Tuesday, June 24, 2008

i lived in iowa for eleven years, 1975-1986, very turbulent years for me as i was twenty one when i got there and didn't grow up 'til i nearly left. i lived in iowa city mostly, but also in cedar rapids, mt. vernon, lisbon, frytown, and out in the country, outside wellman, outside solon, outside west branch, outside north liberty, all over the place. several times i lived near rivers- once on the iowa, just outside iowa city, where i lived in a stilted cabin and my cat lulabelle got caught in a trap; once on the cedar, in an ivanhoe cabin at the bottom of a bluff, a sunny place whose mulberries i can still taste. both these places are gone because of the flood, i'm sure, but my memories have been flooding along with the waters that have now reached down here & will soon be spilling out down in new orleans. on monday i made my students write about the iowa floods for their finals, and so have been reading about whether global warming caused them or not, all day; my students, of course. don't know the place at all, and know even less about whether two 500-year floods in fifteen years is extraordinary or what, but, there was plenty of evidence either way, so, in a sense, reading the papers was kind of like going to a local diner, and trying to figure something out with a bunch of guys in feed caps, who say a few things i don't understand.

when i first got to iowa city i'd take my cross country skis out by city park and beyond, where there was a hilly golf course owned by the elks or some such group who were never there when i skied. crossing the iced-over iowa was living dangerously, since, less than a mile upriver from a raging dam, people were known to fall in and only be saved by the grace of the power plant workers or whoever watched the water rushing over that dam, down at the burlington street bridge. i never fell in, though i almost did several times, and i noticed how low and buggy the terrain was, in general, throughout the park, when so much of iowa city was up on the hills, the bluffs, where gentle woods covered you and protected you also from the bitter winter winds. a place of very hot summers, very cold winters, a lot of wind, and several days each week of clear blue skies that you just don't see down here.

of all the rivers, the big one, besides the mississippi, is the des moines, which should be called the des moyenne, the middle one, the one between the missouri and the mississippi. if there were ever monks on it, or monks in the city that was built on it, people surely wouldn't have named the river after the monks. that river is a big one, spilling out down at the quarter-bridge to st. francisville, down on the missouri line, at iowa's foot down by keokuk. the others spill into it, or spill directly into the mississippi, for example, the skunk, which has a bit of power, or the cedar, which has both rapids and falls and some big towns, before it ever gets to ivanhoe. but my favorite is the wapsipinicon, which we called the wapsi, as i never even knew all the wild places it went; it passed through jones county in a place we liked to go, near anamosa, and seemed to snake through virtually untamed wilderness on its way through the countryside.

in fact very little of iowa was truly untamed, though it wasn't heavily traveled by tourists, or anyone else. at ivanhoe i could follow the road i lived on and go back into cedar county on long winding gravel roads that followed the cedar, roughly, into some wild territory where I'd lose track completely of which way was south. on those roads sometimes you'd come around a bend and a huge farm tractor would come over a hill, with darkened squarish windows and somebody peeking behind them, taking up 80% of the road and daring you not to fly into the ditch on your way around it, when you know full well that slamming on the brakes wasn't much of an option either. going the other way, on the paved highway, highway 1, I watched the corn change day by day as I had the luxury of not having to veer around rutted gravel potholes; I'd also see the hollowed out stone house, vacant for at least a hundred years, with the religious sign out in front, not just telling me to find jesus but threatening me as to what would happen if i didn't. a beautiful road, it slowed down going through solon, and passed a number of roads that i got to know or lived on at one time or another- solon dx road, also known as christmas tree farm road, morse road, dingleberry quarry road- actually one of the ones i lived on had a name too but it escapes me. it was hilly country, almost all river bluff, always a surprise around the next hill, but only once you knew what you were looking at. otherwise it seemed at times like just miles of corn, swishing in the breeze, or some farmer driving too slow to look at it. the rivers, we kind of took for granted- there were better places to swim, and if we wanted to canoe or raft, we'd go north, where it was more pleasant when you fell in them. the upper iowa was a good canoeing river; wisconsin had the rafting ones. people did actually canoe the cedar occasionally, and the wapsi a lot, but never the iowa, because of the dam i mentioned before. they fished in them all the time, and even ate the fish that came out of them, despite the fact that even then they were filling up with sediment, fertilizer, pesticide, you name it. catfish were good, even delicious, went together well with corn on the cob- and they'd come right out of the water like they were eager to join you.

i remember summers the best, because, this time of year, you could hang around the rivers long enough, and not want to go back to town at all. by my place at ivanhoe was little pullovers on the road, down by the river, where the mulberries were, and people would camp there a lot, because it just seemed to be wild and open, a lot of stars, good fishing, and you weren't in anyone's way. coming from the east as i did, and from traveling in places like california and florida, such places like that that were beautiful, wild, and open, with free camping, with a tree full of fruit to boot, seemed too good to be true.

for my students i dug up quotes about why it could have been global warming, or why it probably wasn't, that caused the great flood. Drainage tiling caused water to go into the rivers sooner than usual (Achenbach), frequency of extreme rainfalls is up 24% since 1948 (Shapley), five million acres of crops destroyed (Leonard), alarm expressed by newspapers as far away as australia...my students read this stuff, and tried to make sense of it, and wrote reasonable essays considering their grammar is comparable to a lowland patch of nettles on a muddy riverbank...what sticks with me, though, is a set of pictures collected by the boston globe, for whatever reason, which i now see attracted some others as well, as it has over 430 comments. easterners don't understand iowa much, always asked me why i ended up out here, what would attract a person to a place like this, or to iowa, when i was living up there....and i don't know if i ever put it quite into words for them; don't even know if i could, even now. i do know that the hills here, as well as up there in iowa, are full of evidence that this is the very old land, the heart of the country; land of mounds & arrowheads; it has been settled, so to speak, forever, and for thousands of years, I assume, when the rivers rose, people went further up into the hills to wait it out, and let the waters flow out...if two of these floods in fifteen years is a little extreme, well, yes, i guess nature is a little extreme around here, it's the way it is. it's river country, so the rivers decide, in the end, what stays, and what washes on down to the gulf. i myself am staying, if i can; a couple of friends have left, after a few bad seasons, or bad restaurant experiences, but, it'll take a little more than just weather, to drive me out of this river country; i've kind of got attached.


Anonymous bruce said...

A little background is in order. You (and I) didn't just live in Iowa for 11 years; we've got it in our blood. Our grandparents settled there; our parents grew up there and met at Iowa State; and Tom's daughter was born and grew up there (and met her husband there).

What do I know about Iowa? Let me think ... Of course, it used to have grandparents, whose company we used to enjoy. We used to drive out there from Toledo every year or so. Our game to play to keep from getting bored in the car on route 80 (or was it 30) was, "how far is it to the horizon?" (that, and looking for different state license plates, or looking for different letters of the alphabet on billboards). One set of grandparents had an air-conditioned house, a big red long-haired dog named Judge, and there was a cool culvert in the road outside their house, which of course, we weren't supposed to play in. When we visited the other set, there were beautiful swans in the lake in the park at Iowa State, and a cute little pug-nosed dog named Hectic across the street from their house.

When Tom went to live in the ancestral homeland, I would occasionally go out and visit. I saw all kinds of places: Iowa City; the New Pioneer food co-op; lakes and rivers; Broadway and Swine Drive; Scattergood school, with its ice rink that my wife (then my fiancee) took a little spin on with her Seeing Eye dog; a dorm at Cornell College; little houses out in the country. I got to know Josie as a toddler. Once, when route 80 was icy, we skidded and turned around 180 degrees.

Later, after Tom had moved to Kansas, Nancy and I drove through Iowa to pick up pre-teen Josie.

When Josie got married, we went to Iowa again, and met her horse, who was very hospitable to me and my family. Haven't been back since then.

10:03 AM  

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