Flip the sky: Other ways to look at the world around us

August 16, 2022 8:00 am

(Photo courtesy of Robert Leonard)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Many years ago, I spent a weekend at a cabin near the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado with three acquaintances — an anthropologist, a geologist, and a biologist. There was no television, no internet, and we spent a couple of nights together at over 14,000 feet with probably too much cognac for that high elevation. And some great old-fashioned storytelling.

The biologist, who did research in the Amazon, told us a story about how he once became lost in the jungle. Near dusk, at the end of the second day of being lost, he saw the lights of a campfire and heard voices in a language he understood. Grateful at the opportunity of possible shelter, and food, he entered the clearing of a village he had never been to before. The people who lived there welcomed him, fed him, and offered him a place to stay for the night before they could point him in the right direction to his campsite in the morning.

As the night progressed and much local brew was consumed, the oldest man in the village stood up before the campfire, pointed at the sky, and told him the story of their people as written in the stars. The old man told of monsters in the sky, the wondrous deeds of his people’s ancestors, and the great battles won and lost–all written in the constellations of his people. Try as he might, as he looked up at the stars to see what the old man was referring to, the scientist saw nothing.

The oldest man sat down, shaking his head. The second oldest man stood up, pointed at the sky, and told of monsters in the sky, of the wondrous deeds of the ancestors of his people, and of great battles won and lost. The scientist once again saw nothing in the sky. One by one, all of the men in the village tried to show the scientist the constellations, only to fail.

As dawn neared,  a child stood up, took the scientist’s hand, pointed at the sky above them, and spoke.

Note from the editor:

I couldn’t be more pleased to announce an expansion of commentary offerings in Iowa Capital Dispatch. Starting today, we will regularly publish columns by members of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. This informal association of some of Iowa’s best journalists and independent writers was organized on the blog site Substack by former Des Moines Register columnist Julie Gammack. Catch her post about our cooperative venture here.

Some of the writers may be well-known to you, others may be new. All offer unique Iowa insights with distinctive voices and styles. The growing list of authors includes Gammack, Laura Belin, Douglas Burns, Art Cullen, Beth Hoffman, Robert Leonard, Chuck Offenburger and Mary Swander.

We’ll give you a taste, but not the whole feast. If you like a writer, I strongly encourage you to subscribe to their individual Substack and consider a paid subscription to help support their work. We hope you’ll also continue to support Iowa Capital Dispatch with your subscription and donations.

Happy reading!

Kathie Obradovich, editor

Suddenly, the heavens came alive. The scientist saw monsters in the sky, the wondrous deeds of the ancestors of their people, and great battles won and lost.

The child had told him that the constellations lay not in the stars themselves but in the black spaces among them. With a little knowledge of another culture and their perspective, the night sky was born anew for the scientist.

Flip the sky.

My friend Josh Dolezal, who writes the wonderful substack “The Recovering Academic,” recorded me telling this story and more a few years ago on his podcast with Brian Campbell called MidAmericana: Stories from a Changing Midwest. Here is a transcript. Believe it or not, I don’t like to talk about myself. Josh got more out of me than anyone else, ever. My kids should probably read, or listen to it, someday.

Bussey parade. (Photo courtesy of Robert Leonard)

A couple of weeks ago, I searched for the image at left in my mess of photo files on my computer for probably an hour. I remembered taking the photo, and I thought it was the perfect photo for a post I made on July 22 titled “Values: The Key to Democratic Victory. I knew I wanted the American flag, and the Iowa flag was a bonus.

I took the photo several years ago at the Bussey Fourth of July Parade. It’s the best Fourth of July parade in the county in one of our smallest communities. We live just outside of town. Bussey had 387 people at the time of the 2020 census. The holiday is a homecoming event for former residents and people coming from nearby communities. Bussey swells to four or five times its population on the Fourth.

I wanted to use this photo for the post because I thought it exhibited Democratic values. Love of country, investing in our youth, empowering young women, and a bit of our western history. A boy putting his hand over his heart. I thought it was great symbolism until I realized it wasn’t.

Here is a bit of that post describing what I see as some Democratic values:

“For democracy and love of country in a time of insurrection, for voting rights in a time of voter suppression, for public education and libraries when they are under attack, for smart government being part of the solution, not the problem. For a free and honest press in a time of misinformation and lies, for historical truths in a time when they are being outlawed, for a true and deep understanding of our civil rights history, for our for freedom to worship how one sees fit under the rising threat of theocratic authoritarian rule. For reproductive freedom in a time when fourth-grade girls are forced to give birth, women miscarry and even die because their medical treatment is banned. Where health care is a right, not a privilege, where clean water, clean air, and climate solutions are possible, where taxation doesn’t favor the rich, where equal opportunity is for all, and where your chances in life aren’t determined by your ZIP code, race, gender, faith, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

I realized that the photo was not one I wanted to use. It was full of stereotypes that my old white guy mind was drawn to unconsciously. The photo didn’t reflect what I was trying to say with the piece. I’m sure others will be able to deconstruct the image even more than I do here, but there are only white people represented.

Democratic values belong to more than white people. Photos of slender, attractive young women carrying the flag, riding horses, and wearing western gear are also a big pile of stereotypes. Democratic values are held by those of us who aren’t necessarily young, women, slender, and attractive.

They are also held, for example, by some of us who are old white men, “husky (as my Mom used to say) and have a face for radio. And a bunch of other people who weren’t in the parade. Bussey, like much of our county, has few minorities represented.

And, of course, the western wear, while symbolizing many things, is to some, first and foremost,  a symbol of colonialism and genocide.

Some conservatives will say, well, Bob, you are just too “woke,” and laugh at me, thinking I’m being overly sensitive. I address that in another piece, “Be Woke: Conservatives have trivialized an important concept. Liberals should own it.

Here is the image I used instead, not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes.

(Photo courtesy of Robert Leonard)

This is inclusive. The dawn is for all of us.

I could have used the image of the ladies on the horses, but part of me is always examining my biases — after all, I am an anthropologist. Since representation matters, I chose not to use it. In fact, I wouldn’t let that image anywhere near my piece, not because I’m overly sensitive, but because I don’t want to perpetuate incomplete and false narratives. I want to raise, in my limited capacity, the voices of those who aren’t in such powerful positions. Like the scientist above, that’s who I learn from.

Flip the sky.

It’s always good to look at biases and the world differently. Here is the Mercator map of the world we are all taught, where the northern hemisphere is at the top.

Mercator projection map via Wikipedia

Look familiar? It should.

Since there is no up or down in space, let’s flip it. Click this link for an unfamiliar view. The southern hemisphere is on top.

Look at how much bigger Brazil and Africa looks on the second map. Which map is “right?” They both are. Regardless, each map reflects different perspectives of who we are.

It always helps to look at the world in a new way, and the world is never as simple as it appears.

Flip the sky.

In 2019, my son and I attended a Pete Buttigieg event when the now Transportation Secretary was running for president. My son was about 17 and asked me, “does it matter to you that Pete Buttigieg is gay?” “No,” I replied, giving a stock 1990’s liberal answer, “I don’t care about his sexual orientation, I just care about his ideas, and I like them.”

My son then asked, “did it matter to you that Barack Obama was Black?”

“Yes,” I said, “I think his experiences being Black are important and historic; he can offer valuable insights from his point of view as a Black man.”

I realized that I had just walked into a trap.

My son then asked, “so if you think that Barack Obama offers important insights because of his experiences as a Black man, why do you deny that similar insights might come from Pete Buttigieg, a gay man?”

Flip the sky.

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Robert Leonard
Robert Leonard

Robert Leonard is the author of the blog "Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture," on Substack. He also hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in the south-central Iowa towns of Knoxville, Pella, and Indianola. His columns have been published in the New York Times, TIME, the Des Moines Register and more.