Every time I see the land from the air, I’m surprised: at how far the horizon stretches, at how it can change each season, at how abstract and surreal the place where I lived most of my life can look. North-central Iowa is perhaps one of the regimented-looking places on earth – a grid of farmland on an endless plain that stretches in all directions – and the changes that come with the seasons and weather flow through it on a massive scale.
It is sometimes called ‘flyover country’, a term whose often pejorative connotations are somewhat sad and ironic given that the airplane was a thoroughly Midwestern invention. Transportation is a necessity here, and because of it there’s a tendency to think that the landscape stretches on forever. When I was middle school if I wanted, say, the newest video game release, it was up to me to beg my parents to haul me and whoever else wanted to come along to the nearest town with a Wal-mart. From Clarion (population 3,000, my hometown, the seat of Wright County), it’s one hour to Ames. Forty-five minutes to Fort Dodge. One and a half to Des Moines. Three to the Twin Cities. One forty-five to Storm Lake, where I live. One fifteen the other way on Highway 3 to Waverly, where I went to college. Even today, visiting friends means traveling five hours along these roads. So if you live here, you drive a lot, in straight lines, for hours at a time.
The mythology of the land (of course) is probably that of the farmer, though the reality is that, while there are still many people involved in agriculture – the last several generations have consolidated their landholdings and many have been bought out by corporate interests, and thus there are fewer ‘farmers’ about. My grandparents, who were farmers, could look out over their land and see their neighbors, identify who farmed what throughout Butler county, but today, we mostly drive the grid without knowing who owns what. This is not to say the land area is cold or isolating – far from it. I think of the atmosphere of my hometown, I think of it as a warm and welcoming place, and the drives from spot to spot as peaceful and – a few recent unfortunate and uncharacteristic crashes aside – quiet. But living here, one does absorb an amazing sense of place and the vastness of it all, because of how often you must practically deal with the vastness of it all. This is also, perhaps why most of the pictures I’ve taken (or at least, uploaded online) of the area have been from the air, and even the ones on the ground have emphasized those lines and that scope.
Because my dad has a pilot’s license and flies regularly for fun, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up seeing the land from a small aircraft. You miss a lot of the detail when flying above the clouds. That medium distance is really ideal from which to understand where you’re driving when you’re down there on those roads. It also gives one time to contemplate how surreal it all looks – the expanse, the grid. Up there, it’s not just a distance, but an aesthetic object and an oddly abstract one at that. Look out far and it can go on for ever, in fall or spring (like those brown ones posted here, taken this Easter) it looks like a desert despite the fertility the dirt hides. Look closer in the right light, and contours prominently appear. Depending on the seasons, the rains and snow melt, there may be some improvised and agriculturally unfortunate rivers and lakes. It is simultaneously one of the most consistent yet constantly changing, repeatedly rejuvenating landscapes one can see.