Tuesday, April 27, 2004


As you will read in the coming week or two, I felt a great sadness coming home from my visit to Emmetsburg, Iowa, driving across the great stretch of farmland in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, thinking about how much has changed, how much has been lost. About those who remain, those who are gone.

And then - wouldn't you know it - I got home and learned that Tonio has taken down his blog permanently; and the good ship common beauty has folded its sails as well, irrevocably it seems.

Tonio said: "This website will close on or around May 03, 2004, for various reasons which are about as interesting and difficult to explain as quantum field theory."

CB said: "My decision now is that, as it happens in the corporeal realm, this termination should come with little warning, no pomp, and an echoing sense of finality. Oh, how I have enjoyed this little stage of the journey, especially the company of my fellow pilgrims!"

Tonio, I'll miss you because you have not been afraid to say "The emperor has no clothes." We need that.

CB, I'll miss you because - as the emperor walked around with no clothes - you remarked on the beauty of the day, of faces in the crowd, of this one special moment; of "the many forms of the 'everyday sacred,'" as you say.

The turn of the seasons. The march of the generations. The swing of the stars. Everything changes, everything stays the same. Whether I like what I see changing, or don't like it.

For now, Tonio, CB, I'll offer some simple hopes: that the wind stays at your back, that what you find is what you need.

Go in peace.


APRIL 17, 2004

This is the middle west. There is a church steeple in every distance. We are a godly people, at least we say we are.

The weathered woods of an old shed and an old barn call out to me: "There's a story here, come hear it!" You can't stop at every abandoned farmstead. Well, you can, but that's all you'd do. But you could do worse than spend the rest of your life talking to old barns, I suppose.

"Tom, it's not so much that you're here," the old barn says, "it's that you write it down."

"Yeah," I say, "I guess I'm born to be witness." Which is not a religious task, but a spiritual task nonetheless - to see the world as it is and to attest to the truth and beauty of it. I am blessed with this responsibility. Still, sometimes I want to ask "Why me?"

This isn't heaven, the middle west, but we can see heaven from here, and we can see hell.

Where I-90 is supposed to split off from I-94, south of Tomah, Wisconsin, the ramp is closed. We're detoured to the next exit, we cross over, then we come back the way we came. It's just about as sweet and direct a detour as I've ever encountered. You do what you have to do, and sometimes it's not so bad.

The rise and fall of the country east of La Crosse is as lovely as any landscape in the world, I think. When I top the rise that affords a view of all the bluffs in the distance, I am reminded of the Smoky Mountains. Almost heaven. If this isn't enough for a fellow, he's awful damn greedy.

That we sip it rather than gulp it, the beauty, that's an inheritance from our immigrant forebears, isn't it? "Yah," they'd say maybe, "not too much there now." It's not a Republican conservatism. Farmers hoard to hand on, instead of hoarding to have as the Republicans do. There is no status involved out here, except that the next generation be a little better off than this one. Republican conservatism doesn't look to the next generation but to the short-term gain, often at the expense of many generations to come. It would make my grand-dad puke, what's going on in Washington these days.

Two dead wild turkeys along the highway. A crow eats at one of them. Hitting one of those birds would be like hitting a bowling ball, the damage it would do.

West Salem, Wisconsin. Hamlin Garland. I suppose I can't talk about the middle west very long without talking about Hamlin Garland.

Ah, now, the Mississippi River, a crease on the continent like a woman's crease where she turns inside herself, that middleness.

Then I pull away from the river and the bluffs surrounding it, headed west into Minnesota. At one point I'm driving higher than two crows are flying. Don't talk to me about flatness.

Another decrepit barn, its mouth open in the shape of an O. "O, look at me," it says. Everything quivers.

A row of fence posts with stones atop them. Everyone wants attention.

In an embankment along the highway three mounds of dirt look to me as if a badger has made a den here.

Up well away from the river now in the heart of the flatland, insects are hitting the windshield. The tat-ta-tat-ta sounds like shell corn has been tossed at me. We plow onward, covering in mere hours what it used to take days and weeks for pioneers to traverse. Traveling by car, I have time to tell myself some stories. How many stories, traveling by horse and wagon?

Sometimes it seems like it's uphill all the way across Minnesota. Why?

Oh, the green trees here. And a red-tailed hawk, its steel gaze, the land rolling away from it with an erotic smoothness. You can't let go of the middle west, Tom, even if you'd want to.

Didn't it take giant men and women to break this land to their will? Doesn't it still take giants.

Another old barn. Its eyes are half-shut. It's roof has been let to ruin. There is not much money to be made patching the soul of the countryside. I have chosen the damned-est work.

Dammit - why am I like this? Once I'm on the bull, I've got to stay on til it's done bucking, the way the crow chases the hawk, with never a moment's peace for either of them. If you accept the gift, you have to carry the burden of it. Duty, you know.

Some day someone will be driving along I-90 across southern Minnesota listening to my words on tape. They'll hear me say 5-5-8-0-5 and they'll look up and see this very same bridge, 5-5-8-0-5. Believe it. This can happen.

Yet, too, I would warn you to beware of the blind seer.

Now the sky is clouding over. There is sun still, and then there's not. A blackbird chases a crow; there is no peace for either of them.

Was every grove I see once a farmstead? That's possible. Farms of forty and eighty and one-hundred-twenty acres were once more nearly the norm. Where do the souls of dead farmers go when their homesteads get torn out? Who takes responsibility for the great emptiness that remains?

To be continued....



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"I learned something last Saturday morning," Ivan writes. "Learned it from a native of Pennsylvania. Don Wick, transplanted Pennsylvanian, says with authority that 'you don't put sausage in a Western Omlette.' But you do in a High Plains Omlette."

"Another thing that has kinda surprised me," says Ivan, "is the discussion about the remodeling of the grade school. Somehow I had the feeling that most of the older people in town would reject such a project without even hearring what they had in mind. But I have been hearing some older people, some conservative older people, some really conservative older people, some really really conservative older people talking and at least they are discussing it objectively."

"They tell me the movie 'The Passon of Christ' is showing at the theatre dowtown," Ivan writes. "I ain't goin'. I've already read the book."

"What is an in-service day," Ivan wonders. "I hear about it all the time and the only place I know that they have them is at the school house. I just wonder what one looks like."

"I believe I can state with a reasonable degree of accuracy," he says, "that to the best of my knowledge Echo is a lo-carb newspaper.


APRIL 22, 1998

This morning the sun is like a bucket of bright paint spilled across the land. O blue sky! When we die, when we go to heaven, those who will, this will be a day in heaven. Let me appreciate it now.

Of course, it is neither hot now, nor cold, so perhaps I should spit it out. Nahhh....

The trees are making a stronger green statement. Their stain against the sky is becoming serious. They will soon have leaves we can't deny.

Today is bulky article pick-up in Fairwater. The curbs are covered with junk. Junk. Why do you keep it and where did you put it, I ask of no one in particular. The junk we accumulate is proportionate to the space we have available. I am the worst offender.

More of the fields have been worked. I am so far from farming now I do not recognize some of the equipment being pulled behind the tractors. I know the "spring tooth" when I see it.

A few black-headed gulls still sit on the puddles. This is the first year I've noticed them. Is it the first year they've been here or the first year I've been paying attention? The age-old question - is it the observer or the observed?


APRIL 23, 1998
Another blue sky, another day the Lord has made.

Long shadows in Fairwater and across the farmland to the north. More fields have been worked, with wide sweeps made to miss the low, wet ground. They will farm what they can.

The big tree in the middle of its field drops a dark doily on the ground. Grandma, I say doily and I think of you.

This morning at the shed near where the snowy owl had perched, two men are unloading fertilizer and preparing to put it on the field.

I keep hoping to see a prominence off in the distance, to the northwest in Green Lake County. What do we call it? Mount Tom? My eyes are not good enough to see that far. And there is a ridge between here and there blocking the view.

If ever I could see that far, it would be today.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?