Anne Notations

Monday, May 02, 2005

What lies between

Heading west from Pennsylvania into Ohio, I watched dawn's gray light race our Greyhound bus across the open farmland. The earth became flat as a starched sheet, tea-stained with squares of sepia and dark-brown soil and embroidered with lines of slender trees and redbuds whose fronds of chartreuse and magenta reached skyward. Unplowed fields were furred with cornstalk stubble. Every now and then a white farmhouse would race toward us and disappear behind, flanked by four or five large windbreak trees and with a red barn riding sidesaddle. In the distance, similar outposts of farmhouse-trees-barn were visible for miles, stretching to the horizon.

I would drift back to sleep in the bus and, upon awakening a half-hour or more later, look out the window and see the same scene. Over and over, through Ohio and on into Indiana. When you live on one of the coasts, you easily forget how big our country is and how sparsely populated areas of the Midwest and West still are. You forget that the wheat in your loaf of Branola comes from farms like these across the heartland.

When I was ages three through seven we lived in a Chicago suburb. In the summer occasionally my parents would drive us away from the elm-lined streets and into the Illinois plains to attend a country fair. I can still see the flat, flat farmland flung outward from those carnivals with their ferris wheels and tents. It seemed to me then, as it does after my recent trip now, that the plains were crowding hungrily around the cities, trying to swallow them, rather than vice versa as is the case on the East Coast today, where exurbia busily gobbles what little farmland remains.

While geographically the connection is imprecise, the fertile plains of Ohio and Indiana that unfurled outside my bus window made me think of Willa Cather's majestic descriptions of the prairie. "The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields," she wrote in My Antonia. "The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea."

Half of my roots are in Midwestern soil. My maternal German ancestors immigrated in the mid-1800s to Missouri, where they farmed, worked as blacksmiths, and raised children who married other German Americans. Some of these children moved into St. Louis, such as my great-grandfather William Girthofer, who worked as a postal carrier, a department-store clerk, and eventually a Palmer-trained practitioner of chiropractic medicine. His wife, Elizabeth Brune, grew up on a farm and often visited the folks back home in the countryside. I have their photographs in Grandma's albums: clear-eyed, straight-backed pioneers, equally attached to genteel manners and hard work. I fancy them the very soul of the heartland, progenitors of America's middle-class prosperity in the twentieth century.

By the time Indianapolis arose from the plains at midday like the Emerald City, my eyes were numb from gazing at flat squares of land and sparse regiments of trees. Outside the East Coast's dense megalopolis, I was adrift and dazed. Yet my heart recognized those plains and their neat farms. I had traveled far from family and home, but still it felt a bit like homecoming.


Post a Comment

<< Home