Have you ever read any of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work on the stages of death and dying?
If not, her basic premise is that there are five stages of the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was here, in Iowa, after driving over 33,000 miles across America, where I saw for the first time how her work ties into many struggling, dying and revitalizing towns.
I have to admit, unlike every other other place I visited, I got a feeling that most people felt like they were becoming strangers in a distant, dying land. There was a desperate tone of avoidance. Other than one man in a grocery store who warned, “Don’t leave your backpack in your cart. It will be heisted in a second!” no one initiated a conversation. They seemed to push the challenges aside in a casual, yet intentional manner.
Curiously, it turns out that the crime rate in this part of Iowa is 27% higher than the national average. Wow! Who knew?
Amidst this backdrop of avoidance, I started putting together patterns of behavior and began to understand how fear of “death” impacts our ability to see alternatives to destructive choices whether they be personal, communal or environmental.
Here’s how it all began.
After more than eight hours of driving from Detroit, Michigan, I arrived in Davenport as the sun was dipping below the downtown skyline. I was oddly captivated by the haze and smog as the sun set over this industrial city. I parked at a diner near the bridge and dashed back to photograph the gritty view.
After taking a few shots, I stood a bit stunned. I didn’t expect to find such a sooty city in Iowa.
I was famished.
I Googled places to eat.
It turned out the diner was the highest rated restaurant in town. “What luck!” I thought.
Walking into the restaurant I was greeted by what seemed like a sea of hipsters. Hipsters in Davenport?! I had to see if this Iowa town was, indeed, the new hipsterville. I forewent food, jumped in my car and headed downtown, excited by the prospect of seeing an Iowan downtown humming with millennials.
The golden glow of this town had turned to a magenta-infused grey.
Pulling out of the driveway, quarry signs were on my left. The high-security military base was on the island next to the bridge. Coming from Portland, the home of hipstermania, this didn’t feel like their world. I drove past the Kraft Heinz factory, soon to be demolished. I took a right, then a left. In less than four minutes, that promise-filled moment morphed into a desolate landscape of steel and concrete. As dark shadows filled the streets, a single person made their way down main street on a Saturday night.
I’d never before had my inner voice scream, “Leave now!” I acquiesced.
Just north of town, beyond the steel grips of this Quad City, I pulled over to watch a river cruise steamboat heading southward along the mighty Mississippi. After seeing the majestic grandeur of Natchez here, it seemed sadly underwhelming and, honestly, a bit pathetic.
Way past exhaustion, I kept driving in search of a serene setting.
An hour later, I found a parking lot overlooking the river where I could park my van for the night. “It could be worse,” I thought.
The next morning, I got up and drove through cornfield after endless cornfield.
As the sun’s beams fractalized across this land of corn, all I could think of was the defiling of one of our nation’s most magnificent waterways. All I could see in my mind’s eye were tons of irrigational runoffs spewing into the Mississippi River. The memory of the stench of sewage a thousand miles away at the mouth of the river in New Orleans flew up my nostrils. My mind reeled. I was so filled with judgement. I was here to have conversations. In my continued haste to escape, I’d had none.
I reset my resolve.
I wasn’t sure where, but I would find a place to connect with folks.
An hour later I spotted my opportunity.
I stopped at a grain mill, got out and took pictures of the van.
Over the past months I’d learned that when I take pictures of my van in public places something magical occurs. At first, I am always a bit suspicious. Typically, someone (a man) comes out to “meet me” (AKA find out what I’m doing). When I tell them about my project and that I’m taking pictures to send to RAM, they often laugh and ask why a woman would be doing such a project.
Iowa was no exception.
The conversation began.
As I stood there with three men, they talked about their own trucks, then their work and then the current economics of farming.
“Do the low corn and soybean prices worry you?” I asked.
Everyone nodded in agreement that it’s a challenging time. “It’s rough,” one guy said. “But this is a cakewalk compared to the ’80s.”
Ah, this is where Kübler-Ross’s work comes in.
The first stage she names is denial.
In the parking lot of the grain mill, they all “denied” just how big today’s farming crisis is. Instead, they compared data from almost 4o years ago and shared how farmers “got through it then and can get through it today.”
Think about these farmers for a minute. Their entire livelihood, often for generations, is rooted in their belief about farming, its practices and its futures. In the Kübler-Ross model, what’s most common in this stage is clinging to a false hope of life turning out okay. Curiously, it is this very denial that helps people cope. It is a great survival mechanism to avoid the overwhelm of truth, suppress fear and avoid having to face the unknown.
As I travel through towns I see this pattern again and again.
It can be perceived by an outsider as ignorance and arrogance. At its heart, though, is straight-up fear—not knowing how to cope with what they seemingly can’t control.
What I’m currently pondering is why academic and scientific research on these communities fails to take this into account. I wish it would. Perhaps if it did, programs would consider the human “fear factor” and the vital emotional stages of accepting death of a way of life in order to shape new ways of thriving.
Unless we start to understand the protective methods people employ to not have to deal with the threat to their survival, we won’t ever be able to help communities move healthfully into new choices.
Through my trips into places like Detroit, Maine and Mississippi, I was fortunate to meet the change makers, the innovators and the entrepreneurs who step out on their own to create alternatives. Through their courage and crazy brilliance, others start to adapt these new visions into their old way of thinking. It’s slow, for sure. But to my current mind, the best change is slow change. That way, it’s a life-adjusting process that weaves together new beliefs with sustainable actions.
As I write this, I’m realizing why I loved Detroit so much. It was full of people who are pioneers of change—personal, cultural, industrial and environmental. They are not easy to find, but they’re more inspiring than you ever imagined.
To anyone reading this in the Midwest, if you know of such a person, please send me their name!
Oh, and stay tuned. There are more stages to come.
BTW, later I went back to Davenport and had lunch with a hipster musician. He was looking forward to leaving and heading back west. Apparently, if you know where to go, they have some good music. I left after lunch.