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Reporter’s Notebook: Knowing What’s In The Heart(land)

Reporting any story means having to learn more about myself, what I care about and what I want to do next.

For example, I once talked with John Gruidl of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. He said a lot of younger folks now choose a place to live before they choose a job, and they often choose more tourist-prone areas of the west, while the rural Midwest continues to shrink. 

When Gruidl asked what brought me out to Galesburg, Illinois, I told him it was for the job.  I came here after taking temporary jobs in Ketchikan, Alaska, Washington, D.C., Ketchum, Idaho and Laramie, Wyoming. These are places that I previously had never been to, and where I hardly knew anyone. Illinois was no different. 

Moving is exhausting. Making friends and building a community is a lot of work. 

Madelyn Beck and her mobile recorder stand behind horseradish cutouts at the International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, Illinois.

The longest-ever running study on happiness out of Harvard found that close relationships mattered above all else in determining someone’s happiness. People need a community. 

I used to think I was lucky to have left my hometown of Manhattan, Montana. But many of the people who chose to stay have a stronger sense of community than I’ve been able to build in all my travels. It was a trade-off. 

When I moved to the Midwest, my first impression was: there’s definitely a lot of corn and soybeans. My second impression was: why don’t many of these people just move to the mountains? 

Over time, I learned that the people who stay have a sense of community. They understand local references, and they share a nostalgia over the smell of a freshly-harvested field. They share a cozy feeling that accompanies a Midwest lightning storm. And they often share a loyalty with those who stick around.

For many, the region where they were born feels the most like home. 

That isn’t true for everyone, but some childhood sights and smells follow people throughout their adult lives.

As a Montana native, Midwest sunsets over empty winter fields are beautiful. But a sunset over the Rocky Mountains feels like home. It feels safe to me in the same way that corn growing around someone’s childhood home may feel safe to them.

Madelyn Beck using CRISPR on E. coli in the lab for part of her SciLine fellowship

The areas have plenty in common: nice people, lots of farmers and frustrations with “city folk.” They also share struggling rural economies, high rural suicide rates and a continuing opioid epidemic. It’s plenty to write about for a reporter who cares deeply about rural areas, and I strive to report possible solutions in my stories instead of just rehashing all the bad stuff. I also love covering the fun stuff, like the horseradish festivals

That said, I’m moving back west to cover some of the issues that affect my friends and family in my home region. I’m moving to Boise, Idaho, where I have several friends, nearby hiking and family a few hours away. I appreciate everything I learned from rural Illinois, and I’ll miss the community I’ve created here. 

This job has taught me so much about Illinois’ agriculture system and afforded me opportunities I wouldn’t have had anywhere else, from a SciLine fellowship on genomics to traveling down the Mississippi RIver with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. I’m a better reporter for it, and I’ll never forget it. 

I’m grateful for everything, but much like the end of a long vacation, I’m ready to head home.

Taken near Monmouth, Illinois in January 2018
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