Long, long ago, my father-in-law talked me into helping him walk beans. Armed with a half of a hoe, we'd march up and back through his fields looking for milkweed or buttonweed or lambs quarters, whacking out iniquity wherever we'd find it.
Walking beans wasn't the best job I ever had, but neither was it the worst, in part because my father-in-law was inspiring. On those warm summer days, I felt in him great pride. When he looked up and down those cleaned-up rose, he felt blessed somehow, as if he'd kept non other than sin at bay. Through his eyes, I learned to look at endless rows of corn and beans and something awe-inspiring, a million tasseled garment spread luxuriantly over the verdant earth all around.
We live in Emerald City here come July, endless sections of land vastly more green than millions of the earth's inhabitants could ever imagine. An acre of Sioux County, Iowa, land is worth more these days than an acre almost anywhere else in the tall-corn state, and with good reason.
My people came here, Dutch people, including my own immigrant great-grandparents; and the legacy of those who broke the soil is abundantly witnessable all around. Sioux County, Iowa, has reason to crow--we produce more hogs, more beef, more milk, more eggs than almost anyone in the state.
Right now, things are booming. The rolling hills sport new houses, and atop every rise yet another confinement. America's economy may well be in the doldrums, but here in the corner of the state of Iowa things are booming. Fluctuating corn prices may be hazardous and annoying, but nobody is suffering, and land prices stretch ever closer to 20 thousand dollars an acre. You read that right.
The business of agriculture built the college where I have taught for the last 35 years. Corn and hogs and cattle brought a veterinarian to Sioux Center, Iowa, a century ago, a man who built a big old house on a corner lot, the place we've lived in for a quarter century. I'm sitting in the basement of that house right now because the business of agriculture created a culture and a way of life here.
Still, listen to this, a postcard from pre-historic Sioux County. This is Charley Dyke on what this world looked like before row crops:
It was in the middle of June, the month of brides and roses, and no bride was ever more beautifully arrayed than Virgin Prairie Sioux was arrayed when she was wooed by [those earliest of pioneers]. The lush grass glistened and reflected the sunlight and was sprinkled with millions upon millions of flowers. Roses were everywhere; they hung in garlands along the river banks and crowned the badger mounds with flaming reds, pinks and whites. The tall vividly green saw grass in the sloughs was banked with masses of white anemones, pink phlox and yellow buttercups. In the low places along the river the violets formed a solid blue and their delicious perfume arose to heaven. In other low places the pink oxalis thickly covered the ground. The uplands were splotched and spangled with clumps of fire and others of almost every known shade, tinge and color, whose names the men from Pella did not know.That kind of world, here, is virtually unimaginable. In 1870, those pioneering Hollanders found here a land so rich with bounty they couldn't help but break into hymns.
The prairie swarmed with old and young prairie chickens, quails, kildeer, larks, plovers, curlews, native sparrows, song sparrows, cranes and many others and the trees along the river were musical with nesting song birds. The sloughs were alive with ducks of different kind and jingled with the song of a boblink. Yellow headed blackbirds hovered over the tall grass and redwing blackbirds swung and ukelelied on the reeds. A brilliant sun made everything shimmer and glimmer and glisten.So it was and is no more.
When first those men unsheathed their plows and laid open this rich soil, they were preparing a place for me to sit and type these words. I'm here only because they were.
But sometimes the land we live on here in a faraway corner of God's green earth can be even more awe-inspiring if we think about what it must have been before the plow, how festooned with color and wildlife, and how forever unending.
Long, long, long before white men were ever here this was great land, beautiful, bountiful land; and that's humbling to know, humbling to remember.
Don't I wish this last photo were mine, but it belongs to Bruce Harrison, who does absolutely wonderful work and who loves tall-grass prairie.