Seriously, I've got no business thinking of myself as a landscape photographer. Any eye I have has been developed by a decade's worth of experience, not by good sound training. I haven't been tutored, never took a lesson, honestly don't know much about the gallery of bells and whistles of my cameras offer--and there are plenty. I don't even lug a tripod.
What I know is that it's been good for me, come Saturday morning, early, to head out into the country for the last twelve years. It's been good because retreats generally regenerate--they give our hearts a rest from the same-old, same-old.
And I'll admit it; it took me years to appreciate Siouxland landscapes. When you grow up in the shoreline woodlands of the Great Lakes, the roomy-ness of fly-over country can feel cold and empty.
But after forty years I can quote a ton of lovers and admirers of this landscape, Willa Cather to Kathleen Norris because, great beauty and even reverence exists in spades in what's not there. Emptiness can be its own great spiritual reward. Next week, I'll pilgrimage out to Pierre, SD, through Big Bend and Lower Brule Reservation, the Missouri River valley. Most of America would say there's nothing there, but I beg to differ because I've learned that nothing is really something.
But it seems to me that in the decade or so I've been out chasing images of the dawn, there's far less open space out my back door, especially close. Wherever you look, there are confinements. And, of course, there are more every year.
What seems, is. I'm not wrong. Read the map. Where, pray tell, is the greatest concentration of confinements? In the neighborhood.
Imagine this. Years ago, your relatives (let's just say they're from the Netherlands) come to visit northwest Iowa. You take them out in your '57 Chev, drive up and down the gravel roads through a corn crop that's knee-high three weeks before the Fourth. Everything is as neatly planted as those tulips in Arnhem, the relatives say. They're transfixed by the sea of green, by the orderliness of everything.
If I were giving the tour, I'd be sure to say that conquering the beastliness of the corner of the world not easy--temps that boil come July and lock everything up mid-January. I tell them that laying out a place for a good life in the northwest corner of Iowa took muscle and sweat, now and then tears, and always prayer. I'd be proud of what my ancestors created out here where nothing reigned.
And I still am. It's no small thing to lead the state in almost every imaginable agricultural pursuit, to have clean, growing towns with schools that take home championship trophies so regularly it's barely ho-hum. There's an empire here in the state's far northwest corner, and Des Moines knows it. All they can do is shake their heads. Much of that empire is attributable to a work ethic that's the legacy of strict old Dutch Calvinism. That's what I'd tell those relatives.
But today questions arise. Is there a point at which there's too much business, too much bigness, too much building? This Saturday, if I want a shot of gorgeous Siouxland landscape, I've got to leave the county. Confinements are everywhere.
I know they generate jobs and income and prosperity. I know banks don't want to turn down loan applications because if they do, whole teams of laborers are out of work. I know industrial agriculture makes money because, as everyone knows, Sioux County has lots of money.
But will there come a time when confinements line up like condos? Will we ever tell ourselves that someone ought to set a limit? If, as some maintain, our 7.7 million egg-laying chickens produce as much untreated manure as the Seattle metro, and our hogs as much you-know-what as the totals from LA and Atlanta combined, is that enough?
One of the first little ditties I heard when I came to Iowa years ago came as a blessed refrain. "Stinks today," someone would say. "Smells like money," some smart-ass Siouxlander would smirk.
Yes, it does.
I don't want to stand between any young couple and their dreams, but I can't help but wonder in this perfectly red corner of the state who will say, when the time comes, that we really should talk a bit about what we're doing with our world? It probably won't be the construction crews. Will it be the bankers? Probably not the Coop either. The County Board of Supervisors, maybe? Or will it all fall to the hated DNR?
And really, apart from a little annoying smell, is it a huge sacrifice for me to have to go to South Dakota if I want to snap a picture of a spacious landscape in a blazing dawn? Gas prices are going down, for pete's sake. Why can't Sioux County simply declare itself an industrial zone and be done with it?
We're all in a position to ask those questions, but who is responsible to answer them?
Is anyone saying no. Maybe more importantly, should there be?