May 30, 2005

Victorians mean more than wealth

Though built as a sign of opulence, today a Victorian house stands for something far more significant. Indeed, true Victorians were raised more than a century ago, and that they still stand at all says much.

Most of us associate such homes with San Francisco, but they were built all across Iowa and the Midwest as well. Our cities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers - Keokuk and Council Bluffs most notably come to mind - are dotted with these grand old dames. But they're even here in Iowa City and out in land-locked Fairfield.

These days, lovers of Victorians spend years re-storing them, convert them into beds and breakfasts so the rest of us may indulge ourselves for a night, and seek national historic registry to prevent them from ever being demolished. These efforts arise from a love for those ornate homes with their elaborate floor designs, so different from the simple farmhouses and ranches in which many of us grew up. The whimsical coloring of a Victorian's exterior balances its interior elegance.

Why, calling a Victorian home is like living in a full-scale dollhouse.


What is most remarkable about a Victorian home is its bulwark quality. Oftentimes the mansard tower rises like a castle turret. The walls, often made of redwood, mahogany or the finest oak, remain sturdy.

For frontier Iowa's pioneers, who would patch together a quick shelter out of sod and rough-hewn wood, then a year or two later, once they'd earned a little from their first harvest, would buy lumber and build a slightly more permanent structure, a Victorian must have meant more than wealth, however.

It was a statement against the very forces of nature that caused their log homes to lean, their unshingled cabins to leak, the boards placed across dirt floors to buckle.

Just as a family's plow would split open the earth and force it to bear fruits so they might survive in the continental wilderness, so a Victorian with its foundation permanently planted in the soil signified a mighty great of the elements.


Not too far from the farm where I grew up, a couple of sections away and out near the railroad tracks stood a Victorian house, built back in the 1870s by the son of Mathias Sutherland, our township's first white settler.

For all those years, the stalwart Victorian remained horridly vulnerable amid the unending sky and summer corn. Whenever seeing it, my hair bristled at the thought that it had endured for all those years without a twister's banshee roar toppling it. Sometimes as the school bus paused at the tracks, I'd ponder if perhaps its time was near.

In the late afternoon glow, cold, purple shadows fell across the side of the house askance from the sunlight as the other remained bathed in warmth. It ironically had outlasted even the name of the man who built it. Then the bus would bump over the tracks, passing the old dame, its glass windows steely with shadow and light.

The house still stands to this day.


Victorians came in a variety of styles - Federal, Greek, Gothic and Italianate houses were common in the 1850s. Second Empire, Eastlake, Queen Anne and Neo-Classical styles were popular from the end of the Civil War until the early 1900s.

Often, as is typical of us country bumpkin Americans, we mixed styles, preferring to assert our individualism through preferences and tastes to some pre-ordained sense of aesthetics established by the elites.

Like those pioneers who broke new ground despite the scourge of grasshopper, blizzard and dust storm, that stubborn refusal to yield manifested itself in the very structures that some chose to live.

It is ironic that such homes today are associated with being priggish, prim and even prissy.

(originallypublished May 30, 2004)

May 29, 2005

Spend a few hours staring at the sky

The days finally have grown warm enough to gaze for long hours at the sky. Of course, there are amateur astronomers who brave any weather to locate a specific star or galaxy for those few short hours it is visible on a January night, and sometimes I have been among them. But there is a grander and ironically more personal perspective that one gains by taking in the whole sky as it covers the Earth.

Often during childhood we've reclined on a slope and as staring at the clouds above, pondering such questions as what are clouds made of, why do they float and why is the sky blue. Science now offers such answers. Yet, even in adulthood, resting upon a knoll still can raise our sense of wonder.

Here on the Great Plains, we have an added advantage. There are no mountains as out West or high hills like in the East to block our vista. When we gaze upward, the great enormousness of the sky surrounds us, making the stretches of corn hugging the good earth miniscule in comparison.


I recommend resting on a knoll during the early morning hours, when the stars still puncture the black sky with light and the moon reigns great and noble over it all. Though right before our eyes, stars remain elusive, out of hand's reach. Even if we could magically grab one, it might not be there. The brightest star, Sirius, is so far away that its light takes 8.5 years to reach us; what we see low on the horizon is how the star looked in 1996. And Sirius is among the closer stars.

Eventually, the stars begin to fade. They're still present; the earth just has turned far enough that our side of the world begins to face the sun. Its glare, every second equal in energy to a year's output of every one of our largest power plants, washes this small planet in ambient light; amid it, we could no more see the stars than we might a firefly in front of a searchlight.

Slowly, as our small section of the world comes to fully face the sun, a red then orange glow covers the horizon. Dawn spreads over the homes of men.

A blend of notes fills the morning sky as life awakens. The smell, too, of the world changes while the dew evaporates.

As the sun rises, burning the hillside, the breeze grows warmer. Life begins to quiet as the heat slows our muscles and the young ones have been fed. We can hear our breathing again.


Fair warning: There are those who will say you have wasted time reclining upon that knoll. Such people often are more concerned with money and other man-made fabrications that quantify existence, like a child madly insistent upon naming all objects. How can staring at the sky be measured with green bills in a wallet, electronic blips on a computer screen or pencil marks in a ledger?

Such people spend too much time looking in the wrong direction. As Rachel Carson wrote, "It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility."


Of course, one cannot contemplate forever. It's best to rise once the sun ascends fully into the sky.

Before doing so, look to the ground beside your head, though. There may be an ant looking up at you from its tiny mound.

Perhaps it has been sitting there all morning, too.

(originally published May 29, 2005)

May 25, 2005

Planting values, character in the next generation

Every April, my father with the heel of his workboot dug at the black soil around a cut cornstalk. Kneeling, he'd scoop the upturned dirt into a hand, examine it.

As he opened his palm, the dirt sifted across the air like a swarm of gnats falling to earth. "It's almost ready," he said, "maybe a week off."

Only seven years old, I stared blankly at him.

He motioned for me to come down to his level. "Go ahead, pick up a handful," he said. "Roll it around in your fingers, feel its texture. And remember it. Next week we'll check it again, and you'll see how different the soil is."

And he was right - a week later it was drier yet more pungent. That morning, my father hooked up the plow and started another season of planting.

• • •

Such a scene has been repeated between father and son for thousands of years before it happened to me. The crops were different but feeling the dirt in one's hands always was a necessity for people. It meant the difference between starvation and a bountiful harvest, between boyhood and being a man.

Farmers sometimes relied on other methods to tell when they should plant: a river's depth, the stars' position, an almanac's forecast. In Iowa, farmers waited for the return of golden plover before planting; the hardy little songbird flies 20,000 miles roundtrip from sub-Arctic Canada to Argentina then back again, stopping to rest in Iowa roughly the last week of April.

But that's not always the perfect predictor. As occurred this year in Iowa, rain can turn fields into bogs, delaying planting.

And the later planting comes, the more the anxiety. It means lower yields, a greater chance of crop loss from wind or late summer drought. A late harvest raises the other bookend of threats, such as an early freeze.

But rarely does a farmer ever see a perfect season; it's almost always too wet or too dry somewhere along the way. The moral: Take it day by day, week by week.

• • •

Iowa's earliest farmers planted these crops by hand. They "broadcast" or scattered their seed in the air as walking across the field. It wasn't until the 1870s that quality mechanized planters came to Iowa.

That resulted in surplus crops of wheat, barley, oats and rye. Then in the early 1900s, Iowan scientist Henry A. Wallace developed a variety of hybrid corn. His crop was perfect for the landscape and transformed it.

Raising corn was quite different from raising wheat. Corn had to be planted later in spring and harvested later in fall. It required a new feel for the soil.

Corn also grew best in perfectly aligned rows. Staying on the "straight and narrow" became a matter of pride for farmers.

• • •

Before the days of modern farm machinery, boys learned to plow, plant and harvest when quite young. From a father's point of view, there was no better way to teach his son how to set goals and the value of working hard to reach them.

Such character traits as strict morality with a just sense of obedience, social and public duty gave a man direction to live by. And as with any successful spiritual or political movement, it promised reward for such labor and self-discipline.

Indeed, as the fictional farmer-hero Jurnjakob Swehn says in the 19th century book "Letters of a German American Farmer": "My dear friend ... you see how it all came true for a kid off the sandy land of Hornkaten in Mecklenburg who dreamed of having two herds of cows as he moved out into foreign parts. Now we have plenty of everything, plenty of land and livestock.

"And it all cost plenty of sweat."

• • •

As the number of people growing up on farms declines, such values are not easy to instill in youth. Until a boy experiences the joy of keeping a straight line or knows that life depends on sensing the minute ways dirt can feel in his hands, how could he understand the value of a strict morality?

Yearning for some type of truth, many now turn back to the earth, but not as a farmer does. Instead, they herald nature in its original condition.

Iowa's farmers and their urban descendants were quite thorough in overturning the state's original prairie. Less than 0.1 percent of tallgrass stands remain.

Some of it exists in pioneer cemeteries. The state's first farmers typically picked plots of purple and yellow wildflowers with green grass and flashes of white mint for their final resting places.

There is a certain irony that almost all that remains of the prairie holds the bones of the very people who broke the wide plains into wheat then corn fields.

• • •

These days my father no longer farms, and my livelihood depends upon computer chips and the electronic flow of information.

But every once in a while when taking a walk, I like to kick at the dirt with my foot and scoop up a handful of it, just to see if it's ready for planting.

(originally published May 25, 2003)

May 23, 2005

Recalling where we came from

This decade, Iowa technically became more "urban" than "rural." Though the farms have grown fewer and larger, the state at its heart is grange country. And they hardly anymore are the fabled pictures of a red barn, running windmill and a dozen different breeds of animals so often shown in children's books.

There is one constant: Since the first day Adam was condemned to toil the red earth, life on a farm has consisted of extremes. Summers grow so hot that a man's body seems to melt as working while winter numbs exposed skin within seconds. And a few, brief weeks between those seasons often are most vital to success: The soil must be neither too moist nor too dry in spring, and the crop can be neither undergrown nor too ripe in autumn. To the urban passerby who sees a field of ripe corn swaying in the breeze or the farmer's wife lugging a basket of strawberries into the house for hulling, the troubles of those who till the land are well masked.

Ironically, as we migrate to our concrete form of Eden a new extreme is created: modern man's disconnection from the Earth and correspondingly the fount of ideas from which we struggle to make choices today.

(originally published May 23, 2004)

May 22, 2005

Deciding against preemptive strike on discovered snake

While hiking along the Iowa River the other day, I decided to cut through grass in need of mowing. The trail formed a U, with the bottom curve washed out.

I only got halfway through the grass when I froze.

A snake, a light stripe running down its brown back, lay half curled like a scythe. I hadn't heard it slithering my way, but as we stared at one another, its whispered "Sssss!" sounded like a thunderclap.

We each stood our ground, a foot apart from the other, it unwilling to take on a creature as large as me, I unwilling to gamble against its speed and neither of us willing to turn our backs on the other.

My heart pounded loud enough that I couldn't hear the wind blowing the grass tops in great swells. The heat of the sun on that otherwise pleasant day only grew as sweat trickled down the back of my neck. I wished for a good hoe.


Iowa pioneers killed snakes by the thousands during our state's early years. Throughout May, settlers frequently reported snakes sunning themselves in field furrows or the paths cut through the grass between cabin and road.

Often when pioneers cleared land or went grubbing, a concealed snake would bite. Cows and dogs also were frequent victims. There simply wasn't enough room for snake and man.

While rattlers, blacksnakes, blue racers and the common garter proved too resilient to be wiped out, in time persistent pioneers did significantly reduce their ranges.


Sometimes pioneers found bull snakes in their cabins, ironically curled against shelf-laden Bibles. I suspect a few settlers found some cosmological significance in this juxtaposition.

There also are accounts of strapping young farm hands who grew hysterical in the presence of snakes. Such men weren't cowards. Most of us have an instinctual repulsion at the sight of snakes. It runs deep in our evolutionary history, and other primates have the same reaction.

Thanks to the power of reason, we fortunately can overcome - or at least control - our fear. It's a matter of learning about them, of spending time near them, even if they're still on the other side of the glass. We don't have to like snakes, just acknowledge that they're not inherently evil.

After all, while a serpent did tempt in the garden, humanity of its own choosing bit into the apple. Man, not snake, is responsible for our fall.

And the pride that won't let us admit we have no one to blame but ourselves is the most dangerous evil of all.


These days, snakes aren't the threat they were in pioneer times. As we've modified the landscape to fit our needs, we've wiped out the habitats many native species required for their prey to thrive; some of them consider our suburban lawns and cornfields great wastelands.

I doubted the snake in the grass before me was poisonous; certainly I'd have heard if a venomous snake were common in the area. And it was only a couple of feet long at best. Still, a black V under its eye that ran to the mouth gave it a sinister appearance, like Darth Vader's mask.

But I had scared this snake just as much as it had me. The notion of striking it with a hoe suddenly seemed as repulsive as the snake itself.


The snake and I had to end our standoff, though. My hope was that if I didn't move, it wouldn't be startled and strike.

After a few seconds of waiting for me to attack, it made a fast break into the grass. Perhaps if I would have lived 150 years ago, I'd have come back for it and its brethren with hoe in hand.

But there was no point other than to later pound my chest. After all, it just wanted to be left alone.

(originally published May 22, 2005)

May 18, 2005

Iowa’s greatest hero offers hope from our imaginations

This month Iowans celebrate the birthday of our greatest native son - Captain James T. Kirk.

Although yet to be born, Kirk is the first earth commander to successfully reach the edge of the galaxy and return (he did it twice), and the first earth commander to reach the galaxy's center. He successfully repulsed V'Ger, Nomad, the whale probe and the doomsday machine before they reached earth, prevented various potential wars with Romulans, Gorns, Klingons and a variety of other alien races, is the youngest starship captain in history, and is the only cadet to ever beat the "no-win" Kobayashi Maru test (he reprogrammed the test software). He also was involved in 17 different temporal violations, but they all were for the better.

Wait a minute, you say, Captain Kirk was born in March - it says so right on the memorial marker in downtown Riverside!

Well, not so fast. Accord-ing to an archive kept at the University of Manitoba, Andrew Main's detailed analysis of stardates, "Stardates in Star Trek FAQ," argues that Kirk was born May 7 - not March 22 as the Riverside marker records.

And Main should be taken seriously. He's developed software that will help you calculate stardates for any day (

• • •

I'd sometimes gaze up at the night sky and wonder as a child at the myriad of stars stretching around me. Just what was out there?

Watching Walter Cronkite each night on television tell of war, murder, corruption and disease, I confidently believed there had to be something better. Or at least something different.

And if those worlds were-n't as well off, perhaps we could do for them what we weren't doing here on earth: Helping others improve their lives.

There once was a "Star Trek" episode in which a child sat against a tree watching the night sky, dreaming of starships and adventures as a falling star flashes past. I once was that kid.

Somehow I think Jim Kirk was, too.

• • •

That James T. Kirk should be born in Riverside is fitting. The University of Iowa long ago constructed an observatory near the small village.

Kirk also is an intriguing mixture of this area's political philosophies. He possesses Iowa City's liberal views regarding tolerance, diversity and the Prime Directive (Don't interfere with those cultures less developed than you.). Yet, he frequently acted like the conservatives who make up Iowa's farm country: He had no problem violating the Prime Directive if it meant bringing freedom to op-pressed sentient beings or to prevent a perceived threat to the Federation.

But Kirk's Riverside connection goes deeper than that. There is the isolation of rural life, of being too far away from anyone to talk to. All day long, there is nothing upon the horizon but empty fields and open sky. At night, there is only the solitary light of a distant farmhouse.

But in the starry sky, the lights are many.

• • •

None of the filmed "Star Trek" shows or movies ever indicated Captain Kirk was born in Riverside.

The writer's guide for the original series did say he was from Iowa. And in Star Trek IV (the whale movie, for non-fans), he admitted "I'm from Iowa. I just work in outer space."

Riverside decided to snatch this claim to fame in the 1980s, and now several Star Trek books and the series' official Web site, www., lists Riverside as Kirk's birthplace. The village offers a gate marking his birthplace, and there's a stone monument beyond that.

But nowhere in the series is Captain Kirk's birthdate ever given as March 22. That's actually the birthdate of William Shatner, the actor who played Kirk. But alas - the University of Manitoba archive aside - March 22 has been listed as well on the official Web site as Kirk's birthdate.

• • •

Captain Kirk is by far more a man of our century rather than the 23rd. His personality traits are a humanist version of the cowboy. Kirk is self-disciplined and possesses immense willpower. A man of duty, he won't be intimidated or bullied. He has a sense of right and wrong, is chivalrous and of deep conviction. He is courageous, brave and fearless in the face of imminent danger, a man of honor and of great dignity (indeed, he never sulks or whines about unfair situations). Decisive, he thinks on his feet and is loyal to his friends.

Yet while riding through the stars, he is tolerant, compassionate and merciful. He thinks of others before himself.

And he possesses a wry sense of humor. You'd have to, growing up amid the cornfields and then wandering the stars in the craft that could blow a planet to smithereens.

• • •

So what does Kirk's life tell us of eastern Iowa's future?

It says there still are farms in Iowa even in the 23rd century. When Kirk ad-mits he's from Iowa, he's teasingly called "farm boy." His face turns red. Like many Iowans, he's silently ashamed of his unsophisticated, agricultural heritage.

If Kirk is small town, that means Iowa City's urban sprawl has not yet reached Riverside in 2233. County officials no doubt still are developing the North Cor-ridor 220 years from now.

When 17, Kirk leaves for Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, maintains an apartment there, then retires to the Rockies. His brother, Sam, moves to the planet Deneva. Yes, Iowa still suffers a brain drain problem in the 23rd century.

Kirk also is able to quote everyone from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence with eloquence. So Iowa still has a darn good education system, too.

• • •

Near the end of Army basic training, I found myself running out of energy at the 40th pushup of our 2-minute P.T. test. To pass, there were an improbable four pushups to go in about 20 seconds.

The drill sergeant leaned into my face. "Not going to make it are you, Bignell?" he said. A sly grin eased across his swarthy face.

My arms strained not to collapse as I thought of the embarrassment I'd be to my fellow soldiers. I imagined my father and brother and uncles shamefully glancing away as I returned home, kicked out of bootcamp. I heard the laughter of every girl who'd turned me down for a date, of every bully who'd mocked me.

Then I thought of Captain Kirk. I knocked out 10 more push-ups before the P.T. sergeant shouted "Time!" through his megaphone.

• • •

May 7 or March 22, what does it matter? As a history professor once proclaimed during a lecture to my freshman class, "The dates mean less than the impact a man has on the world."

Or in this case, is it "will have"?

SIDEBAR: James Kirk Facts

• Name: James T. Kirk

• Serial Number: SC937-0176 CEC

• Date of birth: March 22 (or May 7), 2233

• Place of birth: Riverside, Iowa, Earth

• Heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Captain Garth

(originally published May 18, 2003)

May 16, 2005

Unintended consequence of the war against silence

There's a certain peace in hiking to a distant spot amid the woods, or even a field, to a place where the only sound is the wind rustling through oak leaves or corn tassels, accompanied by the quick buzz of a dragonfly on its way to a pond.

Plenty of such locales exist; anyone who says otherwise hasn't spent much time in the Southwest desert, the Rockies or even a roadside in rural Iowa. But such places are becoming increasingly rare. At one time, we could live in a place where other than the shuffle of our feet, the sounds of nature were all that we'd hear for hours on end.

"Soon silence will have passed into legend," sculptor, painter and poet Jean Arp wrote during the early 20th century. "Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation ... "


We are conducting a war against silence - a quiet, secret war, at that. There are the obvious battleships such as interstate highways and housing developments, but these behemoths ironically can bring their own moments of peace, through the noise-free car and a room of one's own that we would not find if thousands of us were forced to bicycle at the same time to and from cramped apartments.

No, the war against silence runs much deeper than those superficial contentions.

Real noise comes from 24/7 cable television reports full of the power-hungry advocating violence and of angry hosts searching for ratings. It comes from flashing ads and pop-up boxes when we log onto the Inter-net. It looms, like a semi-truck speeding from behind, in elevator and shopping Muzak. It interrupts our sleep and meals with telemarketers' phone calls. It is a flyer stuck to our windshield.

It is anything that distracts us from peace of mind by attracting our attention to the irrelevant and meaningless. Unlike a passing dragonfly, its four thin wings fluttering rapidly as the blue body darts past, noise offers no delight.


While our own silence can be appalling and is all too common, being able to take refuge in a world of quiet for at least a few hours a day is a necessity.

We must, for some time, let ourselves reside in the real rather than the artificial promises cast about in noise.

"What is meant by 'reality'?" Virginia Woolf once mused. "It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable - now to be found in a dusty road ... now a daffodil in the sun. ... It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech ... (It) is what re-mains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge ..."


Noise's aim is to wear us down. Like Chinese water torture in which a drop is splashed against our heads over and over and over, we are bombarded with distorted objectifications of political thought, Viagra ads and art devoid of purpose except to fill space.

Such detritus soon becomes dangerously addictive. We hunger to know about the next stupid idea "they" came up with, begin to wonder if we somehow are sexually incomplete, soon believe that if a thing challenges our understanding of the world it must in some way be subversive.

But humans are remarkably resilient. We become media savvy, adopt cynicism to ward against the noise.

And that is the unintended consequence of all the clamor: We lose our sense of intimacy with the world around us. The field and patch of woods becomes dull; the dragonfly's lazy wanderings are viewed as a waste of time unworthy of our attention.

In that dark moment, our world grows increasingly small - far smaller than any new street or row of houses ever could make it.

(originally published May 16, 2004)

May 15, 2005

Where having 'no regrets' can lead us

Back in fifth-grade, Billy Honecker proudly told the whole class that he had no regrets. Of course, he was young, but all of us felt a little guilty about something. Abbie felt sorry about hitting her sister during an argument. Jimmy apologized for lying to his mother about doing some chore when he hadn't. Wendy wished she'd invited a classmate to her birthday party.

"What a bunch of sorry saps," Billy exclaimed as we sat about our rural school playground, growing a little gray in mood as if we were in a confession booth. "Your little sister probably deserved to be hit," Billy said. "And you didn't get caught telling a little fib, right? And who cares that four-eyed Charlie feels sorry for himself because he didn't get invited?"

He marched off, stood atop a knoll and gazed into the distance, as if to get a better view of the horizon. He reminded me of a bronze statue, that hero standing perfect and cold above everyone else.

As we grow taller and older, I suspect our sense of regret often expands. It covers not jut the bad stuff we know our parents wouldn't be proud of but those poor decisions we made, the ones that left us in a lesser state. I don't mean choices that kept us from landing a better job or ruined a date but those that seemingly protected us but only hurt the ones who love us.

Mom and dad can reprimand us for sibling fights and not doing chores without personally feeling hurt. But leaving out Charlie, just because he's the butt of jokes, would make most parents anxious about the job they'd done.

Jimmy gazed with awe at Billy's apparent strength of will, then watched him descend the knoll and head toward whatever vision he saw in the cornfield. Petals from the schoolyard's magnolia tree fluttered about him in the wind like snow.

I didn't believe Billy, though at the time I couldn't put why into words. Now I know: How could anyone never have regrets, unless he lacked a conscience?

(originally published Sunday, May 15, 2005)

May 11, 2005

Know your family's past — your future depends on it

This week marks an important holiday in my household. Syttende Mai - Norway's Independence Day - falls on Saturday.

For my Norwegian wife, about the only holiday of any more importance is Christmas. For me, being mainly of English descent, I shudder at the notion of Norsemen having any freedom whatsoever, I see Vikings storming my ancestors' shores, burning villages and looting churches.

But all of that is in the past. Besides, what's important now is familial bliss.

• • •

Recently, after reading Mark Salzman's novel "The Laughing Sutra," I'm reminded of how important a sense of the past and of family history can be to one's identity. Salzman tells the story of an adopted Chinese boy who has no idea who his biological parents are. With no sense of where he came from, the boy finds himself isolated.

Statements such as "Your grandfather was just like that" lack meaning in a world where habits and behaviors are not definably inherited or learned. This week, that knowledge particularly strikes me as my wife, being adopted, only knows for certain that her heritage is Norwegian.

Understanding the past strengthens our sense of who we are today. Consider Alex Haley's obsessive search for his roots. For Haley, a descendant of slaves, it was a catharsis.

• • •

Indeed, whenever I find a situation before me overwhelming, I invariably think of my Bignell ancestors who first came to the New World. Having suffered through a series of devastating grain crop failures in 1840s England, they loaded a ship with few possessions and no money to forever leave behind the land, family and friends they knew.

On their journey, violent storms whipped across the Atlantic; the youngest children were tied to the ship mists so they would not be blown overboard. Certainly if they could survive that, I can weather whatever life in our convenience-oriented modern times throws at me.

After arriving at a Canadian seaport, my ancestors were content to farm the land for the next five generations, first taking on wheat then cornfields. Despite the disasters that propelled them across an ocean, despite their travails in coming here, they knew what mattered: a piece of land to raise their children and to grow old upon.

Their small pleasures came from family and the satisfaction that their labors would ensure the continuation of that happiness. It's a lesson I always remind myself of whenever my head begins to twitch with the notion that I'm not moving up the corporate ladder quite fast enough.

• • •

The past also can tell something about where we're headed. The present, after all, does not occur in a vacuum. It's predicated on what we did yesterday, last month and the year before.

Our decision to ignore others' feelings about our actions often only leads to tragedy - our failure to predict Sept. 11 or to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely is based on viewing the past as a series of dates and facts rather than an ocean of passions and emotion lapping at the shore of the present.

Of course, there also is the biological advantage of knowing one's past: various ailments and diseases often prove hereditary. In my case, each first son of every third Bignell son, for at least the past five generations, has fathered twins (Which I'm told can be quite a bundle). So far, my wife and I have elected not to have children.

Guess which son I am in the family line.

• • •

If you haven't looked at your family's past, you ought to.

Yes, there might be some embarrassments (Everybody's first cousins married one another in the 1800s, OK?), but in those stories also are great tales that hold the secrets of who we are and who we ought to be. Even the most seemingly dull lives carry such truths.

Indeed, my great-great-great grandmother raised 12 children, but on her grave are words about perseverance and loyalty that reach into the 21st century for their wisdom: "Having finished Life's Duty she now steadily rests."

(originally published May 11, 2003)

May 09, 2005

Combating that cycle of fear-loathing harming us all

There was something odd about Matthew Fisher, I thought back in second-grade. He was a nice kid, yet nobody really got along with him - except for me.

Matthew possessed a good sense of humor and a boy's love of adventure that turns a cornfield into a jungle. If you dropped your books, he'd kneel and help you gather them together; if you forgot your lunch money, he'd share his fish sticks and cupcake with you.

Maybe it was his darker complexion, jet-black hair and slight squint, I surmised one day, but that didn't make sense. There were classmates with pointy chins, goofy big ears and blackened teeth who had more friends than Matthew.

We most enjoyed playing "Star Trek" together. The jungle gym became our starship. Matthew always wanted the role of Mr. Sulu, which I did consider a little odd but was fine by me so long as I, a Midwestern farm boy, got to play Captain Kirk.

Even in those days of learning basic multiplication and the world's continents, I had a hankering to write. After penning one space adventure, I let Matthew read it, knowing he'd be appreciative. He liked it and asked if I'd write another, this one about Mr. Sulu.

I scratched my head. Why would anybody read about anyone but Captain Kirk?


The original series of "Star Trek" had less to do with swashbuckling and special effects than politics, but there was just enough of the former to lure a kid who didn't know any better. At worst, the messages could be quite overt - about overpopulation, slavery and bush wars - but at its best, the themes were quite subtle.

Most notable was the bridge crew. Sure, an all-American boy from Iowa ran the ship. But surrounding him was an Asian helmsman, a black communications of-ficer, a half-alien science officer, and a Russian (our Cold War enemy!) navigator. On the decks below was a Southern doctor.

Considering this, hanging out with Matthew Fisher hardly was odd to me. On my favorite show, white people and Asians worked together as friends all the time.


Matthew's father had served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and married a woman from Saigon. When his tour of duty was up, she came with him stateside.

How out of place Matthew's mother must have felt in the middle of a small farming community settled generations before by Germans and a couple of Irish families, thousands of miles from her family homeland, from which only bad news spilled nightly out of Walter Cronkkite's anchored reports.

One autumn day in second-grade, a classmate suddenly parted from his friends, who stood behind some low shrubs, and accused Matthew's "people" of killing his uncle. Matthew just remained quiet, his pupils dilating just as did Captain Kirk's crew's when confronted by a monster. He tensed.

"That's stupid," I said. "His dad fought in the Army."

The accusatory boy smirked like a wolf that knows its prey is weakening and said, "He's even worse - a traitor to his own people!" Then the boy walked away, though later in the day some of his friends called me a "gook lover" when the teacher wasn't looking.


A few days ago, I met with members of the University of Iowa's American Sign Language Club to talk about the newspaper. I hadn't felt so uncomfortable in years.

Unbeknownst to me, many of the club's members were deaf. So, the club president said she'd sign. As she did, the majority of the club watched her - not me.

Having participated in de-bate and forensics through high school and college, let me tell you that there is nothing more disconcerting to a public speaker than the audience not making eye contact with you. That sense of being ignored, no matter how much you modulate your voice or gesture or try to make eye contact is disconcerting. I was thrown out of my realm.

And in retrospect, I'm quite glad for that.

They weren't ignoring me, of course. But knowing what it feels like to be the odd man out every once in a while never hurts any of us.


The night before, a new friend of mine walked across the Pentacrest to his classroom, where I was to give a presentation about newspapers and diversity. Hani asked me, "Why do some people have to put others down for their color or religion?"

"Fear," I said, a bit to his surprise.

Rewind back to second grade. After the confrontation with the boy who'd accused him of being a traitor and murderer, Matthew told me he hated him.

And all of these years later, I understand that in truth what was odd about Matthew: He was a boy of good conscience who fell into the trap.

(originally published May 9, 2004)

May 08, 2005

'May 8' more than a mere brunch for mom

It's certainly fitting that this year Mother's Day falls on May 8. Today also is the 60th anniversary of VE day, marking the end of war in Europe.

But our story begins many years before, in France.


During World War I, a mother of a future Iowa Citian lost three sons when Germany invaded France. But her son-in-law, a member of the Presbyterian clergy, survived two years of frontline battles.

His friend, also a minister, traveled to Tahiti to do missionary work. While there, he wrote a book about the history of the missions on that group of islands.

Perhaps more mothers would have lost sons in the Great War if not for the help of other nations. Tahiti and other French Polynesian colonies sent 1,000 men to defend the Allies. When America joined the war, 2.5 million doughboys landed to the cheers of French.

More than 50,000 American mothers lost their sons in France during 1917-1918.


The move to establish Mother's Day as a national holiday in America had been underway for many years before World War I started. President Woodrow Wilson finally proclaimed the second Sunday of May as "Mother's Day" in 1914.

During the 1920s, Mother's Day became a way to honor those women who had lost sons during war. The Society of War Mothers held ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery that drew large audiences, great leaders and front-page headlines.


The Allies' post-war mistakes only fueled German hatred and led to rise of Adolf Hitler. The world soon found itself at war again.

American mothers sent millions of sons and daughters to rescue Western Europe from tyranny. Sixty years ago today in Paris, one French student, who had lost three uncles in the previous war, celebrated the Allied victory at a parade.

When one GI's jeep paused for a second during a procession down the Champs Elysees, that student, Paulene, jumped in.


American mothers also sent their children to Tahiti so it would not fall into Japanese hands. Five-thousand Americans established a supply base there in the verdant paradise that the French painter Paul Gauguin had made famous.


Paulene eventually married and they migrated to America. They settled in Iowa City, where he taught at the university.

She grew to love Iowa's black soil, which reminded her so much of the dirt from the land where she'd grown up. She grew to love the annual corn crop, which she later wrote of in a poem: "Corn grows green/Corn grows gold (echoing) - gold - gold - gold .../In the silence of the plain/between reflecting groves/it whispers its incredible gospel."


By the mid 1970s, Paulene was widowed and retired. She had not become a mother. So she set about traveling the world, seeing all the places she dreamed about as a child back in France.

When arriving in Tahiti, she carried a book, written by her father's friend, and shared it with the local clergy. They celebrated her arrival, showing her around the islands.

And then they asked her if she'd like to adopt a baby.


Paulene accepted their offer. She had wanted to adopt a child for some 20 years.

On Easter 1977, she adopted a three-month-old daughter. They returned to Iowa City, where Paulene discovered first-hand what motherhood means.


Among Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti are those of a mother and child, in which he captures the warmth and tenderness of their bond amid the lush foliage.

Many of his other works showed the affect of missionaries on the island people.

While living on a stipend from a Parisian art dealer, he died at his home 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti - on May 8, 1903.

(originally published May 8, 2005)

May 04, 2005

Moving to find new hope: A new version of an old story

Only wide swaths of knee-high grass for as far as the eye could see met them.

Upon picking a place to stake a claim, German and Scandinavian immigrants to Iowa usually found just enough wood along the creek to hobble together a cabin. But prairie chickens lived along the tree line, the cow could feed all day on tall grass, and the land ran flat, perfect for growing wheat.

And so Iowa's earliest pioneers began to break the land, turning over the black dirt to the sunshine, making a living in a new country where merchants and government officials often spoke a language they did not know. But out upon those open plains, there was opportunity.

And that meant hope.

• • •

The first time my bride-to-be and I crossed the length of Iowa was on our way to New Mexico for a new job. It was a 28-hour trip to Las Cruces, a town just a few miles from the Mexico-United States border.

Heading through the Plains, the world's dimensions shifted. We were used to Minneapolis skyscrapers and Wisconsin hills that soared 1,200 feet above sea level. As the land flattened, so did the silos into stout granaries. The sky grew big around us.

People still crisscross and head to Iowa to find their fortunes. The direction these years is not from the east or north, though, but the southwest.

During the past 50 years, Iowa's Hispanic population has exploded, growing to more than 60,000 today.

Only Germans - at 115,000 between 1850 and 1900 -arrived at a faster rate and in larger numbers. In Johnson County alone there are more than 2,700 Latinos, nearly twice the number as a decade ago.

The majority come from Mexico.

And they hold untapped wealth. Indeed, during the 2000 presidential primary, candidate George W. Bush released a 60-second Spanish-language radio spot in Iowa aimed at Hispanic voters.

• • •

Like immigrants decades before them, Hispanics ventured to Iowa because they dreamed of something better. Many entered through the Southwest hoping to make enough money so they could return to Mexico and start a small business.

But just as happened 150 years when Welsh immigrants thought they'd earn enough money in mining to make them rich men upon returning to Britain, most Hispanics discovered the United States offered more than better wages. Both groups stayed.

"I find this town, Des Moines, and I said this is the town that I need for my family," Guadalajara-born Jesus Aguayo told The Des Moines Register a couple of years ago. Today, he is an Amer-ican citizen and his daughters attend college.

When William Parker in 1848 built Story County's first cabin, it measured a mere 12 by 14 feet and had neither roof nor floor. Years later, he wrote in a letter of how a year or two he built a better home. "I have now two hundred and thirty acres of land," he added, "all fenced except eleven acres."

• • •

I'd been led to the Southwest by a college friend living in El Paso, Texas, during the recession of the early 1990s. "Send out a couple of resumes," Mark said. "They're desperate down here for people with your skills. And you'll love it in the desert - it's totally alien to the Midwest."

So I sent out a couple of resumes.

A week later on Thursday, I received a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent from New Mexico. He offered to do an interview on the phone. We talked for 45 minutes. He asked if I could start Tuesday.

And so my wife-to-be and I packed a moving van and headed for where the streets have no name.

• • •

For many Hispanics settling in Iowa, language is the greatest barrier. Unlike pioneer times when students learned English by force, schools offer ESL programs to ease the transition. Though beneficial, such classes rarely orient kids toward college.

The children of immigrants always bridge two cultures: At home, they speak Spanish, but at work, in the supermarket, at school, English dominates; in Mexico and with their parents, the world moves at a slower pace, one of "manana," but in the United States, the clock's fast pace rules; south of the border, Monday is Cinco de Mayo, commemorating the 1862 defeat of French invaders, but on the Plains it is a marketing ploy of Tex-Mex restaurants.

So it also was in the desert Southwest - where as much as 65 percent of the population has Mexican roots - this split between two cultures, trying to mix, trying to preserve heritages yet giving up some of the old ways, all so that the future will remain bright.

Our first weekend in New Mexico, Mark took us across the Rio Grande into Juarez. Here was a Third World country less than an afternoon's drive from my home. We watched Mexicans ferry across the river, rowing from dilapidated plaster buildings toward glass skyscrapers that reflected sunlight. Upon reaching the American shore, they scrambled to blend into the cityscape, too many of them for the Border Patrol to capture.

Those who are caught and returned to Mexico usually try again, Mark said.

• • •

I wonder if any of those people we'd seen that day ever made it Iowa. My wife and I eventually did, though New Mexico with its purple mountains rising out of the yellow desert floor was a gorgeous place to live. But Iowa City held the lure of better wages, better hours, better educational institutions - better opportunities.

If any of the Mexicans were successful, they're probably doing what my father did as a young man to save up enough money so he could buy his own farm: working in a meatpacking plant. Hispanics and Asians now dominate the labor forces of Midwestern meatpacking.

It's an industry, ironically, that has come full circle, starting in the early 1900s as an entry-level job for immigrants, rising to a high-wage industrial job for the native-born such as my father, and becoming in the last decade an immigrant job once again.

Today, though, the immigrant to Iowa looks out upon cornfields instead of prairie grass, and very little of the land remains unturned.

But there still is opportunity.

And that means hope.

(originally published May 4, 2003)

May 02, 2005

Even during peaceful walks at night, we need our points of reference

As summer nears, the yearning to take a walk at night grows.

For some, there is something disconcerting about stepping into the dark, as if monsters lurk there, waiting to pounce upon us from behind the bushes. But for me, the world at night abounds with peace. A walk into the unknown, after all, is largely a long stretch of quiet, punctuated with an occasional flare of discovery.

I took many such jaunts when I was younger and back on the farm. The evening's warmth always soothed my skin; after several minutes, I'd glance over my shoulder at the farmhouse, seeing its dimness beneath a rising moon, and then turning back to the woods before me, catch the nearby village's glow. I'd shift directions and head for it.

Crossing the alfalfa field, reduced to stubble by last week's haying, my eyes kept a close watch for gopher holes; though excitement at the sudden freedom reverberated through me, I had to maintain discipline so as not to catch my foot and twist an ankle. Crops give the false impression that a field is flat, but it really is quite uneven, as any pickup drive tossing your stomach around while fording one will attest.

Occasionally in the quiet, a squawk and rustle reveals some wild animal. There is a certain danger. Usually, a raccoon or a fox will scurry away, but catch it by surprise while it's dining on carrion and you could be bitten. And, of course, you never want to sneak up on a skunk.

Such alertness sometimes punctured and drained my stamina. Reaching a woodline, I'd rub my face, try to wipe the tiredness from it. Fortunately, a small depression lay beneath one wide oak tree - even in the dark we must have our points of reference.

If I was yawning too much, I'd aim for that and curl in its soft grass. Then I'd gaze up at the stars, watch them flicker as my lids grew heavy and my breathing fell into a lulling rhythm. Then the night softened, as if it were angels' hair.

(originally published May 2, 2004)

May 01, 2005

Discoveries made during spring walk

In spring, the brightness of the sun brings to light many strange things that have been buried under the snow and dead grass all winter. Oddly enough, I spotted a butterfly wing the other day in the yellow weeds that lined a fence separating subdivision from cornfield.

The wing's bright orange, bounded by jet black lines, lay punctured on a grass blade, its flitting about in the wind a mockery of once was. How those colors might have remained vibrant so long baffled me, but a thing need not be young to possess vitality.

I turned the blade over to examine the wing, imagined how not so long ago it fluttered and darted about like a court jester amusing and entertaining children; maybe even their pet dog chased after it.

But as with all of us, the time must have come when a cold autumn wind flung the butterfly off course and into the blade. Or perhaps a cruel child caught it, and enthralled with his sudden power plucked the wing, then when bored let the debris go whirling about in the gust until settling in those weeds.

Like a tide, the seasons - and passing generations - advance and retreat, though. Indeed, at one time, a young poet's work is first published, only to become an entry in a dusty old book. Everything eventually waits to be rediscovered.

(originally published May 1, 2005)