And Here We Are … in the Middle: From Big Sur to Big Sky

Photo by Linda Sonrisa Jones

When we spoke with the young man who drove our rental truck two thousand miles from Big Sur, California, to here, we asked him what his experience was driving large vehicles long distance. He told us stories of his expeditions to Burning Man.

Suitably impressed, we told him about Fairfield, the meditating community, the many ethnic restaurants, the farmer’s market, and the 16-mile loop trail that circles the town of about 10,000 souls.

“It’s like Burning Man,” we said, “but for old folks!” Which got a laugh, and is somewhat true. There is a thriving bunch of active retired folks here, but Fairfield also has lots of young families with little kids, university students, artists, farmers, professional people—a real small-town demographic.

“The sky is our ocean,” said a new friend. When we drive out of town, down the nearly empty highways, we see this sky-ocean, sometimes baby blue, sometimes steel gray, always changing. A huge palette in the sky, clouds painted in broad strokes by the ever-present winds.

Now, in May, the land is truly beautiful, with endless, patient crop fields not yet planted, abundant forests, gardens and hedgerows, and the expansive Skunk River, where I half-expect Huck Finn to float by on a raft.

Still, sadness lingers, ebbs away, and crashes back. Driving up to Iowa City, I asked my husband, “Where’s the edge? Where’s the edge?” There’s no jumping off place, no escape. “There is no edge, sweetie,” he said, “we’re in the middle.”

The middle. Swaddled in miles and miles of Mother Earth. When we would look at Google earth before our move, we’d see the golds and greens of the continent up to the Pacific Northwest, the ochre and sepia of the western deserts and mountains, then the emerald tones of the Heartland. I told myself we were moving from the ragged coast to the soft, enfolding center of the continent.

On the coast, Mother Earth dares us to maintain our balance, and keeps us on our tippy toes. Here, she holds us close, she seems more peaceful. She lulls us with endless storybook clouds, and the kind of landscape that must have inspired that childhood Rorschach—drawings of a house, a yard, a tree, the sun. Again and again, in village after village nestled between farms.

Iowa is dramatic land, too. It’s dramatic in its stillness, its endless vast flatness (and rolling hills), its timeless quality. And of course, snow, which is still a novelty for me. Then, there’s tornadoes. Wooooo boy. Our sweet realtors told us that Fairfield isn’t really part of “tornado alley,” which has occasioned a guffaw or two from folks we’ve met. Another part of the adventure.

Did tea-kettle topped grain silos inspire the Tin Man’s hat in the Wizard of Oz? A sensational amount of corn is grown here: approximately 13 million acres of it, yielding 128 billion pounds of “field corn” (used mostly for animal feed and ethanol production) each year. Iowa grows more maíz than Mexico. The seas of soil in this hardworking land bring an agrarian sensibility to the culture. You can see this from the front porch to the farmer’s market, from the county fairs to the monster silos beside the highways.

Perhaps because of the cold winters, social relating is a highly developed art form. I’ve found there are many storytellers here, with lots of quick, dry wit. Standing in line with my new pitchfork at the farm store, the older gent behind me said, “She’s either got some digging to do, or her husband’s in trouble!”

I loved learning from my neighbor that the delicate silver maple leaf pods that flutter to the ground like spinning butterflies are known as “maple squirters.” When they’re green, kids squeeze them, and, as you guessed, the seeds pop out.

Another passionate pastime is birdwatching. On a cold morning right before Easter I trudged through the melting snow with several women of all ages and some adorable girl scouts, looking for newly arriving birds. It felt like an Easter egg hunt, as we searched for and spotted the beauties. We saw all kinds, from red-wing blackbirds, eastern phoebes and tufted titmice to dashing scarlet cardinals and the elusive white-breasted nuthatch.  Even a wood duck emerged from its box in the lagoon.

When I asked the group leader, a round lady in her later years, what kind of bird she would be, she replied immediately, “A sparrow, for its subtle beauty.”

And I’d like to thank Bob Dylan, for (another) gem of wisdom. He’s chosen Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the home of his just-opened Bob Dylan Center in the Tulsa arts district. When asked, why Tulsa? he replied that, while the coasts have a certain energy, he prefers, “the casual hum of the Heartland.”  Thanks Bob! I’m starting to like that hum, too.

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