October 13, 2015. Today would be my grandpa Anderson’s 102nd birthday, were he alive. He was one of the last of his kind, a holdout to the old ways of farming –hands in earth, ruling his land from the seat of a horse drawn plow. He picked his corn crop by hand. He shunned the imposition of a tractor between himself and the land as he guided the fields to their new-seasonal creation, each quarter-year with its own colors and patterns and rhythms: planting, growing, harvesting, winter.
I remember only a few of the farm stories that were told around the table at Grandma’s house. Grandpa had a penchant for saving the most bloody and gruesome scenes of farm life until the midway point during dinner, probably for the amusement of horrifying my weak-stomached city-bred mother. One of my favorite stories involved my dad and a psychopathic chicken that chased him around the yard. Grandma, in a flurry of maternal vengeance, grabbed a hatchet (Did you know beheaded chickens can run around even after their heads are liberated from their bodies? Neither did I until Grandpa enlightened me, in colorful detail) and the chicken was served that evening for dinner. Or supper. I can’t recall the proper terminology. But one thing was clear: Grandma knew how to deal with bullies.
In time, Grandpa gave into the pressure of progress and bought a tractor. In retrospect, I wonder whether he’d have done better sticking to his convictions and a more direct connection with the land. In the early summer of 1957, Grandpa and his tractor slid through a weary-worn bridge. Its timbers split under the weight of its load, spilling Grandpa and the tractor into Keg Creek. Fortunately Grandpa had the foresight to jump clear of the tractor, ensuring that he wound up on the right side of the wreck, which rested at the bottom of the creek bed, buried deep in rich, black Iowa mud. Grandpa survived with serious injuries including a broken back and facial bruises.
But he never quite recovered from that fall.
Within a few years the farm, his land and the land of his father before him was sold to a new lord of the fields. Dad and his family moved into town, and as my dad tells it, nothing after that was ever quite the same.
I’ve only driven by the old family farm a time or two when I was younger. I couldn’t find it on a map of Glenwood today. I grew up in the city for the most part –and even when I did live in Glenwood for a few years of elementary school, I lived in town.
The homeness of the rural Iowa countryside was lost on me until my life took me far from the Midwest. The first time I returned home from California, winding east on Interstate 80 with its seasonably changeable land-blankets of brown, green, gold, stubble, and snow, the familiar joy of the landscape surprised me. When I came home from Wisconsin, I knew I was home once the trees parted and the rocky ridges along the road smoothed into waves of infinite shades of green. When we drove from Arizona through Nebraska’s rolling hills of grazey nothingness and crossed the Missouri past the urban clutter of Omaha into the rolling crop-covered Loess Hills of southwest Iowa I knew that I was home.
I came to college in a little farm-micropolis in the middle of the northwest Iowa prairie, and I remember being perplexed by the observations of my friends who had come from far-flung places around the world. “It’s so flat here,” they complained. “Nothing but corn for miles –and what’s that awful smell?” My own hometown of Des Moines looked nothing like Sioux County, but I wasn’t bored by the flatness here like they were. When my travels took me to places like the hills of California, like the woods of Wisconsin, like the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona –then I began to understand the difference my friends saw, but I still couldn’t comprehend the sense of emptiness my friends described when they were complaining about the Iowa landscape. What I see in the contrast now, having traveled around a little, is that the beauty of Iowa is not for the amateur. It’s, as they say, an acquired taste. That is to say, it’s usually acquired by having been born here.
Another thing my friends commented on was the quiet out here. Excepting the occasional piece of farm machinery, there is simply no white noise on the Iowa countryside. The silence out here is a multi-layered thing –not so much an absence of sound as an auditory openness that enables you to overhear the conversations of the natural world –the wind weaving its voice through the grass and the trees, the birds calling out their songs of danger or warning or praise. These are the things we mean when we talk about a sense of “quiet” in the country, but it is nothing like silence.
These are the things I think my Grandpa knew by heart. Visitors to the prairie will describe the landscape as flat, quiet, unchanging, but those of us who live here can hear its voice; we know its rhythms. We know that underneath its veneer of peace and stillness lies a world beyond that is full of change and movement and life. Any farmer –my grandpa included—could understand that, even if he didn’t find a need to explain it. This is a living landscape, alive with change, if you have the patience to take the time required to see it.
Take dirt, for example. The foundation beneath us, walked on, taken so much for granted. There was a time when I understood God’s creating man out of the dust as a sign of the lowliness of being human, but I understand it much differently now. Dirt –Iowa dirt in particular– is not a lowly thing. Dirt, so heavy with life that it lies stained dark with all the colors in creation’s paintbox. Dirt that bears witness to past harvests, the remains of fallen autumn splendor, the excrement of a hundred thousand head of cattle. The dust of our ancestors. Dirt that is so full of spent life that it can’t help but generously return it each spring –new flowers, new leaves, new weeds, new shoots of corn and beans and wheat rising from row after row of fresh plowed black soil. Dirt that becomes the mud on the hooves of cows standing in the rain and the tracks of our mud-shod toddlers marching through new-mopped kitchens. Dirt is the earth’s sermon spoken back to death, bringing new life from dead things. It is a sign and testament to resurrection. Iowa’s people understand that dirt is a mystery.
My grandpa died the fall of my senior year of high school, my first grandparent to pass away. When I was a girl, I didn’t notice my grandparents progressively aging. We saw them often enough that there was never much time between visits, and Grandma and Grandpa were always just …Grandma and Grandpa. In the year or two before he died, Grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, less a of a shock after I pieced together a few odd things my grandpa did (or forgot) in his later years, but even with his quirks, he was still my grandpa. Even after I grew older and learned more of the stories my dad hadn’t told me about how tough things were sometimes when he was growing up, he was still my grandpa.
He didn’t have the long, slow decline most people associate with Alzheimers patients. My grandpa died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I imagine Grandpa died as I always remembered him, dressed in a pair of faded pinstriped overalls, a half-days worth of stubble on his chin, and smelling of Icy Hot. Grandpa, like the land on the Iowa countryside he used to work, remains always the same in my mind, though my understanding of him changes as I learn more of his story, and as I watch my parents (and myself and my children) growing older.
October 27, 2015. It is snowing this afternoon, great quarter-size flakes blown out of the sky during our second big windstorm of fall. Autumn windstorms are a seasonal tradition out here, arriving once or twice each fall, with sufficient force to sweep the last few trees clean of their color. Today, our windstorm came accessorized with the first snow of the season –just enough to barely stick on the ground outside my patio door. I doubt it’ll last long, but like so many other treasures of the Midwest, you learn to accept that. Just as you learn to tolerate the icy winds of mid-January and the profound greyness of mid-November because you know it won’t last forever, you learn to appreciate the transitory beauty of a clear mid-June summer day or the first open-window afternoon of spring all the more for its transience. Such it is with the snow today. Beauty here for a moment, gone by morning. But you know it’ll be coming around again, a testament to God’s faithfulness.