Wednesday, April 28, 2004

APRIL 17, 2004

I have been driving west from Fairwater, Wisconsin, to Hampton, Iowa, for an overnight visit with my parents, after which I'll continue heading towards Emmetsburg for a week of Vagabonding there.

There's a big John Deere off to my left disking up last year's bean field, raising so much dust.

A cop car tears onto the interstate just ahead of me, lights flashing. He is moving at least eighty-five or ninety miles an hour, that's how fast he disappears into the distance. What requires such urgency? Would that I had flashing lights and a siren to get me to my work. "Vagabond here, outta my way," I could say as I flashed past astonished drivers. I don't see the cop again.

In Austin, Minnesota, there is a sign along the highway that says they'll be celebrating "The Week of the Young Child" from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday at the mall. Wouldn't an "old child" be an adult, I wonder. What did I miss? Or perhaps it's that if you grow up on a farm you're an old child right from the start.

How is it that these trees along I-90 across southern Minnesota are ahead of ours back in Fairwater? The trees here are blushing green, at least, at their nakedness. The world humps its way towards summer through the tingling-surging-tearingness of spring.

Now the sun has hog-tied the clouds, and that's that. My left shoulder gets heated. I turn south onto I-35 at Albert Lea, Minnesota. Sweat trickles from my armpit, reminding me that I'm animal. Definitely animal, but with a swing of spirit in it.

Another tractor in another field, stirring up other dust. The land awakens. The farmers are at it. The clock has started ticking. The field dreams of fullness.

I've crossed into Iowa now. It's 1:45 in the afternoon. Isn't it time for a nap yet? At least I can stop for ice cream at the Dairy Queen in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Ah, wooded Iowa. You might think there's nothing out here, but remember: this is where God sat down to have his lunch. That was before rooster-tails of dust rose from the gravel roads. That was before the gravel roads, before the glaciers. Back when God was God and not some evocation who carries a flag.

I do stop for ice cream in Clear Lake. I sit eating it and I see an old couple take their sundaes to tables outdoors. The Iowa wind blows their hair and their clothes. They sit at a table. The fellow takes of bite of his ice cream. In that moment, I think of all my friends who have died. The way he turned the spoon in his mouth. The tilt of his head. The sunlight on him. The whole gestalt. Everything.

Then I'm headed south again on I-35, towards my parents' house in Hampton. In a field just off to the west of me, a farmer is putting seed in the ground. That would be corn he's planting, not beans. Beans won't survive the next frost. They don't like snow.

Now I'm headed east on Highway 3, backtracking from I-35 to Hampton. A paper bag scurries from west to east across the road in front of me, big as a raccoon, hesitant like that.



Some weeks ago, I found the article, "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor via Awake at Dawn on Someone's Couch, who found it via Woods Lot. You got that??

Admittedly, it's a scholarly article; admittedly I had to get my dictionary out several times to translate McGregor's notions into language I understand. Still, as I'm interested in understanding "place" and one's relationship to it, the effort to understand was well worth it.

While I am not so interested in McGregor's argument that a community or nation's identity is more forcefully conveyed by "visual representation" than by "narrative," I am interested in the many tidbits about place and understanding place that get dropped along the way. Read the full article for yourself. In the following days and weeks I will highlight and comment on some of the points that I find intriguing, and that I will want to ponder as I handle my middle western (Vagabond) materials.

McGregor says: "... when it comes to sense of place it is possible that seeing precedes saying."

McGregor says: "... it is also possible that when we are talking about the underpinnings of collective identity, it is visual representation, not writing, that provides our privileged entry." Visual culture "is at least as important an indicator as narrative."

In this regard, I think of my notion of "emblems." I think of the grain elevator, the railroad station, the water tower, church steeples, courthouse squares, barns, silos, etc. as middlewestern emblems, each a kind of representation of what we are. All of them do have a strong visual element, especially those that reach to the sky from the flatness of our fields and towns. Most of them do have narrative attached to them, though usually we have to infer it or imagine it.

While middle westerners do read more than they let on, I also believe that the visual symbols on the landscape speak more directly to the taciturn heart. Nothing tugs at me quite like the image of a farmstead silhouetted against a South Dakota sunset. I don't know why it moves me so remarkably, but it does.

Are visual images, being unmediated by language, able to grab us more directly than our language-garbled narratives? And, if the answer is yes, what does that mean for an understanding of the middle western psyche? What does it mean for my telling of a middle western story?


APRIL 19, 2001

Blue sky? Clouds? Haze?
There is sunlight
now. We could get

anything. Mis-
print "sunlight" you
get "sinlight," which

enlarges our
list of choices

Blue sky? Clouds? Haze?
Sin? Yes, we could
get anything.


APRIL 24, 1998

The president of our company is something of a bird-watcher. From my description of the black-headed gull, he suggests it is the Bonaparte gull. Its appearance here, he suggests, is "uncommon."

The trees assert themselves. Next to the garage, more daffodils, white ones to go with the yellow pair.

The pond is still. The pond is still the pond. Still the pond is.

Some of the fields which haven't been worked yet look as if they've got a few days' growth of beard, green beard.

This morning the hawk is in its tree in the middle of the field, ordering breakfast.

Some of the worked fields are rough still, some have been tilled to a fine consistency - any wind could put the dust of this earth into the air. A field near Five Corners looks like a mud flat. It has a notion to dry out, but maybe that will take awhile.

The dead deer in the ditch along Highway E between Union Street and Ripon is nearly gone - only hide and bone left, I think. As shall we all, it returns from whence it came - that primordial ooze of matter and energy in electric flux.


APRIL 27, 1998
Rain Saturday night and Sunday morning has refreshed the earth. The sky is a washed blue this morning. Bright sun and long shadows. Leaves on the trees large enough, some of them, to block out the sky behind. Flowers shiver in the cool breeze.

Weeds in some of the fields call out for attention but perhaps the soil there is still too wet to work; or the farmer has other priorities. The grass is the ditches is thick and tough. Will it be dun-colored and sere by the end of August? What summer will the El Nino bring?

The old horse stands at the east side of its barn, warming himself in the sun. In the distance, the whiteness of a fertilizer bag caught in some brush, like a cosmic marker on the landscape.

If you don't like this level of detail, I suppose you can dial up a television news show, eat some cotton candy, drink decaffeinated coffee.

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