My farmer and I had a bet this year. He said the corn would surpass the proverbial knee-high by the fourth of July and reach six-tall-feet. It’s the rain. The heat. But it won’t reach that, I said; the spring settled in too late, and we couldn’t get in the muddy fields in time. Even with the hybrid seeds guaranteed to give us big-cojone cornstalks fit to grace the pages of a Pastoral Playgirl, it’s still dependent on weather and the person driving the machine.
Outfield. A river begins as a running line of low places, a through-route for rains to follow, the easy path. It’s a little valley between trees or a carved out gorge waiting to be filled. A riven place, the river. Half of Iowa’s waterways are “impaired,” runoff from our massive farming efforts or waste that seeps into the channels from the 20 million hogs and 60 million chickens we raise each year.
Art Cullen, Storm Lake Times (Storm Lake, Iowa), won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing because he talked about bad water being pumped into the Raccoon River, about donors protecting their interest by supplying money for legal defense. Can you say bad behavior?
Autumn gave us swollen water levels again. Animals move to higher ground when the rivers rise, and highways become a banquet table for birds of prey. Fields lay submerged, and our river-cities hold their breath. But we’ve seen water before. We were here ten years ago when a five-hundred-year flood drowned ten square miles of homes, businesses, and crops. We learned that the Cedar is a beast, and the Wapsi runs wild. These rivers flow with heart, flushed with passion.
The sky harbors waves of currents, passageways to carrion beds beyond the coral clouds. But every ship needs a mooring to rest, treetops rollicking on a sea of drifts. I watch a documentary about the Arctic 30 and want to join Greenpeace. I see a damaged land, a hurting earth, polar bears that drown because they can’t reach the land for the melting. When I visit my parents and observe an Arizona sunrise over the Gila Mountains, there where little grows but rocks and sparsity and want, I know how easy it is to dismiss a travesty so far away.
Greenfield. My farmer sways gently to “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” audible ten feet out from his headset. West Virginia. Mountain momma. We’re here. Country roads. Fluster is scarce among farm folk, these unflappable country types, because in this quiet place, creation grows in the palm of a hand, in the turning of the soil.
A full ninety percent of Iowan land is farmed with either crops or animals. Every farmhouse once gave birth to a barn, a silo, and a grain bin. But it’s the endless trudge that hypnotizes. Aunt Abby’s everyday meatloaf or the eagle too distant to care about No Man’s Land. What becomes of those scruffy roadside bushes? The swaying trees shrug heedlessly.
Brownfield. Little sprouts keep rising, rising. Rain bears down, and the cold. Deer and rabbits nibble every sprightly thing, and farmers spray for life, odd mixes of manmade goop meant to inspire growth, or inhibit the weedy bits. This is where we walk, this carefully curated ground, this weary Midwest soil.
An article in the US National Library of Medicine said, “Recently, the Agricultural Health Study has produced some evidence of increased incidence of cancer of the prostate, lung, colon, pancreas, bladder, leukemia, and multiple myeloma with increasing lifetime exposure to certain pesticides.” Well, duh.
One can smell the chemicals in the air while strolling along a neighboring road, the fields on either side reeking with substances meant to kill the living at ground level. It’s the same smell you notice while walking down the gardening aisle at Walmart in spring or summer. Try not to breathe, and please tell the plants to do the same.
Field day. “Lay with me,” my farmer says. “Give me warmth, feed my hunger. Like the earth, cover my leaves in happy; climb me quiet. Dusk over here and spirit up some nature.” He goes on, but at least he knows how to speak my language.
Farming is sexy, and farmers, the emissaries of fertility: grinding their big machines through tracts of expanse, spreading the earth to drop seeds until the sun goes down.
Sex education is taught on the farm, an Angus bull thrusting hard against the thighs of a heifer. A horse’s long thick penis erect and obvious when smelling a nearby mare in estrus. Dogs and sheep and the occasional foxes spotted “doing it,” all human eyes on the process, watching, learning about the simplicity and necessity of Rural Lovemaking 101.
Bloodfield. Someone said that Midwestern women are lonely. But we’re not lonely, only isolated. At the heart of last year, I was a ship without mooring, adrift and unsure. A lost ship is pathetic, even ironic; a happy ship knows where it’s going. When dynamics shift, we’re too far from land and the bells that bring perspective.
Easy to drive that truck off the concrete ramp into the lake. Take a running start and gun it. The truck would sail a few feet then sink. But the water would be cold, and I’d rather be warm. I’ve come to believe that it’s always dark somewhere, and every mind has at least one room with the door slammed shut.
In 1912, Franz Reichelt sewed together pieces of fabric to make wings, and then flew off the Eiffel Tower, hit the ground, and died. He did this to prove a point, to find his place. He was not afraid, or he was, but he still died.
Field dress. With the corn and soybeans stripped off these plats, hunting begins. Deer, arrowed or gun-shot, dragged across long open spaces or field-dressed on the spot. Pheasants and ducks and turkeys flushed near patches of grassland or water. My farmer and I don’t hunt. Such crude sport. We much prefer to wrangle packages from the grocer’s cold case, skinning off the oil-derived plastic wrap in front of our skillet.
And sometimes, the hatred of rural is real enough. Her short skirts and high heels diminished the frown on her face, and her sarcasm cut deeply when her man went out to farm. She wanted high life and bright lights, not the huffing of tractors providing endless agricultural paychecks. I’m not sure they stayed a thing in the long run, and I’m not sure I blame her.
Battlefield. A long-forgotten part of the American settlement journey featured a war on a single day between the Americans and the British and their Native American allies, namely participants from the Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Sioux, and Puant tribes. It occurred on the Iowa side of the great Mississippi River in 1814 and was called the Battle of Credit Island. It was also a day when Chief Black Hawk and his thousand braves roundly kicked the Americans’ asses, with a little help from the British.
On first acquaintance, Buck and Pete face-off as only rams can do. A few playful head taps, then the backing up and letting fly. Crash! The old ram remains straight and proud, the new falls on his side, lays still, and shakes a leg in the air. “He’s dead,” my farmer says to the son. “What will we tell Mom?” Buck lays still for a few moments more, then slowly stumbles to his feet. This is called ass-kicking in the animal kingdom.
Drainfield. I could spend my days studying him. Corn would grow regardless. But to pull my brain from my ears for his sake would be futile in this land of too much season; who would wash the dishes, tend the sheep? Stars themselves might unhinge and rivers still at such sanctimony.
My farmer turned a few too-sharp corners somewhere along his route, blew an axle on the timeline, grinds and shudders. It happened so fast. In the rushing of moments, he lost track of when and where; he just knows it happened. In a state of three million people and nearly as many tractors, this may be all we can expect in a life laden with entropy.
We’re all broken, see, I tell him. With my childhood fever that lasted several weeks, before the age of antibiotic choices in Germany—and me allergic to the only one available there at the time, penicillin—the dentist said my molars were “crumbly,” and “you’re lucky to have gotten out of that without some kind of brain damage.” I tell my farmer this story and repeat the line: we’re all broken, see?
End notes. I’m eating tofu while surrounded by cattle, so there’s no blood on my jeans. The corn doesn’t fear tomorrow; it simply grows, and the soybeans stretch and stretch until their pods are full. That’s not me slipping through a crack in the window; it’s opportunity lost. In Iowa, the ground is varying shades of brown while rolling prairies sprint under a sheet of incessant blue-fringed heaven.
But the day a neighbor hung his genitals out for me to see was the day I stopped idolizing rural America. Oh God, my reality check. The day I watched the incessant tinkering of the land. The day my farmer pointed out acres of desiccated wheat, dried with chemicals to speed the harvest process, wheat on its way to our stomachs. The day I learned about genetically modified organisms, the day when the first GMO poultry scratch grains hit the market, the day my chickens squawked and walked around their feed but refused to eat it, the day a biplane sprayed pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the fields near our home. Rural dropped the mic, and I dismissed the meaning of idyllic. We’re becoming a rough land not made with gentle hands, fields of death under the guise of greed.
Epilogue. My farmer and I finally had that friendly chat, reminisced and measured corn. “Not six-feet high,” I told him on July 4th, “so I think you might owe me something.”
“I know,” he said, “but I’ve seen it; I tell you, I’ve seen it. Maybe I was measuring it in granddaughter feet” (she’s 2).
Here at the wall between theories prone to bending, belief lies dormant, then soars along every wishful thought, finally plunging into resignation as in a mud hole after rain.
I won the bet.
German-born, Chila Woychik is a complex organism trying to live a simple life. Kismet has led to awards from Storm Cellar and Emrys, and publication in Cimarron, Passages North, and more. She digs her metropolitan-turned-rural existence, and when she wants to see her family roll their eyes, she calls river debris “tidewrack.” www.chilawoychik.com