A Panhandle Kind of Enlightenment
Throughout human history, various civilizations have experienced times of progress characterized as ages of “enlightenment.” In my shallow understanding of history, it seems the common factor in any great awakening has been some sort of upheaval that coincided with technological advances, which in turn allowed for an injection of new ideas. As the marketplace of ideas begins to fill with diverse perspectives, the fear of being different subsides, creativity flows, and innovation creates tools to make things better. Soon enough, we can’t imagine living any other way.
As we wake each morning in Amarillo, Texas, to pick out the appropriate clothes to survive the day’s weather, we’re not exactly thinking about enlightenment. We don’t often take time to see ourselves in the context of great historical movements. In that way, we’re not unlike most earthlings.
But there are signs all around us that life is changing on the High Plains. We’ve just about mined all the water we can take from the ground. Urbanization and globalization are squeezing rural America and siphoning homegrown talent to the large cities. And your neighborhood Dairy Queen may have already shut its doors.
The upside is: technology has given us the ability to read The New York Times as we take our morning coffee. We’re watching the same programs as the folks in Maine and Missoula, and we don’t think a thing about traveling to another city for a concert. And social media, for all its tiger traps, has opened up dialogue with new friends all over the world. We may not be as isolated as we once imagined. Indeed, here in the land of the yellow grass, our marketplace of ideas grows more colorful by the day.
These things have been on my mind lately. I’ve been working my way through a book from 2002 by the historian Arthur Herman, entitled How the Scots Invented the Modern World. The book started me thinking about life in West Texas in 2018—and where we might be headed.
In 18th century Scotland, rapid geopolitical change opened a floodgate of creativity in what had been a dismal little kingdom dominated by the severe doctrine of “The Kirk”—The Presbyterian Church. But in 1707, a treaty of union joined Scotland with England and Wales, forming the United Kingdom. This move was not universally applauded, since so many viewed it as a takeover by the English. But soon enough, a merchant class began to develop as Scotland benefitted from England’s dominance in world trade. Scottish ports filled with imported goods. Along with these goods came new ideas that filled the heads of the common people.
And the Scots began to dream.
In the 1740s, a printer named Robert Foulis sat in on the philosophy lectures of the famed thinker Francis Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow. Foulis was not formally educated but, inspired by Hutcheson, he decided to expand his mind. He thus dedicated his life to the elevation of common trades such as printing and typography into art forms. Foulis, it seems, believed that tradesmen as much as artists had the ability to create a “polite, humane, enlightened culture.”
Foulis and his contemporaries were instrumental in founding a movement that put a Scottish stamp on science, literature, and the arts—as well as on business and commerce. They took what some saw as a raw deal, the union with England, turned it around, and owned it. Scotland therefore took a front seat in driving the enlightenment of the time, providing Western Civilization with great minds such as Adam Smith and David Hume. From their perch on the forgotten edge of the continent, the Scots revolutionized the way we view the world.
All this from craggy old Scotland, the former armpit of Europe.
This exploration of the Scottish Enlightenment led me to think about changes to the cultural landscape in the Panhandle of Texas, which suffers mightily from bad press downstate. A decade ago, craft beer was something old men experimented with in the shed out back. Coffee was something you got at Furr’s with a slab of chocolate pie. We were content to watch the world pass us by, fearful of change and lacking the confidence to step away from convention.
But in the last decade, Amarillo entrepreneurs—adventuresome thinkers residing out here on the empty flatlands—have not only created products that are distinct to our region, but also have been recognized as superior around the country.
There’s more. If you look at new construction around town, you see a unique Amarillo architecture developing. An aesthetic that reflects the beauty of our landscape and the informal ways of our people. And you can now find restaurants serving unique local cuisine, often to the sounds of local musicians who have crafted a regional dialect with their songwriting. Writers are writing, poets are ruminating, and we’re painting art in downtown alleys. We’re growing things locally and selling them in downtown markets. And bright minds are beginning to trickle back home, confident that Amarillo is a good place to start a business.
This isn’t to say that we’ve never created anything unique or beautiful in Amarillo before, or that we’ve never achieved great things. But it seems to me that there’s a connection between creative pursuits happening, a movement of sorts. Creative people are talking with one another and combining their efforts more than ever before. Like in Robert Foulis’ day, there is a desire among a growing number of people here in the Panhandle to elevate the mundane into art, and to call it our own.
One reason may be that we have the time and space to think about things out here on the Plains. Freed from the pressure to be hip or weird, savvy or sophisticated, we have poured our energy into coping with the distance, the flatness, and oh-my-God-the-wind. Through struggle, we either conform to a survival mindset, or we rebel and decide we deserve more.
The rebels and their colorful coping skills are gaining the upper hand. It’s time to step up our efforts to support their creative pursuits, to ensure we’re working toward some common goals. Exactly how, I’m not sure. But I intend to play a part, and I’d encourage anyone reading this to do the same.
Embrace who we are. Celebrate it, and build upon it.
Hopefully we can look back upon these times as the beginnings of an enlightenment. A Panhandle kind of enlightenment. We’re programmed to laugh at statements like this, because we’ve never imagined ourselves as drivers of innovation. But I leave you with this question: Why not?