BY THOMAS DEAN
The Wapsipinicon Almanac has been a lifeline to Iowa for me for a long time. In the early 1990s, within a couple of years of receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and when I was teaching in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my yearning to return to Iowa had not abated. One year, I had a job interview at a college in Dubuque and, while exploring the town, I stopped in at Breitbach’s Farmer’s Market, the local natural foods store. Near the checkout, I spied a small pile of attractive volumes with a decidedly old-time look to them. The romantic-sounding title sang to me—The Wapsipinicon Almanac. I flipped through it, noting its regionally flavored contents and homespun illustrations, and immediately purchased it.
I don’t remember exactly which volume of The Wapsi that first acquisition was, but it was one of the earlier ones. Back in Wisconsin, I reveled in its cornucopia of essays and stories, and even a poem or two, feeling a near palpable connection back to the grounded life in Iowa I grew to know and love while a student here. In the indicia, I noted the editor’s name—Timothy Fay—and an Anamosa address on the magical-sounding Shooting Star Road.
I immediately wrote a letter to Mr. Fay. (Even though at this time email was in its infancy and the Internet as we know it didn’t even exist, Tim has only gotten an email account within the last few years, and only this year has The Wapsi found its presence in cyberspace with a website. For purists out there, I really don’t think this means the end of civilization as we know it.) In my letter, I waxed both poetic and enthusiastic over my appreciation for the almanac. I asked if subscriptions were available. Shortly after, I received a postcard from Tim, thanking me for my kind thoughts and letting me know that, no, subscriptions were not available, mainly because he published a volume at sporadic intervals, when he could and when he had the material. I replied back, asking Tim to let me know when the next almanac would appear.
During these years before my return to Iowa in 1999, I lived in three different states with a total of six different addresses. After each move, I shot off a note to Tim on Shooting Star Road, letting him know my new address to make sure I got the word when I could order the new almanac. And Tim was always faithful to my request, as about once a year I’d get a linotype-printed postcard letting me know the new volume was available.
I relate this tale not merely to indulge in navel-gazing, but to illustrate that, for me, and I know for many people, The Wapsipinicon Almanac is both an iconic Iowa publication and a personal experience, not just a periodical. Tim has managed to capture lightning in a bottle by staying true to our region, to the tradition he has created, and to the expectations and desires of both his writers and readers. On the one hand, the almanac harkens back to a time past. Central to the publication’s character is its production on an antique linotype machine. The advertisements themselves are a pleasure to read, often using layouts, fonts, and copy reminiscent of periodicals of times past. The first pieces in each volume—“The Talk of the Township,” “Four Seasons Mini-Almanac,” and “Cultural News”—always return like trusty old friends, and always replete with interesting tidbits that recollect sundry events and observations of a year past.
I must insist, though, that The Wapsipinicon Almanac is not merely, or even primarily, an exercise in nostalgia. No, what’s especially magical about The Wapsi is that it honors a past that is worth remembering, but also is fearless in tackling present issues and even visionary in exploring future possibilities.
Oh, sure, in the current issue there’s a lovely childhood remembrance of viewing the northern lights on a 1940s farm from the pen of Elaine Johnson, and a reprint of “The Old Apple Tree” by George Miksch Sutton from 1936, but the vast majority of the essays, stories, and poems tackle such issues as Cedar Rapids’ orgy of demolition of historical buildings (Beth DeBoom), the huge social disparities in contemporary China (Michael Borich), the declining frog population as harbingers of climate change (Jean Snodgress-Wiedenheft), and the sustainability of ethanol, a biofuel that fails to address either our agricultural or environmental problems (Kamyar Enshayan).
In the editorial vision that emerges from its folksy and “down-home” demeanor, The Wapsipinicon Almanac is forward-looking and often biting in its social commentary. It is not only a lifeline to maintaining our contemporary regional culture and our past traditions, but also one into a sustainable, positive future.
I’m a little disappointed that, for the purposes of this column, I read this year’s almanac straight through over the course of a few days. Usually I pick it up here and there, dip into it and sample it—and savor it—over a period of months. And I’m sure that many people find it a perfect volume for the most heavily used “reading room” in the house. Now I’ll have to wait a whole year for a new dose of Wapsi.
No matter how or why you enjoy The Wapsipinicon Almanac, I’m sending you a postcard from Tim Fay via this column that the new volume is out. Pick it up at your favorite bookstore or co-op.
To order your copy of Volume No. 13 by mail: Send $10.16 (includes postage and Iowa tax) to: The Wapsipinicon Almanac, 19948 Shooting Star Rd., Anamosa, Iowa 52205.