Stranger in a Strange Land
Dec 30, 2015 03:25PM
By Tom McCauley
Growing up in London, Stuart Chittenden found himself a bit obsessed with America: its historical complexities, its social turmoil, its pioneering spirit, its glitz and glamor. He read tons of American authors, luxuriating in the majesty of the open road as portrayed in works like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He watched Taxi and Mash.
Eventually, Chittenden moved to Omaha, married an American woman (fashion writer Amy Chittenden), and landed probably the most interesting job title ever: chief curiosity officer for David Day Associates. He’s a perennial TEDxOmaha presenter and something of a conversation artist. His consultancy, Squishtalks, offers conversation-based workshops for businesses, organizations, and individuals.
Chittenden’s recent project, “a couple of 830 mile long conversations,” marks his most significant offering to the cultural fabric of our state (so far).
“a couple of 830 mile long conversations” traverses the state’s vast geography to explore the ways in which landscape—physical, historical—informs a sense of community. The effort, one that received funding from Humanities Nebraska/Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Omaha Creative Institute, and several individuals, is part field recording, part personal quest to understand an unfamiliar place.
Last summer, Chittenden packed some pricey mobile audio-recording equipment—on loan from Clete Baker of Studio B—into an aging R.V. and rambled west down highways and gravel roads seeking to capture a representative sample of the voice of Nebraska as it exists in the moment.
By recording unscripted, spontaneous conversations in public (libraries, cafes, sidewalks) he began to discover the feeling of life in Gordon, Chadron, Norfolk, Alliance, Broken Bow, and other places formerly alien to him.
“I had a sense of what Nebraska could be,” he says. “I’d seen photographs. I’d heard people describe their experiences growing up in smaller towns. I expected to be surprised by some of the beauty in different places, and maybe to find some places to be a little drab—this idea of rural communities sort of collapsing in on themselves.”
That’s pretty much what happened. Some communities emanated vibrancy; others seemed bleak. The prairie’s “very quiet but intimidating beauty” struck him as sublime, most evidently in the lakes and waterways. The Sand Hills, greatly exaggerated by friends and colleagues over the years, did not blow his mind.
“Overwhelmingly, I was warmly received,” he notes. “I was really impressed with the courage of many people to engage with someone who was obviously a stranger. Even those people that didn’t choose to join in the conversation, they were warm.”
Happily, the conversations he recorded dug deeper than weather and the Huskers. “I remember one gentleman, he was in a mobile electric wheelchair. I literally sat on the curb for 90 minutes and chatted with him.”
As for how landscape shapes a community’s self-perception, Chittenden noticed a marked shift the further west he went. The primary difference between eastern and western Nebraska, he contends, has to do with geography’s time-compression effect. The buttes, vast skies, and wagon ruts of western Nebraska seem to shrink the years, creating a visceral connection to history.
That’s not to say the pioneering spirit is dead in Omaha. It simply takes a different form here: the entrepreneurial mindset.
“In Omaha,” Chittenden says, “they don’t look for wagons. They look for Warren.”
Visit 830nebraska.com to listen to stories from the project.