Written by Bryna R. Campbell
I come from one of the parts of Iowa where the “tall corn grows.” Rows and rows and rows of it. That and soybeans, the other major crop of the heartland. Even now, some of my clearest memories of my home includes these rows. Walking through them. Watching the drumming rhythm of row after row as we sped past them in the car on weekly errands.
The rows and the spaces between them would form blocks, and the blocks would create a quilt like pattern of green and soil. Or rather an ocean – since all you could see as far as you looked in any direction were fields. Patterns of contrasting textures of stately corn stalks an dense broad-leafed soybeans; patterns that evolved in appearance with the changing seasons year in and year out.
This was my part of the earth. The patchwork was my version of nature at its most mundane and quotidian. Not quite a grid but reminiscent of one in how this patchwork gave order to the land.
The space allowed for a mathematical evaluation of whatever grew on the land and an ability to quantify it. The rows held a specific number of plants, the fields held a specific number of bushels. The farmers could use the patchwork arrangement and a set of equations to estimate their investment and their return. And these farmers – they lived on islands in this patchwork, the apparent commanders of a natural world. One could look out across the earthen ocean and see little oases of farmhouses, barns, and sheds.
There was a comfort to this. All of it gave a strong illusion that humankind had succeeded in its many millennia-long battle to wrestle the natural world under its command.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this grid-like space of late, and pondering its implications. Often when I think of the patchwork landscape, I feel grateful to be away from it. Here in the Pacific Northwest where I live now, the natural world exacts a very different logic on humanity. Here, where the evergreen trees grow massive in scale, where rockslides can close major highways, and where the dense forest drip with a bright green moss, I have no choice but to submit to nature’s authority. I do gladly because it gives me comfort to know that I am but one small blip in a grand cosmic scheme. While I long gave up organized religion, whenever I see the volcanoes along the horizon to my east, I can’t help but be overcome with a sense of deep humility. Indeed, it sometimes seems I had to move away from the bible belt (which always made me feel constrained and judged) to become spiritual again.
This is not to say that there weren’t times when nature showed itself in all of its grandeur in the midwest – that place where tornadoes roar along the plains this time of year. I so vividly remember the sublime magnificence of pluming clouds on the horizon and the booming thunder that would shake my parents’ house. But those rattling moments were punctuations in daily life of consistent, familiar regularity, that had the appearance of order and control.
Yet for all my love of the sublime nature of the Cascades, there are also times I miss the familiarity of the patchwork rhythm that reminds me of home.
I liked how I felt connected by way of my family’s profession as farmers to people around the world who consumed a product that began with a seed planted on our land. I like that I always knew where food came from, and that I was able to walk among the plants that would later be harvested to be shipped off down the Mississippi River. There’s a tendency to think of rural America as this isolated place. But thanks those fields, I always felt like I was part of a larger global community.
All around me, changes were afoot that I was too young to recognize as a child – changes that destroy my comforting associations with that patchwork ocean if I think about them too much. I grew up in a period that marked the beginning of a total transformation in the farm industry that now shows its ugly self in enormous hog confinement buildings and companies that play god with nature and then patent their augmentations.
When I go back now, I can’t help but notice changes in the land. The grassy islands of farmsteads are less numerous. The ocean of green has spread across spaces that once served as pastures as the animals are moved into tightly packed sheds. Towns that I remember having a local vibrancy have shriveled up and schools have shut down. Historic buildings that once housed stores are gone. People have moved to the larger factory towns and now do their shopping at Walmart.
The last time I was in Iowa was in early autumn. This is time when a breeze will blow and rustle the sharp edge leaves of the tall corn; it instantly brings warm memories of harvest time. I used to associate this sound with a smell of ripened corn, dense and thick, yet also dusty and earthen all at once. It’s a wonderful autumn smell. Now when I go back, the wind brings the stench of manure from a hog confinement on a nearby farm.
I want to still feel that comfort of my childhood when I look outward across the fields. But now that’s reserved for memories. Now that green patchwork ocean feels something like an unstoppable tidal wave of corporative industry, swallowing communities whole.