A Slice of Humble Pie

Thanksgiving occupied a special place in the year  on our Minnesota farm and marked the end of the crop year. During the eight months between April and November, we tended the fields; tilling planting, cultivating, harvesting and then plowing. Every day, we minded the sky for the perils of the season—late spring frost, heat waves and drought, cloud bursts and flood, hail storms and early snow. Any one of these could wipe out a season’s labors. Most years, we sprinted through two months of fickle autumn weather as it slid from summery to wintery, picking corn, plowing stubble and culling the livestock before freeze-up and snow. After Thanksgiving, we relaxed a while.

Sometimes, snow on Thanksgiving

Our first on-farm Thanksgiving occurred in 1947 and the last one in 1997. I was four years old that first year when my mother roasted a goose and cooked the garden vegetables she raised. November snow fell early. Five acres of corn remained unpicked and the stubble stood plowed. Both must wait until spring. The cars didn’t start for several days. Yet, my urbanized New Jersey parents were grateful. They pulled up stakes that April to go farming in southern Minnesota despite the absence of agricultural experience. They were still in their twenties and still immortal.

We lived in a draughty house in need of paint. Rusty barbed wire fences kept livestock away from the house. Small hillside fields bordered with weeds ringed the slough in the center of things. A line of woods marked the winding river half a mile away. Nothing about this place predicted prosperity. But come it did. Drainage and tiling turned the slough into rich bottomland. Contoured fields arrested soil erosion, check dams formed small ponds and the woods improved under professional management. Wherever he could, dad planted trees and created niches for wildlife. Year by year, the farm became more productive of corn and wheat, deer and pheasants, songbirds and ducks.

The family at Thanksgiving

My mother shone in glory on Thanksgiving amid the roasted turkey, green tomato mincemeat pies topped with hard sauce, roast carrots, mashed potatoes, silky gravy and cranberry sauce. Cousins and aunts from town joined our table and afterward the adults played bridge and children played Monopoly and Parcheesi. For many years in the 1950’s,  the television station ran The Wizard of Oz on Thanksgiving. We loved the tornado scenes.

As my siblings and I grew up and married, our spouses and children replaced the cousins around the table. But some things didn’t change. November is still the grayest month in Minnesota—cloudy, cold and damp. At times, depressing. On Thanksgiving mornings, Dad and I still went outside to do some light chores, such as splitting and hauling firewood while mother, sister and wife finished preparing the food. Out came the good china, the monogrammed silver and crystal. These familiar roles and routines gave as much comfort as the food. A confirmation. We knew who we were, where we were and why we were thankful.

Abundance– a bumper crop

When all was ready, we bowed our heads and dad said a grace over the important things. Then the platters and bowls circled the table and our plates vanished under piles of mashed potatoes, slices of turkey, peas and smooth gravy. Looking out of the windows, I saw our newly plowed fields stretching to the river. Sometimes snow dusted the furrows and sometimes not. Yet the cloudiness never dampened our gratitude. We had the fields, the palpable connection, the umbilical between our livelihood and abundance.

We celebrated the last on-farm Thanksgiving in 1997. Mom and Dad were retired, no longer immortal but as lively as ever and wiser for their experiences. Arthritis crippled my mother at 80 but she was still a game chef. Dad and I still went outside to finish some chores, fewer now than in years past.

The boy formed on the farm

Thanksgiving, between helpings of turkey and pie, I realized this was the last time I would sit at this table and see the furrows, black and rich, awaiting spring. Gazing out and across the fields, I saw for last time the farm as it had formed me. Come spring, a crew would seed the fields with prairie grasses and plant clumps of oaks. This pleased dad but I felt melancholy—like the death of a friend—the permanent loss of intimacy with the living soil that had long sustained us.

Was I thankful? Yes, always! But I was more than thankful. I felt grateful and my gratitude grew from our intimate relationship with the soil. Dad thought of loam as magic stuff, a community of organisms that, with the sun, released life-building nutrients to produce fields of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. He held the soil as in a trust. Now, he was retiring the fields he retired.

Gratitude comes with humility and humility comes from recognizing you aren’t so self-sufficient that you don’t need the aid of anyone or anything. We are all part of an interdependent web of life. Our soil neither promised nor gave us a crop unless we collaborated with its organisms to produce it. We were married to the loam and tended it so it could tend, feed and sustain us.

The last harvest — 1997

I said a bittersweet goodbye to the farm that Thanksgiving. After 20 years, I still miss the palpable fulfillment of feasting in sight of newly plowed fields dusted with snow. I still miss feeling connected to a plot of soil I worked to produce corn, soybeans and wheat. I miss the spontaneous gratitude that comes when we were spared the worst of the weather. Or, if we were  struck, gratitude for our recovery from it. Most of all, I miss the sense of life living with the land and not off the land. And with that, I miss the simple joy of life lived knowingly along the tenuous margins of security. Thanksgiving on the farm taught me humility that prepared me to be grateful. On this day, a slice of humble pie still satisfies the soul.

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ns-47Sound is something it’s easy to take for granted. Like the air I breathe, I take it for granted unless something stands out in the sound cloud around me. Then, maybe a noise I hear in isolation, triggers a memory. At once, the present moment dissolves, and I’m inside a past moment; it’s a spark of time as fresh and real as the original. These reverberations of the past never erode or rust or lose their power. They’re visceral, eidetic, and so penetrating that important parts of my life, my very soul, was shaped by them. It may be that my individuality and yours are defined as much by echoes as by fingerprints.

Living in Oaxaca, Mexico, I wake about 5:30 each morning to the sound of roosters crowing from atop a nearby house. While this may annoy some sleepers, the rooster’s crow transports me back to childhood. It’s morning once more on the farm. The eastern sky blooms and the first amber light washes across the field, infiltrates the oak tree outside my window, and falls across my bed. Roosters and daybreak are inseparable. The bravado of crowing foretells a day of unforeseen possibilities. On a farm, there is the plan for the day, and then there is what really happens. The cock’s crow reminds me of possibilities and pitfalls to come.

My beautiful pictureYou may laugh, but I will swear it is possible to hear corn growing. I know I did on humid, July nights, when no breezes stirred southern Minnesota. Lying in bed, I heard the faintest of sounds outside, as if someone were tearing paper slowly and carefully to make no noise at all. But something was ripping in the lower fields. It was the sound made by leaves of corn splitting their sheaths as they unfurled in the muggy darkness. It was a ‘green noise’ that often lulled me to sleep when nothing else could.

Our hogs filled an important place in my childhood soundscape of hums, thuds, crashes and swishes. Their guttural voices were as integral to my world as the acres of oats and corn, the woods, and the prairie river. Grunting hogs sang contrapuntal base notes to the roosters’ shrill falsettos. Pigs often carried on in a low, soft hum punctuated rosies-litterby a squeal. They usually fed at night, and took turns eating at the individual feed boxes covered with metal lids. In sixes and sevens, they nosed up the lids, then grunted contentedly as they smacked on ground oats and corn. When sated, each pulled his snout from the lid and it fell with a ‘clunk.’ Many nights, I fell asleep listening to grunt, smack-smack-smack, grunt. Clunk! This rhythm lasted until I left for college, and Dad sold the hogs. For a long time afterward, on visits home, I unconsciously listened for them and, when I didn’t hear them, knew a part of me was no longer resident there either.

The prairie wind is a maestro of sounds and moods, depending on the month and weather. A March wind has a wet smell, and roars through the bare oaks about the house ahead of a warm front. It’s a fickle wind that often produces a late spring blizzard more often than bluebirds. At the season’s other end, a November gale through these same oaks blusters like a bully, heralding the on-set of cold and darkness. In between, the wind often My beautiful picturewhispers ‘sweet nothings’ to leaves on a summer’s eve. Like great compositions, the wind may use a caesura, a full stop amid a storm, and in the fragment of silence, I can hear an individual drop of rain fall from a leaf and strike the ground with a fat ‘plop.’ The wind talks. For those who listen, there is much to be learned from the wind.

Farm life wasn’t completely cut off from the larger world. During the 1950s, we depended on AM radio (WCCO-Minneapolis) and the rural telephone to Janesville, six miles away. In those days, the radio gave us farm market reports, ball games, soap operas, the New York Philharmonic concerts, the Jack Benny Show, and CBS News. Static on AM radios also told us more about the weather than the Weather Service. Faint static meant a distant and possible thunderstorm. As static increased in intensity and frequency, so did the storm probability. Our telephone (a wooden box with a crank and speaker) connected us to a party line of 12. We knew who got calls by the pattern of rings. More than that, however, the phone was our Doppler before there was Doppler. In stormy weather, the a ‘ping’ on the phone meant lightning nearby. Frequent ‘pings’ meant the storm was nearly upon us.

We lived about three miles from the former town of St. Mary but only the church remained. In the 1950s, early on Sunday mornings, I heard the peal of its bell as the local Catholics My beautiful picturewent to Mass. As the rural population thinned, the diocese closed the church, and it fell victim to time and neglect. I last saw it on a summer evening, shuttered but humming with the sound of bees swarming about a hole in its eaves. Only the cemetery remains but, somewhere in the heavens, the reverberations of that bell continue to ripple toward eternity.

It’s a fact that most farmers can tell you the make of tractor solely by its sound. I grew in a neighborhood of green John Deere and red International Harvester models. The Deere’s two-cylinder engines made a distinct ‘pop-pop-pop’ sound and folks called them ‘Johnny Poppers.’ International’s produced a deep, steady growl. We owned small, gray Fords that rns-plowingpurred. Yet, despite the make of tractor, their sound faded quickly with distance. Some of my deepest memories are of twilight on spring evenings, hearing my father whistling Broadway show tunes as he tilled a field for planting. As sure as the sun came up in the east, I knew his restless soul was utterly content and he wanted nothing more than to make the brown, prairie soil ready for seed.

You may think of the country as a quiet, tranquil place. It is tranquil but never silent. A farm and its countryside are filled with sounds. As a lad, I heard them distinctly because I had few distractions. Each echo, hum, reverberation, crash, jingle, swish, roar, and vibration held meaning. Some brought pleasure, others warned of danger or accompanied pain. Yet each played a part in who I became, and who I know myself to be. Sounds are visceral, indelible, and as much a part of myself as my DNA. Many things combine to make us humans, but I think our individual identities a made, in part, by a distinct sound-cloud of memory and meaning.

 

 

Minnesota Weather—It’s Mythic Enough

Do you write off a mythic account as an entertaining  yarn, a bit of folklore or a campfire tale? In other words, does a mythic story lack truth? Minnesotans love to talk about their weather because it is truly mythic in its reality.

Mythic comes from mythos, a Greek word for allegory, narrative, and parable. In ancient times, mythos was used to explain complex, unknowable aspects of life—truths that defied explanation solely by logos—the Greek word for reasoned discourse, an account or an opinion. Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for its weather is truthful when recounted as both logos and mythos.

Halloween Snow totals 1991
Halloween Snow totals 1991

My state lies in the crosshairs of three major climate systems: moisture streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico, cold fronts barreling southeast out of the Canadian Arctic, and a gentle Pacific flow off the Rocky Mountains. At any moment, any two of them may collide over the state. Non-Minnesotans think our weather is hyped, a fairy tale, like unicorns or Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. It’s true, we brag about our weather to non-Minnesotans, especially around the benighted hot-house souls living in warmer climates. We do it for effect. Our reality inhabits our mythic weather stories.

Today—November 18—is a perfect example. I woke at 7 a.m. to the loud rumble of thunder and strings of cloud to ground lightning, then a heavy downpour that swept floating islands of oak leaves down the street. When the rain stopped, hail plinked against the windowpanes and rattled on the wooden deck like peas in a can. The sun almost shone for a few minutes before heavy mist wrapped us in gray droplets. Sleet hissed as it fell on the leaves. An hour later, the snow began; first as a light flurry, then a heavier fall driven by the wind.

At this time yesterday (2:00 p.m.), the temperature stood at 58° F., the sun shone in a clear sky, and I mowed the lawn for the second time this November. Now, the lawn lies under a pallid sheet of snow, the temperature hovers at 34° F., the northwest wind howls at 35 mph with a wind chill of 21° F.

Today’s storm, like so many November storms , follows the southwest to northeast track of its many predecessors. As the Gulf moisture glides north, it is shunted northeast when frigid Canadian air slams into it over western Minnesota. As I write this, a blizzard with eight inches of snow, and counting, pummels the farms and villages west of Minneapolis. Roads are closed and the plows have pulled back. The plume of heavy snowfall is shifting northeast toward Duluth. For there, it will drift up the North Shore of Lake Superior and bury my cabin under a foot or more. This snow may last the winter. There is a stark magnificence in the North Country’s first snowfall. How I wish I could see it!

Blizzard. No school today.
Blizzard. No school today.

We cherish our blizzards because they test us and we survive them! They’re terrifying if we’re caught on the highway but we feel especially cozy and blessed in our homes. Blizzards leave us with eidetic memories. My favorites are those of my childhood on the farm. Heavy snow meant no school and no chores. I was 10 the year we had six blizzards in succession. They all started the same way. Mild temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, then light snow on Wednesday, heavy snow on Thursday, and white-outs on Friday. Drifts of four-five-and six feet piled up in the windbreak behind the house. They rose across the roads like mountain ranges. No one moved.

The 'Cat' clears the way.
The ‘Cat’ clears the way.

The county plow struggled to clear a lane by Saturday or Sunday. When it cleared the road, Mom raced to town for a week’s worth of groceries. I went to school on Monday, and things went back to normal until Wednesday, when the snow began again. This pattern repeated itself all of February and into March. We had so much snow the county hired bulldozers to buck the drifts rising eight and 10 feet. Dad hired a ‘Cat’ to clear our 400 feet of driveway—only to have it drift in again. I wondered at a world reshaped by the night wind—and I loved it!

Great Armistice Day Blizzard
Great Armistice Day Blizzard

The elderly of the ‘Greatest Generation’ still remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The day began clear with temperatures in the 60’s. Hundreds of men went out hunting ducks and pheasants in their shirt-sleeves and light jackets. Temperatures plummeted, from the 60’s on the 11th to the single digits by the next morning. Without warning, heavy snow—at least 16 inches in Minneapolis—moved in driven by 60 mph winds. When the storm blew out, 49 people lay dead, many of them hunters. This isn’t a myth.

Halloween blizzard 1991
Halloween blizzard 1991

Fast forward a half-century to the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991. It followed today’s storm track. That evening, I took my girls trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We left in a snow flurry and came home an hour later, scuffing through leaves and an inch of snow. How novel! We woke the next morning with 18 inches of snow on the ground, and a total of 28 inches by the time the storm ended two days later. Hardly anything moved for days, and the snow stayed until April. This is a memory, not a tall tale.

Is Minnesota weather mythic? Yes! But it’s not a legend or a fiction. It’s our reality. We don’t create myths to describe the weather of our state. That is isn’t necessary. All need to do is look out our windows and report on what we see. That’s mythic enough.

 

 

 

Waiting, Hoping and Wondering

As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.

Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.

Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.

Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.

State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.

I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.

“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.

Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.

At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.

I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.

All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.

I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.

You don’t need a tour guide

New fir tips
New fir tips

Let me begin by pointing out the qualitative difference between a tourist and tour-ism. A real tourist is well-informed about what she wants to see and what he wants to do. Modern tour-ism is an industrial system organized to maximize profits for airlines, hotels, national parks and service businesses by co-opting a person’s normal curiosity and then herding them into an artificial experience, too often at the lowest common denominator, for a high price. Industrial tourism, as critic Edward Abbey pointed out, separates the tourist from what he originally came to see by inserting a commercial veil that dilutes the experience the traveler hoped to have.

Twin flower
Twin flower

A true tourist doesn’t expect guarantees of satisfaction from his experience. Traveling is a risk and  satisfaction depends on the traveler’s personal resources, her encounters with people she doesn’t know and his capacity to notice new and different things in the places and people he meets. Travel is a state of mined and you don’t have to go to distant countries and continents to be a tourist. No! You can be a tourist, even an explorer, in your own yard. Emily Dickenson roamed the world from her garden and Henry David Thoreau discovered the world from his cottage on Walden Pond.

Glacial groove
Glacial groove

I often travel to distant places but today I was a tourist in a familiar place as I climbed 500 feet to the crest of a barren ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Today I looked at the route with the eyes of a tourist and saw anew how the afternoon light slanted through the trunks of spruce trees. On the trail, I stooped to admire the tiny blossoms of the twinflower, noted the two-toned green of new fir needles, the tough three-toothed cinquefoil growing in the cracks of a granite knob, and the groove in a granite knob left by a retreating glacier. To be a tourist is to be mindful of the moment, to take nothing for granted, to humbly suspend one’s ordinary assumptions and expectations of the familiar in order to see the extraordinary world in front of him. For me, this keeps the world perpetually new.

Afternoon light in spruce
Afternoon light in spruce

Dreaming, learning, and then executing one’s plan of travel is the true joy of being a tourist. My daughter and I read up on Utah’s canyon country and then hiked for days in Arches, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde national parks without a guide or outfitter. Our most important equipment consisted of open minds to we could see what was before us. I travel this way in Mexico. In the company of a Mexican friend, we rode rural taxis through the mountains to attend patronal festivals, visit indigenous pueblos, and share coffee with her friends. We didn’t have planners, clerks, guides, or tour buses to get in our way.

Our experiences weren’t fabricated according to predetermined metrics ofGranite knob customer satisfaction; they occurred spontaneously out of curiosity, mindful observation and personal interactions. So, go on tour, close by or far away, keep your mind clear, your eyes open, and you will be your own best guide.

 

Granite knob

 

 

 

 

 

The Impossibility of ‘Empty’

Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.

Wetlands to cornfields.
Wetlands to cornfields.

During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.

Great American Desert.
Great American Desert.

Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.

Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.

Dust Bowl Farm 1938
Exile from Eden, Dust Bowl farm.

The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.

Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.

Surplus corn from drained land
Surplus corn from drained land

It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.

My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.

Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’

 

Behind Our Mask

My daughter is an actor on stage, my father was a legislator, and I am a writer. Each of us wears a ‘mask.’ Not a physical mask but a figurative one, a persona. On stage, my daughter creates a person that isn’t her own but draws on her inner life. It’s for her art. As a leader, my father’s partisan expressions reflected his values but not his nature. He did it to influence followers. As a writer, I choose my words to show you—the reader—what I want you to see. Actor, politician, and writer, we wear our masks for effect.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t show everything to everyone because we can’t. It’s humanly impossible because we aren’t omniscient. Our mortality limits what we can know and reveal about ourselves at any one time. As mortals, we are restricted to revealing what is useful in living our lives.

I think masks reveal more of us than they hide. When I visit anthropological museums in Mexico, I study the indigenous masks from Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and Olmec civilizations. Made of clay, stone, metal and wood, they present a bewildering array of heads. The faces aren’t realistic and some are hideous, nightmare visages with long, forked tongues protruding from their mouths. These are bizarre to someone formed in the representational artistic traditions of western Europe. We expect the realistic figures from which we might infer their character. To the indigenous cultures, the funeral masks represented who the individuals were to the people of that time and place. In those largely preliterate cultures, the masks expressed symbolically the qualities, character, and personality of the deceased. They were three dimensional eulogies for nobles, warriors and priests.

The masks beg timeless questions. Who are we? What are the secrets to our identities? Questions that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and writers have asked these questions for ages. Some clues still come from masks.

In Masks of the Spirit, Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, Peter and Roberta Markman describe Mesoamerican masks as metaphorical expressions of “a particular relationship between matter and spirit, the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible.” Central to basic Mesoamerican religion is a belief in the natural world as merely a skin or mask of the supernatural. “The mask and its wearer exist in a series of relationships” that visually express the inner, spiritual identity of the wearers. They conceal and yet reveal the inner spiritual force of life itself, and create a “metaphorical relationship between man and the numinous.” As symbols of transformation, the masks provide the means by which humans transcend material existence to unite the realms of matter and spirit.

Does the mask or persona I wear daily to work, to school, or at home fulfill a similar function, even if on a mundane level? How much of my mask is designed to hide who I am and how much of it is intended to reveal my identity? Does the mask truly represent me in all times and places? Is it authentic?

Like Mesoamerican masks, I think mine mask—and yours—is fashioned by family and society to help me live and work harmoniously if not happily. For the most part, you and I accept our personas as a ‘given;’ like the sky or the air. We take it for granted and seldom examine our identity unless we are in crisis. Society accepts my mask and yours because they are consonant with our respective communities and cultures, their histories and traditions.

My mask presents an imperturbable face of understatement over a buttoned-down persona that rarely makes overt expressions of emotion. This mask fit well over the introverted side of my personality, especially during adolescence, when I thought (erroneously) my reticence added an element of mystery to my imagined ‘coolness when, in fact, it simply hid my social awkwardness. It worked well in an emotionally guarded family living in the fervently indirect social environment of rural Minnesota.

As I entered upon a career, I updated the mask without changing the underlying design as I adapted my persona to new settings and new colleagues. It represented who I thought I ought to be, wanted to be, and was. The mask felt comfortable in Minnesota in a profession where its qualities furthered my aims and ambitions.

I spent time in Mexico as an adult learning the language and culture, and arrived wearing my usual Minnesota mask. But the peoples and cultures of Mexico are different from those in Minnesota. And so are the masks people wear. As I worked at learning the Mexican culture, some of my Minnesota persona felt out of place and I had to assume another one to ‘fit in.’ As actors know, masks possess transformative power. In Mexico, my assumed role, drew upon aspects of my personality and character little used in Minnesota. Before long, a more extroverted and emotional facet of my persona emerged and struggled for a place alongside my buttoned-down imperturbability.

I liked the Mexican ‘mask’ and experiencing myself in a new way. At the same time, I faced the question of which persona, which mask, reflected my authentic identity? Was the more open, extroverted Mexican persona more authentic than the buttoned-down professional mask everyone knew in Minnesota? Which was real and which a pretension?

After several years of struggle, I now regard each mask as authentic. Masks are transformative and the sum of my being is greater than I can express in the attributes of a single mask. Each persona reflects an authentic part of me consonant with where I am and who I’m with. Like the Mesoamericans, I believe we have relationships with our masks as we have with ourselves. My mask—and yours—is a channel for expressing our life force in a manner accessible to others.