Rural Wisconsin

Depicting thoughts and memories that I never had photographs of with AI.

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December 17, 2023

By Mike Stilling

A child sitting with his dog on an old truck at a Wisconsin farm during sunrise - image generated by MidJourney
Using MidJourney

Unfortunately, I was born an Illinoisan, just beneath the shadow of the Wisconsin/Illinois border. Though, by the age of two, my family had moved back across that line to the north end of Walworth County.

This being to the same farm where my grandfather spent his childhood. With its sandy fields, rolling hills, and the echoes of generations, this rusty place became the backdrop to much of my life and a cornerstone of my earliest memories.

My connection to the past, particularly to the childhoods of my parents and grandparents, is a mosaic of old photographs and stories passed down through time. These fragmented images and tales have been woven into the fabric of my imagination, painting a picture that is both intimate and elusive.

With that, my own childhood memories, though vivid and cherished, exist largely in the shared recollections of myself and those who were there with me.

In this blog post, I attempt to bridge the gap between memory and imagination using AI. This journey has been both a dive into my family’s past and a creative endeavor to visualize scenes I had only previously seen in my mind’s eye.

A Dairy State

My parents’ early years were deeply connected to the daily routines of dairy farming, a life dictated by the steady cadence of milking cows. My mother fondly recalls the tranquility she discovered within the barn walls, finding comfort and companionship among the calm, gentle cows. Her recollections bring to life moments of warmth and solace, a soothing contrast against the backdrop of a challenging family environment.

A photograph from the 1980's of a young girl staying warm in a cattle barn
With her friends Using OpenAI's DALL•E

In contrast, my father, who I lost when I was twelve, spoke of the cows in a different light. His recollections were tinged with a hint of regret; the cows, he’d say, were the reason his family never managed to escape the farm for vacations. These tales of dairy farming, with their mix of fondness and resignation, have become a poignant part of our family narrative, echoing the complex relationship many share with the land and its demands.

A photograph from the 1980's of a young boy holding hay in a cattle barn
Feeding the cows Using OpenAI's DALL•E

Following my father’s untimely passing, a deep bond formed between my grandfather and me. By now, I’ve sat through most of his tales at least 20 times. A personal favorite is a story of him, despite nursing a broken leg, valiantly chasing down wayward cows that had slipped past their fence. Each retelling of this episode paints a picture of his determination and the unrelenting demands of farm life.

A photograph from the 1970's of a man bringing escaped cows back to their pen
Corralling in the cold Using OpenAI's DALL•E

Outside of one of my brothers, who took up milking as a high school job, our encounters with the dairy barn were quite limited. Yet, our parents were adamant about us experiencing the multifaceted nature of farm life. They wished for us to understand and appreciate the beauty, the hardships, and the deep sense of fulfillment that they found in their most cherished aspects of farming. It was their way of ensuring that the essence of their agricultural roots and the lessons learned there would be passed down to us, even as times changed.

A photograph from the 1990's of two young boys playing in a creek surrounded by cattle pasture
Playing in the Creek Using OpenAI's DALL•E

The Great Outdoors

Throughout the majority of my childhood, my parents operated a landscaping business, nestled in the humble crossroads of Abel’s Corners. This modest yet bustling hub comprised of a no-frills office building, a retail nursery brimming with greenery, and two expansive gravel lots, each a treasure trove of landscape materials. To us, four adventurous boys, this place was nothing short of a playground without end, each day offering a new realm of excitement and discovery.

A photograph from the 1990's of two young boys playing in a creek surrounded by cattle pasture
A boring day Using MidJourney

Though skidsteers and various construction equipment were always within our reach, bicycles were our preferred mode of transport. We devoted countless hours to crafting makeshift ramps, pieced together from mounds of dirt and discarded lumber scraps. Equally endless were the hours we spent coaxing the next youngest among us to take a daring leap off these creations, each jump a mix of bravery and brotherly encouragement in our self-made world of adventure.

A photograph of two boys launching themselves into the air on bxm bikes off of a dirt mound
A pile of fun Using MidJourney

Much to the dismay of those diligently working in the office, our outdoor adventures often found their way indoors when boredom struck. I credit a significant portion of my digital creativity to the imaginative escapades behind that business, seamlessly intertwined with the early access I had to the computers it provided that were equipped with design software.

A photograph of two boys launching themselves into the air on bxm bikes off of a dirt mound
Bringing outside inside Using OpenAI's DALL•E

WIP Stay tuned for more. I’ll continue adding to this as more childhood thoughts come to mind. Thanks for reading!

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