Around here, folks are awfully worried.

It’s strange, though—we’re not worried about what the nightly news says we’re worried about.

Contrary to (seemingly) popular opinion, we don’t spend every waking moment in a nuclear catatonia. Our children—at least the children I know—don’t have nightmares of “the fire next time.” They don’t even think about nuclear war (or about what they dream, for that matter) until we ask them to.

People living their happy, laborious lives here in the heartland wonder whom the nightly news reporters have talked to (is it always the same strange, frothing fringe group, kept on retainer, or do they take turns?) and whether, perhaps, we might be just a little out of touch. Truth to tell, though, we don’t worry about that too often; we’re “touched” by our local, state, and Federal governments, and by distant, relentless do-good groups, more than we’d like to be.

Even though no Eastern-seaboard J-school grads ever come here to reap the harvest of our opinion, there are easy ways of knowing what we worry about, and one of the easiest is the letters we write to the editors of our local papers. After all, no one makes us write those letters. We do it out of love (or wrath, a mutant love), for free, regardless of the consequences; we do it because we are moved. Granted, our letters come from close to the surface of our hearts and intellects—but who on earth is qualified to say what might lie deeper?

An informal survey of 11 newspapers in eight Midwestern states—editors in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota answered my query—turns up results which should surprise no one who listens to friends or reads his local paper thoroughly. Of the 11 editorial-page editors responding, seven listed local issues as taking up most of the space in their letters columns during 1985. The biggest single topic in Aurora, Illinois, triggering a four-month flood of letters, was a “proposal by 1,000 Hindu doctors and lawyers to build the nation’s third Hindu temple to serve the needs of 30,000 Chicago-area Hindus.” Grand Island, Nebraska, had a brouhaha over property taxes. Other Midwestern citizens were in an uproar mainly over local nuclear waste disposal (Sioux Falls, South Dakota); a referendum to build a hotel on the civic center parking lot (Rapid City, South Dakota); perceived local school district blunders (Billings, Montana); the pros and cons of citymanager government (St. Joseph, Missouri); and a local school bond issue (Bismarck, North Dakota).

Of the remaining four editors, he from Peoria, Illinois, cited free trade versus protectionism as engendering the most letters to the editor in 1985; Wichita, Kansas, said most people wrote about fundamentalism and related issues (“abortion, creationism, family values, etc.”); and people in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota, were most concerned about abortion. (The Fargo editor made a point of telling me that most of the letters were antiabortion. Those darned North Dakotans insist on thinking unconstitutionally!)

Abortion was a secondary issue—turned up on the editors’ lists but not in #1 ranking—in four cities; financial and psychological troubles of modern farmers showed up seven times; and local and national taxation and the Federal deficit were important concerns in five cities.

National defense/”Star Wars”/arms control—it was called all three—was an issue of concern in only three cities, ranking #4 in St. Paul and #5 in Peoria and Fargo. No wonder they never come here to talk with us.

Other secondary topics listed were inhumanity to animals (“somebody shot a dog with an arrow”—Americans must surely rank up there with the Brits in their hot defense of mistreated animals), an ACLU challenge to a lit cross atop a fire department building, white versus Hispanic communities, medical malpractice, and the seat-belt law (all of the above from Aurora, whose editor presented the most detailed list), along with Central and South America, terrorism, the Reagan Administration, local unemployment, Roman Catholicism versus Fundamentalism, snow removal, and cable TV service.

How shallow, some might say. How utterly inane. How . . . dull. Huge-bellied babies are dying in Ethiopia, and the born-agains are taking over the world, and none of this matters because we’ll all be glow-in-the-dark dust in a few years if we don’t start talking, really talking, to each other—and those hicks in Grand Island are worried about property taxes? God help us all.

Well, God does. He causes us all to be born with natural and functional instincts, one of which is to care most about what is most immediate in time and space. Yes, it’s an animal sort of thing, but human intellect and heart take over as we grow to adulthood, where instinct runs dry in the lower animals. The result is family—which, if it is healthy, grows to gather in neighbor, city, state, nation, world, in hope if not always in joy. Thus we do write about issues long-removed from our immediate concern.

But first things first. A rampant school board or laggardly snow removal touches us where it hurts the most—right in the quotidian—and abortion, cited seven out of 11 times, touches us in the intimacies of our bodies and moral beliefs. If we aren’t worried about what lies nearest us, how can we hope to bring peace and justice to the world?