Diary of a Driftless Conservative


Published in Chronicles / Thursday, June 30th, 2016

“Hillsboro’s a conservative community,” said Robert, and for three days and three nights I attempted to figure out what he meant.

He said it right after we arrived at his shop, high atop a lush, sylvan hill off Beaver Creek Road, five miles south of Hillsboro in Western Wisconsin, the “Driftless Area.”  It’s called “driftless” because, according to geologists, no leveling glacier ever came through these parts.

No cellphone works here, and as my son, Gus, told me later on, Robert has internet, but he only turns it on when he absolutely needs to use it.  That statement came to mind when Summer, Robert’s wife, spoke pityingly about helicopter parents awaiting the end of the next drop-off activity, who have adopted the now too familiar posture: back arched, head reverently bowed, finger scrolling, thumbs typing.  I do that, I thought to myself.  Then I said something profound about the silhouette of the hollow men, which stung a bit even as the words came out.

Gus is here for intensive blacksmith training.  At 15, he built a forge in our back yard, teaching himself through YouTube and a fascination with metallurgy.  Now, at 16, and with forearms and hands that look like those of a man at 30, he’s in need of guidance from an artisan.  After three days with Robert, he will take an idea and make it emerge fully from a piece of raw metal.  For Gus, the labor—designing, forging, hammering, annealing, quenching, tempering; burning and epoxying the tang into the handle; filing and grinding; pinning and peening; polishing and sharpening—is both hard work and pure joy.  And everyone present in the shop—Gus’s fellow students; Aaron, Robert’s jovial, bearded assistant; and the artisan himself—will share in that joy.  I witnessed it every time I returned to the shop, from the sunny start to the very end, as clouds gathered over the hillside for a late-May monsoon.  Robert kept Gus for over an hour after the final session, showing him tricks on the Arkansas stone (the best sort for sharpening).  Amid explaining the angles and the proper motion, Robert paused, exhausted but with a placid look on his face: “I could do this for hours.”  The statement seemed to apply equally to sharpening a new edge and to the act of tradition, tradere, giving over, handing down.

Robert is part of the Driftless Folk School, a cooperative venture of artisans and keepers of cultural memory who love to transmit old ways to the next generation.  Such groups have sprung up around the country—the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina; the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, where Lorrie and I first went on our honeymoon; and Driftless, centered in Viroqua but extended here to Hillsboro because of Robert.

Each of these folk schools is flavored by the community in which it sits, but they all tend to share certain traits.  The people are not saints, but they are remarkably friendly and respectful.  They are good storytellers.  They love traditional folk music, grow their own vegetables, and eat what’s in season.  The art they teach bleeds into other arts and reflects a deeper philosophy of life that aspires to work with creation instead of against it.  They are kind and patient, but don’t have much regard for jerks.  They cannot imagine practicing their craft without passing it along to others, especially the young.  They combine diligent study and work on an individual level with a frank realization that life is impossible apart from a community.  They make money at what they do, but they don’t do it for the money.  For them, efficiency is a means and not an end—a means bound by an end that derives from something other than pure utility, rationality, fashion, or popular consensus.

And here’s the darnedest thing: They’re not all Republicans.  For that matter, I’m fairly certain that many of them would bristle at the label conservative.  Some of them are self-consciously liberal.  I’m pretty sure that the typical folk-school type listens to NPR.


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