So today, in two vans, I'm taking 23 writing students to a ghost town ten miles west--to Highland, Iowa, a town that's no longer there. What's left on a rise in the earth--literally, a spot of high land--is a couple of grassy acres surrounded by pine trees, otherwise rare as hen's teeth here on the edge of the plains. Inside stand a couple dozen grave sites and a remarkable indentation in the earth, the shadowy outline of a church so tiny that I can hardly get all 20 kids inside, an old house of worship.
Maybe, just this morning, my students and I can listen. Maybe, just for a moment, we can be Native.
I've taken classes out there for fifteen years, I think, a long time anyway. We're going again this morning, for the last time.
The playwright William Inge, a native of Kansas, didn't want anyone to call his homeland prairies flat, because flat suggests lifeless wine and archless feet. He much preferred level.
He was right, of course. There's nothing at all flat about the plains. We have no mountains, no escarpments, no canyons--except maybe what you can find tucked away in the Black Hills. To some, the place where we live may seem altogether featureless, but it's not. Not really. The nearly boundless expanse of the plains tend, almost shamelessly, to feature any last thing that sits or stands upon it, like the old iconic windmills. The literature of the homesteading era often includes stories of madness, people losing it all in the sheer emptiness, nowhere to hide.
The adjective of choice may well be undulating--a sweet word full of soft, rolling vowels no less gentle than its consonants, a word that ends in a song. But I may well be romanticizing because there really is nothing cushy about the place where we live. While a sunset can spread a masterful palette of colors out over what seems half the earth and more open sky than you can imagine, the plains are not for aesthetes.
Look sometime at our cottonwoods, no matter how huge. They huddle in clumps, like homesteads and towns, clinging to rolling land that seems determined to shake them. Most of our trees are immigrants; they've been here no longer than the white man, 150 years. Once upon a time, all of this was a grassy ocean.
There's so much prairie out here, so much not to see, that I've loved taking my writing classes out to make sure they don't miss it. What I love about old Highland is its lofty position on the landscape: up a knoll, at the corner of two dissecting gravel roads that fall away from the intersection like unfurling ribbons of dust. To the west sits the quintessential American vision--endless waves of rolling land flowing into a horizon often indistinguishable from the heavens.
Now picture this. None of my students is exactly thrilled to be out there. The Iowa kids have grown up on the prairie; they'd just as soon leave. West-coast kids certainly haven't come to school out here because they lusted for some Great Plains experience. As much as they enjoy getting out of class, they harbor serious concerns about the sanity of the prof when he parks the van at the cemetery and tells them all, Joseph Smith-like, that this is the place.
Here's what happens. They get out warily. It doesn't matter if the sky is dark with clouds or clear as a bell. They step out of the van, clutching their notebooks, their Bics in their teeth, and take a few slow steps down the gravel road.
"Here we are," I say. "Find a place to sit and fill up some paper." That's all I tell them. It's early in the morning, but all the way out there they've been talking. Once they take a few steps away from the van, however, they're silent. Maybe it's the cemetery.
They stand there poised between the gravestones of a long-gone, slivery fragment of human civilization and the liquid dreaminess of endless prairie landscape west, and, I'm telling you, the place takes their breath away. There are no curios here, no souvenir shops, and they can't get an Egg McMuffin for miles. The place is so empty it's eerie, so expansive it diminishes them.
That's when they really "see" the world they inhabit. I love it.
The older I get, the more I believe in the sheer necessity of stunning moments of bewonderment. We can argue endlessly about the goals of a Christian education--a system I've forever been a part of--but for me, having my students stop, just for an hour, and look and see the endless expanse of prairie is the closest I can come all year long in any syllabus to teaching something that should be one of Christian education's most dedicated requirements--sheer awe.
I don't have to tell them to work. I don't have to reprimand a one of them for chatting or giggling. I don't tell them they're responsible for some dinky 500-word essay to be handed in the moment we get back to the campus. I don't even say I want to read what they write. In fact, in all those years, I've never read a word of that assignment because I want them simply to look, to see, and to feel with their pens.
You don't need a mountain top for a spiritual experience. A prairie will do.
I want my students to see what's so greatly there--God's own immensity in the sheer expansive landscape. I want them to feel small in the wide, wide world he's given us just a mile or two down the road. I want them to see and to smile, to listen to the whispers of the Holy Ghost.
This morning we go again. The temps will be great, the morning a blessing. This will be the last time for them.
But not for me.