The Wisconsin Historical Society Press published ‘Hope Is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic’. In this series, we feature five writers who share their experiences as they explore hope in the era of Covid. Jay Gilbertson contributed an essay to the book.
Jay Gilbertson | Prairie Farm, WI
The community here is wonderful. I know that today politics can be very polarizing, but out here in our rural community, you help your neighbors. If you’re stuck in your driveway, you don’t check and see if somebody is a Republican or Democrat, you just call to see who has a tractor. If you need help, people show up.
When I was younger, I left Eau Claire and eventually moved to the big city. I had a hair salon in Minneapolis. I met my husband Ken when I was a student at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis. But we were always drawn to Wisconsin, because of my family, but also because of the natural beauty. We moved to Prairie Farm in May of 2001 and live about an hour’s drive from my folks in Eau Claire. I am grateful to be part of this community.
The call for essays about hope came in the early months of the Pandemic. I wanted to contribute an essay, but I also have a bit of a problem with the idea of hope. Because hope doesn’t quite work for me. Writing this essay forced me to really think about it—what is hope? What does hope mean to me?
I grew up in Eau Claire and was bullied in junior high and high school. I mean, bullied to the point where I didn’t want to ride the school bus. It was to the point where I couldn’t use the bathroom at school because I would get beaten up. From the moment I was branded ‘Gay Jay’ in 7th grade and until the day I graduated, it was a constant stress. Which is why the word ‘hope’ is hard for me.
I have a skeptical relationship to hope because hoping didn’t work out for me when I was younger. I hoped the harassment would stop, that my teachers and swim-coaches would protect me—they did not. I hoped for equality. I don’t know how much hope accomplishes. To me, it is action that lights a fire under hope. I am currently working on a memoir and one of my goals is to show how devastating bullying is. I don’t want it to be a pity party, I simply want to tell the story of my experience. I think of writing a memoir as an exercise in truth-telling and I do hope my words will open minds to the far-reaching and long-lasting damage of bullying.
This really changed me. I don’t want to say it ruined me, but it changed me. Reflecting now, I’m a 60-year-old man, I can look back and I have all this wisdom and tons of empathy for anyone who was an outcast. But at the time it was hell for me as well as my family since there was little to no support. My experiences really made me an observer, a really keen observer, for survival. Now I tend to stand back and study things before I get into situations, it has become my nature to observe.
When we first started looking for a property in Wisconsin, we knew we wanted water. Ken and I both had certain criteria for what we wanted. When we finally found this place, we said, ‘This is it.’ We live on a dead-end, we have eighty acres, it’s very hilly and we have a pond. It is serenity. We are pumpkin farmers, which all started when Ken brought home a bottle of Austrian pumpkin seed oil. Ken traveled with Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda, and years ago he was given this gift. I had never heard of pumpkin seed oil and neither had Ken. We thought, ‘Pumpkins are everywhere in Wisconsin, why aren’t we making this?’ So we did a lot of research and started producing it in 2005. Nobody could really help us because nobody had ever done it here in the states and Austrians treat how to make pumpkin seed oil like a state secret.
We are America’s first producer of pumpkin seed oil! Our neighbor across the street raises Charolais, a specialized beef cattle, so he grows food for his cows. Because we are close to Minneapolis, we have a lot of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, they deliver their produce to the Twin Cities. We try to work around our political differences as best we can. We have to, there’s so few of us that live here. Honestly, social media aside, it really doesn’t matter. We all have the same needs. Many of us out here are small farmers, we don’t have big open fields. We are all working with unusual fields due to the many hills, so we tend to have smaller equipment and smaller needs. When things break down, we rely on each other and that is nice because it keeps us all connected. My hope for rural Wisconsinites is that we continue to support each other because we need our neighbors now more than ever!”
Jay’s story was produced by Jen Rubin. It is part of a series featuring contributors to the Wisconsin Historical Society Book, Hope is the Thing. You can learn more about the pumpkin seed oil Jay and Ken make on their farm here.
Jay and Ken’s farm was featured on ‘Around the Farm Table’ on PBS. They are the producers of America’s first pumpkin seed oil.