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  • If You Believe You ExistOn Bon Iver, Midwestern Literature and Art, and a Tradition, of Sorts
  • Nickolas Butler (bio)

Birchwood, Wisconsin

winter 2007

The snow fell steadily while we slept, all night long, and in the morning, the forests and fields were well and truly swaddled in white. If you have lived at a northern latitude, then perhaps you can imagine the particular quiet that ensued. As if sound were an impossibility. The world was muffl ed by snow, and the quiet intensified, especially as snow continued to fall from the sky, making every soundscape dense. I think now of my friend, the music producer Brian Joseph who says the key to good acoustics is filling a room. The room, that morning, was steadily filling with snow.

My best friend, Josh Swan (a wooden-boat builder now based in Washburn, Wisconsin), and I left his father's lakeside cabin, a Thermos hot with coffee between us in the cab of his hulking red Dodge Ram pickup truck. The truck's massive engine did indeed make noise, and maybe there was a pang of regret for ruining that unifying tranquility. Nonetheless, we departed, with nowhere in particular to be. This, however, has never stopped a stir-crazy Wisconsinite from simply going for a drive. Maybe we would find where we were going. Maybe we would find where we needed to be.

Swan gravitated towards lumber roads. Forgotten two-tracks snaking through forests, the trees bent over the road like buttresses, the snow so heavy it bowed old, tall trees. Still, there was no sound. Later in the day, the world would come alive with snowmobiles, logging trucks, and chainsaws. But at that hour, we seemed to be, as my Dad would say, "the only going concern." A big red truck steaming through the snow, no destination in mind. [End Page 117]

Swan slid a CD into the truck's stereo and an eerie, forlorn, beautiful music filled the cab. I had never heard anything like it.

"Who is this?" I asked.

"Vernon," Swan said, not taking his eyes off the narrow path before us.

"Saw him up in Duluth little while ago. The room was packed."

"Damn," I said.

The music sounded like winter. Like sadness. Like loneliness. It felt both voluminous and ephemeral, like a January breath billowing out. It felt fragile, like an icicle forming on a gutter. Like a crystalline moon. In truth, I didn't yet know how to interact with that very new album, For Emma, Forever Ago.

But what was important to me, and remains important to me, was that Justin Vernon, whom Swan and I had attended high school with, was out there, making his music, making his way.

It was what I wanted to do with my writing.


One curse of living in a small place is that it can be easy to convince yourself that you don't exist. You don't exist, because you can't find cultural representations of yourself or your community. And if you are not represented, maybe you aren't worth representing, maybe you're not interesting enough. You become invisible. In this way, even if you do exist, you may as well not exist.

I do not remember the specific Jim Harrison book that seemed to verify my existence on this planet, but I do remember what it was about his writing that made me, as folks say, feel seen. Harrison, who grew up in rural Michigan, oft en wrote about his place on Earth, and readers would inevitably encounter place-names such as Crystal Falls or Escanaba, Iron Mountain or Marquette. To my knowledge, Harrison never gestured towards Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but that didn't seem to matter to me. He mentioned La Crosse, Wisconsin, as one of his favorite American cities, and that was enough (or close enough) for me. His world was mine and just as importantly, my world was his. Places that I had traveled to, that I cared about, existed in print in his myriad books. I felt vindicated and powerful.

As Vernon's career gained more and more steam, a strange thing happened. It felt like whatever quiet...