Blog Post

Five Questions with Patrick Mainelli

Before our third installment in this summer’s Extant series, where we’re partnering with quarterly magazine the New Territory, we chatted with magazine contributor Patrick Mainelli to talk about his background and inspiration for his work. Read on to learn about his story “Minor God of Iowa” which is featured in our Extant: New Territory show on Friday at Outlook Project Gallery (2124 Y Street) in Lincoln, Neb.

Fly Over Media: How’d you get started contributing to the New Territory and what have you published with the magazine? Why do you continue to do so?

Patrick Mainelli: I met Tina Casagrand, New Territory’s publisher and editor, at the Omaha Zine Fest in 2016. The magazine was only coming into being then—the first issue hadn’t even been printed yet. Tina had driven up from Jefferson City to Nebraska with this stack of Xeroxed, hand-stapled pages that were a kind of spiritual mockup of what the magazine would be. I pretty much loved it immediately, and pitched Tina a few story ideas before that week was out. A year and a half later, I’ve written three pieces for NT. The first being a portrait of this little spring-fed stream called Pigeon Creek that flows inside a concrete channel through a few hundred acres of ag land before dumping into the Missouri right around Council Bluffs.

A second longer essay looked at the growing popularity of wild food foraging, examining some possible cultural forces that are driving many of us with already easy access to calories to go out of our way into the forest and weeds in search of something more than just food. Finally, my article in the most recent issue tells the story of a small Mormon community living in the bluffs of Iowa in the 1850s who found themselves swindled by their spiritual demagogue into a life of servitude.

By now, The New Territory has become this fully beautiful home for all kinds of stories that aren’t really being told anywhere else. Despite its now lovely packaging, it still retains the charm of that scrappy little mockup Tina was hocking when I first met her. Personally, the journal resonates with me because of its ability to explore the people and landscapes of our generally overlooked region with a kind of critical but loving eye. Frankly, I keep hounding Tina with pitches because I’m just happy to have my work printed in the company of so many talented artists, journalists, and scientists who are reflecting the Midwest in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways.

FOM: What have you worked on, or what do you do, outside of your New Territory
contributions?

PM: Well, to pay the mortgage I’ve been doing writing and research work for Nebraska’s vocational rehabilitation offices, helping entrepreneurs with disabilities start their own businesses. To me, the work is great because it gives me pretty direct access to wide diversity of characters and stories all across the state—the halal goat meat rancher up in Rock County, the video game designer down in Beatrice, the farrier shoeing horses all across the Sandhills, camping out in the back of her truck next to her dog while she treks the hundreds of miles between clients. In terms of a long-form writing/photography project, I’m working toward a collection of photos and essays that look rather broadly at themes of absence in American life. The continued disappearance of landscapes and ways of living that have previously supported a sense of rootedness and dignity among communities for generations is a part of this. Though the forces behind these changes may be operating on a huge scale, the effects are often incredibly personal. Something has been lost—culturally, spiritually, ecologically—that has left many of us with a low level sense of isolation and powerlessness. I know that at this point there is a whole cottage industry devoted to unpacking the 2016 election, but my two cents is simply that this sense of loss, or indiscriminate nostalgia, has played a pretty direct role in getting us to where we are today.

FOM: Tell us about “Minor God of Iowa.” What interests you in the story? Why do you think it’s worth covering?

PM: Like a lot of my work, this piece began with a personal affinity for a specific place. In this instance that place was a State Park called Preparation Canyon, tucked into the oak savannah bluffs of western Iowa. The story of the place concerns this small band of Mormons—contemporaries of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the thousands who made that long trek west to Utah in the 1850s. After Smith got himself killed by a mob of a few hundred men in 1844 things were pretty rough for Mormons generally, and they were more or less harassed wherever they went looking for refuge. The spiritual body of the church was in serious turmoil too because a whole host of opportunistic dudes had each individually stood up and said that God had selected them to be the rightful heir to Smith, the murdered patriarch. One of these guys, a tailor by trade named Charles Blancher Thompson, spent some years passing out tracts in St. Louis and asserting that he was a reincarnated Old Testament prophet and the human voice of this god-like spirit called Baneemy. Eventually Thompson was able to convince a few hundred people that this was true, and when he suggested that they make a move for the Iowa frontier and set up a spiritual community in the hills, almost everyone followed. They named their settlement Preparation to signify their intent of preparing the land and themselves for the Second Coming. In short order, though, Thompson established this complex system of obligations and sacrifices that everyone was expected to follow. In time, they gave him everything—the land, their tools, their children’s toys. There were even reports that the Mormons of Preparation could be seen working their fields each wearing the same formless cotton smocks that they’d adopted as a uniform after offering up even the clothes on their back to the cause of Baneemy.

I’d known parts of this story for years, but last January (a week after Inauguration Day, actually) I drove up to Preparation to camp in the snow with my dogs, and I started to recognize an unnerving affinity between Charles Blancher Thompson and certain other successful con-man. The Baneemy movement was possible because Thompson was profoundly adept at exploiting the vulnerability of a group of people that had been, in many real ways, kicked around and forgotten by the rest of America for decades. I wanted to look more closely at exactly how he managed to do that.

FOM: What do you think is missing in contemporary reporting and storytelling about the lower midwest and great plains?

PM: Nuance, mainly. Even in my own travels around Nebraska I constantly have to reevaluate my own assumptions about the character of cities and landscapes in this state. (I know there are some people in my life that are getting tired of listening to me rave about all the unexpectedly beautiful architecture of Grand Island, for example.) There are always details and narratives and perspectives that are ignored because they don’t fit the agreed upon narrative that’s being peddled. The challenge, of course, is that the answer to this problem can’t simply be the amplification of more voices from more places, because we are, frankly, already drowning in a cacophony of voices. Really, we need more smart, curious people who can invest some serious energy into understanding some of the complex dynamics of the Midwest, and help us break out of some rather destructive modes of thinking about how we relate to each other and the land.

Fly Over Media and New Territory are certainly on this path, I think.

FOM: Whose work or what other pieces inspire your own?

PM: Edward Hoagland and Annie Dillard will forever have a biblical presence in my thinking about the environment and our relationship to it. For me, writing about place is very much a collaborative effort. Truthfully some landscapes are simply better equipped at housing the mysteries and emotion we hope to invest in them than others. Still, half that responsibility at meaning making is our own. We owe the world our attention. “Heaven and Nature” by Hoagland and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Dillard have been more critical to my understanding of that than almost anything.