The Bass Pro Shop
is like the music of Enya
I view the American Midwest with all the enthusiasm of someone from another country, namely, California. I tend to remark to bemused companions that I live in the most beautiful place in the world, and even now—after about six years here—will find myself suddenly transfixed by slanting golden light across a chain link fence or the spectacle of a man on a bike with another bike strapped to the rest of his cargo.
County fairs are one of the pinnacles of Midwest culture; honor-system farm stands are another, as are Moose Lodges, people who stop their cars in the middle of the road to talk to a neighbor, fishing off the side of the road, and Let’s Go Brandon flags. (Yes, Midwest culture has many pinnacles, like the the poles on a circus tent.)
Coastal journalists tend to belittle the Midwest and those flags. The year I graduated from my small Midwestern alma mater in 2017, when Let’s Go Brandon was just a twinkle in Kelli Stavast’s eye, the New York Times profiled the “‘Shining City on a Hill’ for Conservatives.” It didn’t look very shining in the profile, though. Nothing is shining in the Midwest in February, and the photographs—blurry in the foreground, shadowy in the background, at angles that made it look possible most of my educational experience took place in a trailer—cannot have accidentally been so dire.
“Hillsdale attracts students from across the country (only a third are from Michigan), and they don’t end up there by accident,” mused the Times forebodingly, above a picture taken at a wonky angle so the students look like they are sliding down the floor toward an unwitting Dr. Carrington. Vague aspersions are well enough in their place, and they help institutions like the Times make the complexity of a cultural other metabolize more quickly for coastal readers. But, like junk food, vague aspersions are not good for you. (I warned you about the analogies.)
One of the many things one misses by belittling the Midwest for political reasons is that the Midwest is beautiful. The poor reporter arrived in southern Michigan in early February when nothing is beautiful, or he would have noticed. One of those non-accidental out-of-state transplants, I arrived in October from brown Ventura County, California, where I lived ten minutes from the Pacific. Driving down a rainy lane with yellow leaves falling through a corridor of trees was one of the most relevant aspects of my college decision.
Like many beautiful things, the Midwest is often absurd, like the man with a bike on his bike. Both beauty and absurdity are present in another one of the most important circus poles of Midwest culture: Bass Pro Shops. (As far as I can tell, the singular and plural are Bass Pro Shops, sort of like a royal “we.” I simply could not maintain that for any significant period of prose-writing, so I’m christening my particular one “the Bass Pro Shop.”)
Bass Pro Shops do exist in California and the western US as well as Canada, but they are largely clustered in the rural Midwest, South, and Northeast. Started in 1971 in Missouri and now combined with Cabela’s, a hunting store chain founded in Nebraska in 1961, Bass Pro Shops’ hulking green-roofed temples to hunting and fishing make very good rest stops or solo pilgrimages.
I am probably the first person ever, or at least since 1998 or so, who has wandered around Bass Pro Shops listening to Irish musical artist Enya. Enya’s music is atmospheric, lyrical, haunting. Bass Pro Shops sells stuff to spray on yourself so a bear can’t smell you. For all I know, Enya is a vegetarian (the only source I could find for this is a website called HappyCow). Bass Pro Shops sells blue and pink headphones for your toddlers to wear while they watch you shooting squirrels from the back porch.
And yet I have found myself turning to Enya in moments of crisis or chaos for the same ordered, symmetrical, almost rhythmic life of which Bass Pro Shops collects artifacts. When one enters the Bass Pro Shop in Portage, IN, one is immediately immersed in a coherently-themed world. Faux wood around the entrance and the aforesaid iconic green roof prepare you for what is inside—Abraham-Lincoln log cabin meets Disneyland hunting store.
The centerpiece of the store is a huge fish tank with a waterfall running nearby, home to specimens of fish that can be found in nearby lakes. It sounds cute, but the fish loom alarmingly large and the tank is surprisingly deep. I watched a flat, grey specimen tilt downward, drifting toward the floor of the tank in a way I’ve never seen another fish move. With nothing but a pane of glass between me and the fish in a tank large enough to loom over my head, I turned away, suddenly unnerved. That lake fish tank has haunted my dreams with themes of the ocean, something getting caught in the tide, seeing cracks in the glass that keeps me out of the water.
Stage right of the Bass Pro Shop is dedicated to fishing, with rows and rows of lures and another Damoclean tank behind the fishing counter with a huge, muscular spotted yellow eel that I sincerely hope is not native to the northern Midwest. I learned to clean a fish from my excellent grandparents when I was eleven (thanks, grandparents, for both teaching me to clean a fish and subscribing to my Substack). But I have not cleaned many fish since then, and I turned away quickly feeling like the fishing impostor I was.
Stage left of the Bass Pro Shop is dedicated in part to femininity. A variety of soft, lush articles of clothing are arranged next to conceal-and-carry handbags, plush toys for children, and a variety of wind chimes. Upstairs, the shoes and camo sections are both unisex, but something struck me about the section full of kitschy kitchen signs, wine coolers, and fluffy sweatshirts in muted pink. There was an ideal being expressed here, one in which at least some of the time women were home to welcome men back from freezing wind or pouring rain or beating sun, dressed like embodiments of the relaxation those men were striving to preserve for them. Of course, this must be in some ways a pretense—it seems obvious that women work just as hard as men do in country life—but the ideal compelled me almost against my will.
At the Bass Pro Shop there is no idealization of nature. Nature can kill you. I learned this from the Pacific’s riptides and California mudslides; here it takes the form of large animals and the Arctic vortex that killed our lavender and roses my first winter in Michigan. Though nature is beautiful—and the Bass Pro Shop strove to imitate this, with a great overarching roof with sunlight filtering down through big windows, a waterfall, stuffed game brought in from real nature—it is also dangerous.
In the climactic moment of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when everything is unraveling, the main character Charles is struck by a image:
And another image came to me, of an Arctic hut and a trapper alone with his furs and oil lamp and log fire; the remains of supper on the table, a few books, skis in the corner; everything dry and neat and warm inside, and outside the last blizzard of winter raging and the snow piling up against the door. Quite silently a great weight forming against the timber; the bolt straining in its socket; minute by minute in the darkness outside the white heap sealing the door, until quite soon when the wind dropped and the sun came out on the ice slopes and the thaw set in a block would move, slide, and tumble, high above, gather way, gather weight, till the whole hillside seemed to be falling, and the little lighted place would crash open and splinter and disappear, rolling with the avalanche into the ravine.
The Bass Pro Shop is dedicated to the maintenance of such a “little lighted place.” There you can buy the means of making a fire and defending your home and making your own food. The poignance of the feminine section of the store was the feminine as the embodiment of what is “dry and neat and warm” in the face of the blizzard.
The medieval principle of the Great Chain of Being relates all creatures to one another in a hierarchy dependent on God. The snow of the blizzard is part of that chain, as are the bears one can shoot if one sprays oneself with deodorizing spray. The relentless logic of both Bass Pro Shops and the medieval mind insists that men are above the plants and the animals and the land in an ordered hierarchy. Not because those things are not deserving of respect—in fact, in many ways they received far more respect from the medievals than they receive now, just as a deer who is shot in the countryside has lived a life that is orders of magnitude more humane than the life lived by the ground beef available at an urban supermarket.
But men must insist on their hierarchical place if they are not to be hit by falling trees or mauled by wild pigs or swept away in an avalanche. It is this order that Bass Pro Shops insists upon, with its target practice section for children and its huge meat-processing cutting boards. Living in an urban setting, it is easy to forget about how all of human civilization is that tiny Arctic hut, sustained in being by the love of God. The Bass Pro Shop remembers.
When man is holding dominion over animals and plants and the land, insisting that everything stay in its proper place, he is like Adam back in the garden, and the result is something as beautiful and sometimes as absurd as this vaulting structure of a store that sells trout-shaped flip-flops under slanting light that looks like it is shining through incense.
Enya’s atmospheric, ordered sound appeals to members of modern movements seeking sacredness and peace. Despite winning four Grammy awards for “Best New Age Album,” Enya did not want to be associated with the New Age movement, claiming instead Catholic hymns as her influence. She sings in Irish Gaelic and J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional language Sindarin. But the New Age movement embraced her music because it was looking for that Adam-like peace in the garden, for an experience of the sacred.
American rock critic Robert Christgau gave Enya’s 1988 album Watermark a D+ review, saying that it “makes hay of pop’s old reliable women-are-angels scam.” But as NPR responded to Christgau’s dig in 2017, “he says that like it’s a bad thing — when in fact, it’s why the album should be included in a canon of the greatest albums made by women.” Women are not angels, but Enya, pictured on the covers of her albums in dramatic dresses and with an unearthly, elfin gaze, embodies the muse-woman, placed at some remove from the chaos of modern life. The trope is less about women than it is about a space for beauty, for something set apart, for shutting the ugly out so that the beautiful can flourish indoors.
Enya’s music is the embodiment of order, of the woman in an atmosphere of beauty, a refuge from the world. In real life, she has never married and lives alone in a fortified castle outside Dublin with her cats, behind what the Los Angeles Times in 1996 called “an ethereal wall of sound.” She is idiosyncratic and mysterious, or “bizarre” and “reclusive,” depending on whom you ask. And, of course, nowadays, the twangy synthesizer sounds of some Enya songs ring oddly to 2022 ears—Enya is no exception to the principle that the absurd and the beautiful walk hand in hand. Allow people to flourish independently behind their own walls and you will end up with oddities. But if we do not build homes to defend our own beauties and oddities, we are simply living outside in the storm.
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Come back next Friday: to find out why a cheese grater is like a typewriter.
What I’m playing: Liszt’s “Consolation No. 3” on piano, Tommy Makem’s 1967 “Four Green Fields” on guitar.
What I’m listening to: Enya’s albums The Memory of Trees and Wild Child, Mallrat’s “UFO,” Lorde’s Pure Heroine.