Monday, April 26, 2004


Yes, I am safely home from my Vagabond trip to Emmetsburg, Iowa. It was another lovely visit. As usual I stayed with Sally Jordan, a classmate from grade school days. If ever you should visit Sally, be sure to take your appetite; she will feed you well. I teased her about running a B&B, pet kennel, and writers' retreat. Her hospitality was wonderful.

I did a few interviews, including one with Dick and Anne Marie Nelson, parents of Bruce Nelson, the nicest young fellow ever to play for the Carolina Panthers of National Football League. Just ask anyone who knows him. Bruce was a walk-on at the University of Iowa; his success shows what hard work and determination can do. He got his good manners, obviously, from his lovely parents, who farm a mile north of Emmetsburg. Eventually I will report on my interview with the Nelson's in my Vagabond newsletter. In coming days, however, I will recount my visit to that couple's retreat just north of their farmstead, known locally as "Nelsons' Cabin."

I toured four places while I was in Emmetsburg - Horizons Unlimited; Sky Jack; SNC; and IEI. I will report on these tours in coming days, too.

On Tuesday night, April 20, I attended the Emmetsburg Chamber of Commerce annual banquet at the invitation of Chamber Director Kathy Fank; and on Friday, April 23, I was in the crowd at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Broin Companies' Voyager ethanol plant being built a mile southeast of Emmetsburg. Expect to hear reports of these events as well.

I will be here blogging this week but please note that Mary and I will be flying out bright and early on Saturday morning, May 1, to spend a week visiting our daughter and son-in-law in Montana and to be with Jessica when she presents her dissertation on May 7. We hope our presence actually provides support for her, rather than making her life more stressful. But you just don't know how things will shake out in the last days leading up to defense of the dissertation, so it is possible we just might have to go for some long walks in the mountains to help alleviate stress. Tough work, but someone has to do it. We'll fly back to Wisconsin on May 8th and thereafter I will return to blogging on May 9th, perhaps, or certainly by May 10th.


APRIL 17, 2004

It's a lovely morning. The sun is on the still surface of the pond. A flower in the bed along our garage bloomed this morning, confident that winter is over. The weeping willow at the steep west edge of our property is letting down its green hair.

My mother doesn't like weeping willows. She thinks they're "dirty trees." And they do leave a lot of debris, no argument there. Yet hers is a farmer's view, I think - we want to grow what we want to grow and anything else is weeds. A weed being any plant growing where you don't want it.

In terms of evolution, I suppose the weeping willow's dirtiness is a successful ploy. I don't understand exactly why it would need to be a dirty tree to survive, but then I don't understand a lot of things. I do like weeping willows, however. I like how they let down their green hair, a sign of spring before any of the other trees make much note of it.

My parents, when they farmed, did not practice a monolithic mono-culture, that's not what I mean to suggest. They rotated corn, beans, oats, and alfalfa. We had beef, pigs, and chickens. Our egg money bought groceries. When my brothers and sisters and I walked the neighbors' bean fields, cutting out the corn and pulling the cockleburrs, we earned the money for our fall school clothes, new shoes. Our walking beanfields and my sisters' baby-sitting meant we got new blue jeans at the start of every school year. I say that with pride, that we contributed.

April 17th. It's high spring. I am headed west across Wisconsin and Minnesota, down into Iowa. High spring in the upper middle west, a lovely time to be driving, a lovely time to be alive.

There are clouds enough to make dark patches on the corn rubble in the fields. Along the horizon is hazy sky. The sun will win its battle, I suppose, but has its work cut out for it.

You go, crow, flying west, from hope to happiness.

Either everything I need is here, or it's nowhere. If you can't love what you've got, you can't love anything.

I see an old man's face. The land's dream. The endurance of the long distance wind. I see that man in an on-coming car, I can imagine everything else.

Some people say "tree huggers" as if that's bad. Trees give us oxygen. The day we cut down the last tree, we'll gasp for breath. Perhaps that's the plan. Perhaps Halliburton will make billions overcharging us for oxygen on a no-bid contract with the government.

We think of this land as a great flat accumulation. In fact there are river banks and bluffs, coulees and crowns, sandhills and blue hills and unnamed prominences, ravines. There is all manner of variety in this sameness; we just have to stoop to see it sometimes. Because we're not given to grand statements, the worn beauty of our smoothness suits us.

As I proceed in my investigation of what makes us middle western, I'm finding some confirmation of my notion that immigrants settled where the land looked like home to them. I have had people say that grandfather or great-grandfather settled where he did because it looked like the place he'd left behind.

What makes us great sometimes breaks us.

I suppose some folks see the sunrise as where we've come from, the sunset as where we're headed. The day itself becomes a metaphor for the nation's hopes.

Here in the middle west, we're high noon. White heat. No shadows.

No place to hide and no deception.

There's a silly, bald-headed, grey-edged old man in a red sports convertible coming down the road towards me. He is making a grand statement and I'm laughing at it as someone will laugh at my grand statements. They should laugh at my big pronouncements. Like the blizzard or the tornado, laughter helps to keep us humble. Humility is simply clear vision. Laughter is a soap that washes off pretension.

We could learn something from the crow in the ditch tugging at an old deer carcass: you do what you have to. Middle western duty and resilience.

In the sandflats west of Oxford, Wisconsin, the fields are soaking up sun. This past week's rain is evaporating. The wind carries as much as the rivers.

I've got everything I need. Why am I so fortunate?

Isn't that a middle western question, to question one's blessedness? To ask: why has this been given to me. We expect it to be tougher than it sometimes is; sometimes that's even what we want. It's good that life is good, we think, but it shouldn't be too good.

I drive across the bridge over the Wisconsin River. I'm hoping to see eagles where I've seen then them before, but I don't. I'm not disappointed because - God - we've got the river. That we see eagles here sometimes - that's the surprise of grace. Too much grace, no surprise.

To be continued.....


APRIL 20, 1998

Well - once this was prairie, open ground as far as the eye could see. North of here were the woods, the pineries. If there were trees here then, it was small clusters of oak. Those days are gone.

The geese seem to have gone north. There are not many of them around now. The skies are quiet except for the occasional sandhill crane and its raucous cries.

A blue sky today. The two daffodils near the garage have recovered from their bout with wind and rain; they are standing straight again, or nearly so. Windflowers are low and bright along the house.

The Grand River is less fierce coming through town. Weeds are taking hold of the plowed fields north of town. A haze in the distance, then clouds. If we had a mountain, we would not be able to see it today perhaps.

The water in the ditches near Five Corners has slowed considerably. No reason to speak of it again, I think.


APRIL 21, 1998
The reassuring sound of a mourning dove taking flight from our driveway. Praise Allah, some things are constant.

I have nothing much to say this morning, so perhaps I shall be brief. Well, actually, I've never been known to let having nothing to say slow me down. So hold on.

At a neighbors' the grandma has been staying with them while she waits to move into a new place. She parks her car on the street overnight. It is a church-mobile. The back bumper is a sermon. I am reminded of the Pharisees.

The fields are being worked, some of them. Some are still too wet.

The day is overcast, and cool enough that the bird on the wire is plumping its feathers. It is a blackbird, I think.

I put bird watchers in the same class as fly fishermen.

Black-headed gulls float in standing water in fields along the road, as they have for the past few days. I do not know which gull they are.

I don't fly fish, either.

A young man walks the railroad track to school. There is a metaphor in that, perhaps.

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