If you are from a rural area you are familiar with the term “God’s Country” or “God’s Acre.” Not to be confused with the “North Forty” or “Buying the Farm,” which mean entirely different things and often different things to different people, even in the same zip code or family. Rural areas have been fast vanishing as more farmland is incorporated into a byzantine network of industrial plantations and corporate husbandry. There still exists large sections of This Great And Storied Land where old ways continue. In particular regions of the nation, there still exists a vast landscape that is both wild and lived upon and for the most part remains a matrix of families and production, rolling fields and patches of oaks or scrubby poplars common on the edges of the prairie where fathers dream of passing the lands onto sons as it has been for generations.
The vistas and snow-caps of the Rocky Mountains are remote and awe-inspiring, but to many these are wildernesses apart from a human perspective and exist as those rocky and indifferent elder gods of a far and mythic past. To be God’s Country, you must have houses, little random churches, rickety bridges, children in yards and tending chores. To be God’s Country there must be roads of dirt and gravel that lead to further fields and a lone water pump and trough surrounded by cows munching away indifferent to their doom. There must be sheds and lost and rotting shacks out in the field next to preternaturally large trees that once marked boundaries or served as landmarks. To be in God’s Country, your car should drive slowly through the road of gravel, and cow slurry and each-to-a-one a bovine face looks to you asking if you are their master as sun and cloud chase across the horizon.
If you are from the more urban areas or suburban, or grew up in exurbia, the Geography of Nowhere (JHK ‘s words not mine), is something that you take into your way of being, it is the natural world for all you know. Curbs, drained areas, complexes, traffic lights, left turns, right on red, and other trappings of a built environment that are as endless as it is something that you were ensconced in since swaddling cloth/bassinet/the HMO out-of-network kicked you out the door. What you look at as nature is but a complex machine we have constructed for our own comfort in defiance of all seasons and conditions.
Iowa is a mixture of environments the subtle changes lost to the untrained and non-native eye. The Southwest is a rolling number of fields of antediluvian nature punctuated by long bluffs, for those not familiar these appear as long hills or mounds that run for miles but unlike mountain ranges or hills of other regions, these are a similar height as dictated by ancient forces of nature. The water on these low and flat lands find channels and carve them deep. A simple stream may be several feel below the level soil of the fields and closer to those civilizing forces to the west, the Army Coup of Engineers has seen to it that large mounds of dirt and crushed stone attempt to channel the river and pervert the natural inclination to spill over the many flowing lands and again fertilize the fields with sediment and new layers of soil.
Nevertheless, in the wilds, that is wild for the urban but not resembling the nature that once stood in clusters and mounted a resistance against the endless tide of fires, winter gales, and tornadoes, but a wilds of tilled land. The largest Zen Garden one may take in with lines etched and rearranged as the season and crop and inclination of farmer or corporate agribusiness dictate.
Riding through these hills and fields here and there are small clusters that one may call towns. Taking a wrong turn puts one right away on a road that is mud and earth rather than gravel and hard packed earth. The weather, especially in late spring, does as it may with dapples of sun and then sudden pounding showers and the sky opens and closes from boundless to a thin veil of vision perhaps not more than the inside of the car as the desperate wipers slap away and battle the forces that have fed the fields and ground the trees to mere nubs.
Perhaps it is a frightening landscape for those not within a motored machine. I have passed the many miles of Iowa by train, car, and overhead way above by flight. As I sped down Old Route 141, I could only image what it may have been in those days when plodding foot – equine or hominoid – led the slow line across the long land ebbing and flowing as an ocean of black and fertile earth punctuated only by deep ravines of stream, creak, and river. I cannot imagine walking those long miles under hot sun or pelting rain. There are no places to hide on the open roads.
While jokes aplenty abound for these open expanses and the people of God’s Country – especially from the coastal dwellers who consider the land nothing but “fly-over” – the bluff and steppes of this part of Iowa show some glimmer why people for so long ago looked to this land, struggled and died in droves in those horrible winters, saw livestock and crops ruined by rain, hail, and tornado, pushed their produce by horse and cart to market then barge and then by train and a million corn palaces and expositions rose and fell and why those hearty settlers came and pushed sticks together into homes, into love, into the little piles now so often rotting and ghostly alongside the byways of so many blessed miles of simple monotonous yet profound travel.
I will wonder still about what I have seen in this part of Iowa. I may not return to these exact roads. They are hard to find since they are so alike as others. Perhaps one day all memory of these subtle features of the land will fall into one, an abstract painting melting in rain and linseed oil. I did, however, see a beauty that I have not otherwise appreciated, coming from the antique and rotting northeast, the old neighborhoods of strip malls and city blocks, the back east so many escaped so long ago when they first took family, possessions, and the Lord, and moved out west. For so long my indoctrination of The East was to ridicule these settlers and their descendants. Today, I understand their love for this land.