Tom Dean’s Under a Midland Sky | Thomas K. Dean’s Under a Midland Sky

An Iowa field and sky on a summer day. (Photo by Joe Stanski:

My nephew Michael, born in Brooklyn, NY, now residing in Queens, tells me he cannot conceive of living so far from the oceans, the skyscrapers, the City. He has driven through the Midwest, even visited briefly here and there within its landscapes. Perhaps I shall send him Thomas Dean’s book, Under a Midland Sky, which will translate our quick accesses to long vistas and enormous sky into rhapsodical, comprehendable images, luring him westward again.

Tom’s fond wanderings through orchard, campus, weather changes, and local geographic features reveal his devotion to this adopted hometown, its past, its current states and hopes. His connections to this place are up close and personal. Working at the the University of Iowa as Special Assistant to the President for Communications and Research, Tom has established The Iowa Project on Place Studies. Now that virtual space has often replaced actual space as the setting for experiencing community, while knowing the neighbor next door is fading from common experience, attention must be drawn to the “house we live in.” The grounds around us, the sky above, the people, flora, and fauna with whom we share our place must be noticed and their well-being become our concern. In his collected essays, Tom Dean touches our awareness of where we are and the need to care.

He attends with affection to the Norwegian Larch and the Gingko trees residing on the Pentacrest, the space around the restored first Iowa Capitol building, and relates their origins and tales. He recounts the power of wind and water in stories of tornado, straight wind, and flood. Weather fascinates him, as it does many of us in this rolling Midwest territory. He tracks it through the seasons. Iowans talk weather talk; Iowa says, “Love me, love my weather.” Or wait a few minutes. Weather changes here.

In a year marked by extreme weather and overflowing waters, his essays open windows on historic events and demolishments by both, setting this particular time of distress into larger contexts. He refers to the gentle lessons of the larch after a severe, icy winter, “its branches lopped, but still here.”

Accounts of ordinary lives and losses in his extended family reveal the celebrations and disgruntlements common to family gatherings. Particular examination of Christmas in its consumer mania, peculiar decor, traditions, and delectables combines nostalgia with puzzlement. Tom  has resided in many communities in the Midwest, and he dwelt in the lore and environs of each with hope and awareness. He lives where he is. He lives in the Midwest—our part of the region east of the Great Plains. He loves this place we love.

I called my nephew Michael to ask about his sense of being in place, what he thinks about his neighborhood in Queens on a tree-lined quiet street. He appreciates its nearness to public transport, schools, shopping, and a pleasant city park, likes walking around it with his wife Lori. It’s been a good place to live and to raise two children, but he does not feel attached to the place. He feels he is a mountain person and would like eventually to live among high hills, at least. I suggested Little Switzerland northwest of Dubuque, but he feels closer to the Poconos, the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks.

He is intrigued by the idea of place, and may now be more regularly attentive to the trees on his block, rather than just upset when one is cut down. It does make sense that feeling some connection to the land upon which one lives is likely to encourage care for its air, water, soil, vegetation, and community health. He is a very virtual person, so he suggested several websites related to city lore, folk archivists, place matters, but promises to be more aware of his real world. Michael has a degree in Agronomy and is a social worker and a blogger. I wonder whether the extent of NYC cultural possibilities may overwhelm local attachment, while accessibility and more limited choices keep Iowa culture closer to home.

Like many others, I am bombarded with requests for help with saving distant mountain ranges, valleys, forests, threatened species, displaced people. I respond as I am able to some far-away perils, but must begin with what is nearby. Having lived in many states, it came to me early that it is crucial to be conscious of the place where one is living. To notice . . . to care . . . about it and for it, day by day. Earth, air, water, sky, and fellow occupants. To pay attention. To appreciate its beauties and to remain aware of its needs and changes, and of one’s own close relationship to its condition. As Tom Dean does.

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