On Landscape, Corn, and Cather

As we were driving back from the Niobrara yesterday, my mother and I were discussing the changing landscape as we passed from Sandhills to flat plains to the rolling hills of the southeastern corner of the state. Near Bassett, my father said he loved driving through the Sandhills -- which are looking particularly verdant right now -- but could never live there. Later, my mother described the landscape in eastern Wyoming as just unbearable to her -- barren and dry. I, meanwhile, contended that to me, it was the endless row crops of the flat plains along Interstate 80 that were unbearable, the scar on the earth that is the industrialization of the land, the identical topography, the tips of the cornsilks evening the plain to a point where if nuance is imperceptible, the field is good.

And then there are the sad fields, a few short, pale-green cornstalks on the end, the occasional errant milo (exceedingly rare, this lovely drought-resistant grain), the center-pivots nowhere to be seen. Is this what it will look like?

I came home to read further in My Ántonia; and came to this passage, published in 1920:

July came on with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather's to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas' cornfields, or Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

Little did Cather know how far this prophesy would come nearly 100 years later. Enlarge and multiply they did, swallowing up so many farmhouses now left empty and weathered, drinking down the aquifer, stripping away the topsoil, and poisoning the groundwater in the process. Yes, give me the dry and barren (or the mountainous, or the naturally verdant, &c.) over the irrigated and industrialized. In Israel, one plant has it figured out.

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