September 28, 2004

As modern harvest moon rises, our traditions fade

As if awakening from a long slumber, each September the harvest moon rises out of the plain and into our collective consciousness. It's something that people of the land have relied on for guidance through the centuries.

Each year during the autumnal equinox - which this time was on Sept. 23 and for the following few days - the moon gazes on us immediately after sunset, right upon the horizon. When it's a full moon, it's a brilliant sight.

In the past, the harvest moon offered a few more precious minutes of valuable light to work by for farmers putting in long hours to bring in their crops,

But then as now, the "cold-hearted orb" climbed into the sky, where it re-moved "the colors from our sight / Red is gray, and yellow white," forcing all to rest.

• • •

Some say the harvest moon looks larger than our satellite usually does, but that's merely an illusion. Objects close to the horizon appear big because we have visual cues, such as trees and buildings, with which to compare it. A moon suspended in the inky sky appears smaller because there is nothing to judge its width against.

Gaze directly up into the sky, and its top will appear flattened. The horizon edges always appear more distant.

But there's really no difference in size between the two locations. We've just evolved to judge size based on the background. It's given us a niche in nature.

• • •

Illusions can be our undoing, though. There is a belief, for example, that we cannot see well in the dark unless there is light.

Because of it, we annually spend millions of dollars artificially extending the sun into night, splaying our streets and yards with incandescence.

Granted, the night can flatten our perception, though our pupils usually widen to see well enough. But with so many glare bombs - convenience store canopies, restaurant marquees rising above freeway intersections, headlamps washing the sky rather than the asphalt with light - we too often suffer from "ac-commodation interference."

It's that moment when the eye adjusts from brightness to the dark. It's that in-stant when we're temporarily blinded, even though plenty of light shines from the moon to guide us.

• • •

In much the same way, the September harvest blinds us into thinking there is plenty. But as we churn apple butter and pull corn from its stalk, the night air sharpens its crisp bite. Win-ter is before us.

These days, not too many of us worry for food, regardless of the season. Grapes grown in Chile and strawberries plucked in Mexico allow us to enjoy seasonal fruits any time of the year.

That's the way it should be, of course. No one ever should want for food.

And yet because of it we lose our connection with the earth and its seasons. The very holidays arising from humanity's long entwining with nature lose their meaning. Why give thanks after the harvest in November when food is plentiful year round?

• • •

With each generation, we increasingly wind away from the roots of our traditions. When shedding superstitions and misconceptions along the way, this journey is fruitful. And we do not want to mindlessly carry traditions merely to possess them, as if we are characters of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," in which for no known reason a village resident is randomly selected each year for a stoning.

Where traditions are concerned, though, our society is akin to the man who has left the woods for the first time and stands upon an open plain. The wind howls about his ears as he gazes across the virgin ground. Some of the beliefs from his time in the forest remain "true" - birds appear lighter than air, the sun still is a ball of fire - but there also are new truths to be learned, about the sky's true breadth, about why a distant object upon the horizon appears large.

We've left the land of our agricultural past for the concrete of an urban future. But still the harvest moon appears each September and "we decide which is right. / And which is an illusion."

(originally published Sept. 28, 2003)

September 21, 2004

The mighty fine road of history and possibility

Coming to a railroad crossing, most drivers grumble. I myself enjoy watching the train thunder pass, the diesel locomotive hauling boxcars, gondolas, flatbeds, coal cars and tankers across the plain, exotic names like the Sante Fe, Appanoose and Norfolk adorning their sides.

Each car hints at a new adventure, like a movie teaser that doesn't tell the full story, only teases you into heading for the theater.

What's in each of those boxcars? Who are Joe and Trudy, a proclamation of their undying love spraypainted across a behemoth of a tanker? Where is Wabash anyway?

• • •

Railroads crisscrossed Iowa as far back as the 1840s. Though no railroad bridge spanned the Mississippi River, small, isolated towns on this side of the continent found they needed to be connected.

Most back then laughed at the notion of a railroad ever crossing the Mississippi. A famous verse from 1851 Iowa went: "I dreamt that a bridge of a single span / O'er the Mississippi was made. / And I also dreamt like an insane man / That the railroad there was laid."

Some people have remarkably small imaginations.

By 1854, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad finally reached Old Man River at Rock Island, Ill. Keen on continuing westward, work on the line from Davenport west soon started; in the summer of 1855, a flatboat delivered the company's first locomotive, the Antoine Le Claire, to Iowa even though no bridge connected the rail lines across the river.

Finally, in 1856 the bridge opened. It marked the beginning of this nation's earnest efforts to tame the Great Desert, known today as the world's breadbasket.

• • •

Eventually the Mississip-pi and Missouri Railroad became the Chicago Rock Island. Woody Guthrie wrote of the "Rock Island Line," a song covered by Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash.

For many, it was indeed "a mighty fine road." Streamlined cars and diesel engines of The Rock Island Rocket, the line's premier passenger train, could whisk passengers between Chicago and Iowa City in about four hours. Its locomotives hit speeds of 110 miles per hour while cutting past the cornfields.

But the modern highway and car soon reduced the railroad's power. People quit using passenger trains, preferring to drive. After World War II, the U.S. Post Office quit delivering mail by train, opting for trucks and airplanes.

These days, the Rock Island Line exists only in song and the elaborate miniatures of model railroaders. Its cars were sold almost 20 years ago when the company folded.

• • •

Several decades ago, the powers-that-be tried to bring the railroads crashing down. In May 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton crashed into Rock Island's new river span. The wooden bridge caught fire; billowing smoke could be seen for miles.

Adding insult to injury, the Effie Afton's captain sued the railroad company, saying the bridge was a menace to river navigation. Indeed it was. Trains were far faster and offered more traveling options than did the river-bound steamboat industry.

Springfield, Ill., lawyer Abraham Lincoln defended the Rock Island Line, arguing that "There is travel from east to west, whose demands are not less important than that of any river." He closed his case with lines often referred to by speakers trying to win an audience: "He said he had much more to say," the Chicago Daily News reported, "many things he could suggest to the jury, but he would close to save time."

Lincoln won the case.

• • •

The towns that most of us went to school in, that many of us grew up in, that many of us now tell stories to our children and colleagues about, for the most part owe their existence to the railroad. Where trains went in the 1800s, towns sprang up.

Mapleton is one such Iowa community.

Settlers formed a town on the west side of the Maple River in 1857. But 20 years later, when the Northwestern Railroad was laid along the river's east side, most of the village's residents and businesses pulled up stakes, relocating across the river.

The same phenomenon is happening today as towns slide toward interstate highways, the modern equivalent of the mighty railroad. Think of Iowa City residents and businesses leaving the Iowa River's east side for the Interstates 80 and 380 crossroads.

At one time, after all, some people said a mall never would go over in Iowa City.

(originally published Sept. 21, 2003)

September 14, 2004

Waiting for our land to turn moist and green again

There are times when a man looks to the sky, and the approaching thunder and lightning cause him to smile with joy.

For many Iowans, that time has come. The state suffered its driest August in history, the National Weather Service reports. The parched heat wilted soybeans and shriveled much of the corn west of Iowa City. Across the state, towns that draw their drinking water from rivers are watching to see if the flow decreases.

Some longtime farmers, peeling back the papery husks of their corn's thin ears, wonder if it's not time to give it up, to retire a few years early, or to search for a job in town, working a few more years than planned to make up the lost dollars.

• • •

Ironically, a good number of people came to Iowa because of drought.

In 1854, drought and an ensuing widespread cholera epidemic propelled many living in the Ohio Valley to head for Iowa. Promoters of our sparsely populated state promised a better and healthier place to live.

And so the newcomers came, many by boat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, then upstream along Old Man River. The "port cities" - Keokuk, Burlington, Davenport, Muscatine and Dubuque - thrived from the human stream, most of which filtered inland to start new farms and towns.

• • •

Almost 15 decades later, much of that bountiful land yields dead corn stalks, which sport ears only because genetics and biotechnology have created breeds of early-maturing plants. If not for modern science, the cobs would be as curled as the dried ground at the stalks' roots.

But Mother Nature finds ways to express her cruelty. These past weeks, there have been rare thunderstorms in Iowa in which spurts of heavy rain left behind "sweet spots" of lush green sometimes just a mile away from a desiccated field.

In the past, such sweet spots would not have lasted long. Plagues of grasshoppers would have swept out of the west to devour the dead grains and feast on the green along the way.

• • •

Among the forgotten years when that occurred is the Drought of 1894. It was so devastating that any time historians write about it, they must use capital letters.

R.K. Bliss, speaking during a 1965 radio program, was 13 the year of that drought. Living in central Iowa, Bliss and his brother drove their head of cattle 25 and 29 miles across Iowa that summer in search of feed and water.

"I worked steadily all spring, summer and fall pumping water, hauling water, dipping water out of wells for livestock, and helping to save all possible feed for the winter," Bliss said. "We cut no hay, had to depend on corn fodder.

"It was a year of difficult problems, which ... were as important to me and my education as any subsequent year in college or university."

Two decades after that drought, Bliss became the Iowa Cooperative Extension Service's first director. He served from 1914 to 1946, a key figure in transforming the state's farming economy through the use of hybrid corn, conservation and other new ideas.

• • •

In the cities these past few weeks, most of our lawns have browned and yellowed. It's a mixed blessing: Unsightly front yards, but we can leave the lawn mowers in the tool shed.

Across much of the Great Plains this year, some farmers won't bother to move their combines. There's nothing to harvest.

Farmers suffering the worst say they're not dwell-ing on the loss. There's nothing they can do about a drought. They must simply remain determined to go on as long as they can.

• • •

Of course, when most hear "drought," what comes to mind is the Dust Bowl, when clouds of black whirl-ed upon the horizon, bearing dark hopelessness. In Iowa, the worse of it stretched from 1934 to 1936, destroying both crops and livestock. A long and severe winter - a cold drought of dry air - killed even more cattle and shortened the growing season in 1936.

That last summer was "the year we got 'dried out,'" said Amanda Koester Lamp, who grew up near Aspin-wall.

"We had 200 acres of corn ... which my two brothers and I picked by ourselves," Lamp said. "The crop that year was so poor that we could work all morning and not fill the bottom of the wagon."

• • •

Any given year, drought, flood, hail, wind, insects, fungus and a host of other natural disasters can destroy a crop. With it, though, go human lives - not just a few families out on the prairie but whole towns that depend upon the surrounding farms to support their livelihoods.

This autumn through next spring, there will be more auctions of farm equipment than usual as the latest drought ends many dreams. Some will say it's just an acceleration of rural America's inevitable decline.

I like to think, though, not of the end a drought can bring but of those years after 1894 when the land turned moist and green again. It's a good image to keep in one's head whenever faced with adversity.

Certainly, it must be the vision of those farmers who are determined to go on as long as they can.

(originally published Sept. 14, 2003)

September 07, 2004

To find our values, we must look beyond the literal

Most of us know a place where our values can be found. These locales, usually deep from our past, don't directly shout their significance to others or us; instead, like an impressionistic painting they live in us through their poignancy.

In Iowa, as across the Midwest, one such place is the farm.

• • •

Gazing across a verdant field as harvest approaches, many can recall the stories of determination, of incredible privation, to which our parents or grandparents held tight so they could survive year after year, just to build their stead. After more than a century of hard work between generations, such homesteads in the Midwest can stretch hundreds of acres about a clapboard farmhouse.

Often those homes were constructed during the First World War's high prices and good times. Many farmers deliberately designed them so the front door faced the churning windmill that constantly shifted in the ever changing but always present breeze.

Just beyond the farmhouse and windmill will sit a red barn and crumbling granary, each added following the next great war. Two decades after that, when many of us were just children, a pole shed and modern silos were erected, their silver caps glowing in both day and moonlight, as if stars.

Surrounding the home farm, broad fields cross the prairie swell for half a mile in every direction. All spring, golden sunshine warms and rain moistens the black soil, and by early summer the wind blows in the heady scent of blossoming green. Through summer and aut-umn, those same winds carry the bawling of white-headed cattle let loose to graze upon the dormant crop.

Wire fences mark the boundaries of these farms; sometimes a shallow creek outlines the fourth side. Along that stream, where the grass never shrivels from the hot winds, lay the remnants of the first family homestead, of which nothing is left but decayed wood and an ill osage orange tree, tough-wooded and bushy in branches only.

• • •

Though there were moments of deep cursing, every family member loved the land and was proud of their farm. And it never meant more than during those years of struggle, when sliding corn, bean, wheat or milk prices conspired with ever-rising costs to destroy the spread just as blizzards, dust bowls and locusts had dealt devastating blows to our forefathers.

Of course, a cow could be replaced, the soil replenished and the crops replanted. It is not always so with our inspirations, though.

• • •

Some people prefer to live in the vanilla world of numbers and hard facts. Granted, those aspects of human existence can not be ignored.

But to forsake the expressionistic elements permeating humanity is to deny the way each of us finds strength, joy and meaningfulness in a universe that is not entirely fair or always fruitful.

Sometimes to find value, we must look beyond the literal. It isn't just a corn stalk, a fence post or a barn, after all.

• • •

To wit: A former colleague. Though an adult living in the big city, she always remained proud of having grown up on a farm, boasted of being a country girl through and through from her first pair of bib overalls as a toddler until those summers of her college years when she ran errands to town for combine parts.

She loved the wind's sound and hung chimes upon her parents' porch to capture it. Through the day and into the night, those hollow bars sang magically, as if fairy dust flung from a wand.

But of all the composers she loved, her favorite was the windmill. She said its purling reminded her of a beating heart.

(published Sept. 7, 2003)