stages of Dissolve),” Claire Vaye Watkins describes the city like so:
Now I live in a movie about college written by a high schooler. There are actual letter jackets, actual cheerleaders, actual frats. There is an actual quad flung with Frisbees and an actual grove strung with hammocks. In the fall the leaves are blown into actual piles, though I never jump in. All the things we grew up thinking were real only on TV are real in the Midwest: rain pouring down windows and making the house a submarine; leaves turning gold, maroon, purple; raccoons; mailmen strolling the sidewalk with satchels; snow enough for igloos. When you come to visit you point and say, Look! A squirrel!
In Ann Arbor, sometimes it’s hard not to imagine the television tropes inform the place more than the other way around. There’s a feeling that the city is performing to meet its reputation. I grew up in a suburban township on the west side, beyond the city limits, somewhere buried between the University of Michigan’s main campus and unincorporated farmland. I left Michigan shortly after graduating college, naïve that I was stepping outside of Ann Arbor’s technicolor frame. Years later, during my visits, Trump signs and confederate flags would awaken me to my personal lack of awareness growing up on the outskirts of a university town. Michigan fought with the union, but drive out on the country roads and you’d never know it. If nostalgia is used to erase, if it’s used to distract and point and bewilder, it’s also weaponized as a violent border. When I make the long drive home and see the Make America Great Again signs lined on the shoulders of the expressways, I recognize this message harkens back to genocide, segregation, and plunder, even if masquerading as white-picket fences and lush apple orchards and American cars like sailboats drifting down dirt roads.
At times, I still get curmudgeonly about apple cider, but I wonder more now if I am yet another part of this problem, clinging to a false idea of golden era craftmanship I’ve never possessed. This stuff is the real deal, I tell people, sitting alongside the river with a cardboard cup of cider steaming, pulp afloat at its surface, not spending too much time reflecting on my own safety driving out into farm country on the back roads where I’ve received multiple kind warnings from police officers after being pulled over for speeding coming from my parents’ house with the taken-for-granted filtered well water a mere hour drive from Flint. I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t until recently I started asking if maybe Dexter Cider Mill has operated for so long, that it has been such a consistent staple in my life, at least in part because it is nestled in a predominantly white and wealthy area. How can we connect specific places to prosperity without acknowledging the systemic privilege and power linked to those conditions? Nostalgia is but a short drive away from the suburbs. That real nectar is only available to a select few, fewer still as climate crisis looms. I am often nostalgic for my childhood in Michigan, which is perhaps to fawn for a time when I was less aware of how much I’ve been given. This lingering selfishness is more tied to my identity than the place I was born or the region where I was raised. It’s a craving for innocence I never really had. It’s easy to look back fondly and thirst for a place I was allowed to freely occupy. Everywhere is subject to our destruction. This will all be gone soon, I think, but only by design. This will all be gone soon, I think, but only because it was made for me.
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