BY THOMAS DEAN
In an essay entitled “The Work of Local Culture,” author, farmer, and sage Wendell Berry attributes many of our contemporary social (and environmental) problems to a break in “the local succession of the generations.” Berry rightly points out that “the normal thing was for the generations to succeed one another in place.” Now, he says, “our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return.” Without this succession of generations in place, both our cultural stories and the wisdom of ways to care for land and community disappear.
In The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere—a series of autobiographical essays—Debra Marquart struggles between the desire to break away from and to return home. Marquart’s youth on a central North Dakota farm was filled with rebellion and the desire to flee an overly restricting landscape, family, and social environment. Farmgirls, who Marquart says are “programmed for flight,” “grew up wild in the middle of nowhere with the nagging suspicion that life was certainly elsewhere.”
Marquart juxtaposes exhausting days full of rock-picking in the fields, chicken slaughtering, and cow milking with the impulse toward the “wild,” which manifested itself, for her, as developing musical skill, sexual exploration, cigarette smoking, and pointed disobedience. In young adulthood, Marquart progresses to joining rock bands and performing on the road, engaging in an affair with a married guitar player, and experimentation with substances stronger than tobacco. For a number of years, her desire to break the chain with “the middle of nowhere” is strong and her efforts successful, not contacting her family for months, even years at a time.
Inevitably the pull toward home and family urgently rises. Whether it’s when she’s stuck with her band at the Canadian border with no identification or when she’s desperate for rent and car repair money, the sturdy and steady people of her hometown—whether it be a former boyfriend or Dad—are there to dry Marquart’s tears and help her. More important than being bailed out, though, is the book’s underlying theme about the inability ever to shake a deeper tie to the homestead.
Marquart acts on that deep tie later in life. Comfortable in a career as a university creative-writing teacher, she responds more willingly in middle age to the pull toward home. Her desire to learn family history becomes proactive, and she seeks out the actual lives of grandmothers and crazy aunts. Her impulses toward flight transform into desires to return—to the land as well as familial heritage. As she says, “After a long alienation from that place, I wanted to see it again as my parents did, as a variegated, complex thing, a place to spend one’s whole life studying and loving.”
On one visit home, when her sister (bar owner and mayor) tells her of the discovery of a “river” lying underneath their small town, Marquart visits the state geologist, who introduces her to the wondrous remnants of ancient lakes just beneath the streets and fields. “ ‘Why didn’t we learn these things in school?’ ” queries Marquart. “ ‘If I had known that I was growing up in such an interesting place, I think I would have loved home a little more,’ ” unlike “an oblivious and ungrateful society that lacks interest in anything below the slightest surface.”
This is also the lament of Wendell Berry—that our contemporary world refuses to dig deep and pass on the love and stewardship of land, home, and community. Marquart’s book, while not a chronological narrative, is a kind of bildungsroman, a journey into awareness as a true daughter of the homestead and a chronicler of place. While her brother serves as the literal familial caretaker of the farm, Debra realizes “that writing, the act of arranging language in neat horizontal furrows, is a great deal like farming.” Her story of reestablishing roots on the northern plains finds its metaphor in alfalfa: “If you want to survive in a dry place, if you want to go shamelessly green in the middle of nowhere, you must emulate alfalfa. If you want to bloom vividly, you must learn to put down a taproot that plunges to phenomenal depths in search of sustenance.”
Although Marquart’s taproot extends hundreds of miles between North Dakota and her life in Ames, Iowa, it waters the stories of home that Wendell Berry finds just as important as the daily chores on the land. Marquart’s stories do not end up as sentimental paeans to an idyllic rural life, however. Just as they are full of beauty and love, they are also full of soul-crushing work, small-mindedness, bitterness, and anger. Through it all, however, Marquart engages the reader with compelling stories, trenchant insights, and a language of rhythmic and imagistic beauty that reveals her experience as musician and poet.
The book ends with a detailed reimagining of the old “farmer’s daughter” jokes. As the young woman in the story speeds away from the farmstead in the stolen salesman’s car, convinced that she will never look back, we know that, like Marquart, someday she will realize that her childhood home is not the in middle of nowhere, but at the center of everything.