Geography (noun) 1. the topographical features of a region, usually of the earth
I love to travel and see new places, for lots of reasons. There’s the new and exotic food, like the beef tongue in Guatemala I tasted for the first time, and no it didn’t talk back, and yes it was very delicious. There’s the chance to witness traditions not much found in my little New England town. In Istanbul, Turkey, I heard the Muslim call to prayer as it floated out and over that metropolis five times daily, a haunting cacophony beckoning the faithful to that city’s 3,000 mosques. There’s often a baseball game to catch, a great way to get the sense of a place; my visit to Japan included a contest between the Tokyo Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters. “Get ya sushi here!”
And then there is the geography of a place—its shape, its contours, how the land is laid out, spreads out and contains its people. How folks make peace with their particular corner of God’s creation, adapt to life in their part of the world, with its unique topographical fingerprint, its quirks. As I write this, I’m far away from Massachusetts and its one-of-a-kind topography: steep hills, rocky fields and windswept shores. Instead I’m at latitude 45 degrees, 35 minutes and longitude -94 degrees, 23 minutes. For the geographically challenged (that includes me) this puts me in Collegeville, Minnesota, 77 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Draw a straight line east from here and you hit Montreal; west you poke Portland, Oregon.
I’ve been coming back to Minnesota for almost 25 years to visit friends, and now to retreat at the Collegeville Institute, on the campus of the Benedictine Catholic Saint John’s University. Even though this place feels like a second home, geographically it’s kind of odd here—a land so different from the east coast. This contrast started me thinking that for all we humans suppose we shape the land, the truth is that the land shapes us too. The land makes us. Who we are is as much about where we live as how we live. To be a northern New England Yankee, Boston Brahmin, Connecticut Nutmeger, Maine-iac, or Rhody Rebel is to be carved out by the geography we call home.
In the Northeast the land seems to weigh down upon us somehow, contain us, hover over us, invite us in. Mountains and hills dot the landscape, rise out of the horizon in the distance, grow large—even a bit ominous, as we approach—peaks stretching skyward. The scale of land in New England is tight, closed off even. Or the land drops off into the vast ocean on the coast, pushes right up to the sea, gives us a craggy vantage point to gaze out upon the unknown and the threatening. Howling northeasters, blowing blizzards, hellacious hurricanes.
Ever wonder why New Englanders have a reputation for being reserved at best, chilly at worst? Taciturn, sharp, flinty, puritan, circumspect. The kind of folks who might not know their next-door neighbor, even though they’ve shared the same street for years. Well, what do you expect? Try coaxing food out the rocky soil or fish from the sometimes deadly ocean. Try making a life in its tightly packed and oh-so-busy cities. It is true that when you make a friend of someone in New England they are a friend for life, and yet . . . first impressions? Well—we can be kind of hard, not unlike the granite which marks the landscape.
We are the land in New England. The land makes us.
Which brings me to my temporary home here in the upper Midwest, a land of 10,000 lakes (actually 11,842 to be exact), a land which save for a few rolling hills, is about as flat as flat can be, at least to this New Englander. The bike path I pedal is as straight and true as you can get. No curves. No ups. No downs. And watch out for the stiff headwind. This is a land of almost constant wind—once it starts to blow at the Rocky Mountains and head east there’s not much to stop it until it gets to the Appalachians. A land which feels like an ocean of land, stretching out for as far as you can see, in some places so level you can perceive the curvature of the earth. A land so far north the sun doesn’t go down until 9:10 p.m. this time of year.
Folks here live exposed, on top of the land. If you want to experience your true place in this big world as one little human being, stand on the edge of a vast Minnesota prairie with its gently rolling brown vegetation, and you are quickly reminded of how huge the earth and sky can be. Here geography humbles, that’s for sure. Watch angry greenish thunderclouds roll in from the west or south, or hear a tornado siren wail, warning you to take shelter. Here the land puts you in your place, cuts you down to size.
Maybe that’s why in the “North Star State” they talk about “Minnesota Nice” without a tinge of irony. Some of the nicest, most down-to-earth folks I’ve met in all my travels hail from here. Their earnest helpfulness and sincere hospitality can be startling to this on-edge northeasterner. After the fourth grocery store employee in a row asked me, “Have you found everything you needed?” I was tempted to say, “Enough with the niceness already!” Maybe that’s why former Minnesota Twins baseball player David Ortiz was destined to play for the Boston Red Sox. You’d never hear anyone from these parts declare: “You don’t %$^&* with our city!” Just not done. Not the Minnesota way. The land here seems to remind folks of their true place in the universe.
Of course I’m playing with stereotypes, cranky Yankees versus Lake Wobegon friends. There are surly Minnesotans and softhearted New Englanders. But stereotypes work because always there is a kernel of truth within.
So the next time you are out and about on the land, going for a walk or a hike or a ride, pay attention. Find your place in the land. Thank the Creator for the geographic gifts and features, landscapes which make that land your land. We are the land. In Massachusetts, in Minnesota, everywhere on God’s earth.
And who knows? I just may come back home a nicer guy.
This article was originally posted on John’s website, http://sherbornpastor.blogspot.com, on May 13, 2014.
Images: Portland Head Lighthouse, Ft. Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth by Cliff, on flickr via a creative commons license; Norfolk, North Dakota by Andrew Filer, on flickr via a creative commons license
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