Become a Fan
This essay, about the wide-open spaces of the Midwest, first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Indianapolis Monthly. A reprint appeared in Seeding the Snow. Spring-Summer 2003.
They said the sky here made them nervous, the uninterrupted space, restless wind, as if the hand of God, or something, could reach down and pluck them away in judgment.
"It's too exposed in the Midwest," Lyman, a North Carolina businessman explained, hunching his shoulders as if trying to escape that giant hand. "What if a big storm blew up? There's no where to hide."
"And frankly, honey," his wife Casey added in her melodic Southern voice, "the Midwest isn't very pretty."
I don't recall how I responded. Perhaps I only nodded politely. I do remember being puzzled. And I remember that this middle-aged couple who had lived their entire lives in North Carolina seemed sheepish in their reaction to the Midwest, like Adam and Eve hiding from God among the trees in the garden.
I was 24 and newly transplanted to central North Carolina--two hours from the mountains, three hours from the ocean--after spending most of my life under Midwestern skies. At first the novelty of North Carolina enchanted me. The landscape was beautiful, undulating hills, large, lush trees. Green, green, green, particularly in the spring when the air turned thick with pollen. Dogwoods and magnolias blossomed, splashing pink and white flowers across a leafy backdrop, emitting their heavy, heady scent. Dionysus surely took up residence in North Carolina in the spring, for the air was so heavy with perfume I often felt drugged.
After a while all those flowers and trees and rolling hills grew oppressive. My husband and I left North Carolina after four years for a number of reasons, but partly, I think, because we never grew accustomed to the landscape, never felt at home.
I grew up in Indiana, in a housing development that sprang up in an old cornfield. Our backyards were spacious, uninterrupted by fences and trees. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of running unhindered through those backyards, which formed a perfect field for tag and football, any game that required running. Echoes of "Red Rover, Red Rover" or "Red Light, Green Light" bounced between houses.
On summer nights our backyards were transformed into a magical land, thick, humid air alive with the phosphorescent light of fireflies and humming of crickets. We could have been Puck and his band of fairies brewing mischief on a midsummer night, chasing fireflies until we collapsed into the wet grass and gazed at the star-patterned sky above us.
In winter, we had room for a giant battlefield, complete with forts, snow soldiers, and snowball ammunition. Or we filled the backyards with angels, throwing our bodies into the snow, pushing up and out with our limbs. The one negative in all seasons: we could never play hide and seek--nowhere to hide.
In his novel Justine Lawrence Durrell writes, "We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it." I would be generalizing to say Midwesterners are more candid, less affected than many people I have met from other parts of the country. Of course I am generalizing. Yet many Midwesterners are descended from farm families, their lives tied to the rhythms of the seasons. They have felt the yellow heat of summer give way to the white frost of fall, felt the chill of winter melt into spring. You can't hide from the natural elements. You get what you see.
I'm sure the Midwestern landscape has shaped me and my response to it. As a child, I used to sit on our front porch to watch approaching summer storms, dark clouds gathering on the western horizon, the hot stillness before, as if earth were holding its breath. Then the sudden exhalation, the hiss of raindrops hitting hot pavement, the electric sizzle of lightning, the shock of explosive thunder.
Wind, too, is one of my passions. I love walking on windy days or just standing against the air, throwing out my arms to embrace it. Wind energizes, challenges, invigorates. Forget caffeine, if there's a spring zephyr, a gust of fall chill, a few minutes outside will revive me. A mid-January gale in the Midwest is something to be reckoned with. It whips across open fields and stings exposed skin. It reaches inside your lungs and turns your breath to ice. In contrast, think of wind on a hot, summer day, the relief of a breeze lifting the hair on your neck, drying the perspiration, like a lover licking and blowing.
The Midwest has its own beauty. It is not flashy or impressive. It has a quiet, subtle beauty, a stripped down quality. To me, the Midwest is most beautiful in late fall and winter, after harvest when the earth lies bare and exposed. Unadorned by leaves, the trees are like sculptures, their knobby trunks and crooked branches like naked bodies exposing all their imperfections. Yet there is a sculptural beauty to their starkness, a kind of acceptance, or humility, the way I think a woman middle-aged or older might look at her unclothed body: this is what I am, what I have become.
Throughout the year, I walk outside, avoiding, whenever possible, manmade streets and sidewalks, preferring to skirt edges of cornfields, to follow deer paths to creeks and ponds. Behind where I live is a small patch of preserved wetlands and woods. I pass through the timber, appreciating the morning sun that dapples leaves with gold, the flashes of blue and orange as indigo buntings and goldfinches dart from branch to branch, but I feel slightly apprehensive. What could be lurking behind that tree?
Once I leave the park, crashing down a ravine and breaking out into an open field that lies fallow year round, I feel safe. I am exposed and free. I am home. There, I can see what I'm up against. Out in the fields, my strides get longer, my arms swing freely, the wind stirs my hair, fills my lungs. Why should anyone feel nervous underneath this sky? Why should anyone need to hide? There's something liberating about these boundless horizons, a kind of redemption in this expanse of land, something honest about these skies.