Saturday, September 22, 2018

my parents were iowan - my dad grew up in council bluffs, where his parents and grandparents were, though he moved to des moines in high school. my mom was born in sibley, northwestern iowa, but then moved to marion and, after that, ames. they met in ames, and married as soon as my mom graduated from iowa state (my dad had graduated the year before), but they left iowa to honeymoon in saint louis and never came back to live. my dad was a chemical engineer, and there were no chemical engineering jobs in iowa. instead he brought us up in saint louis, cleveland, toledo, pittsburgh and buffalo.

he once said, i was in a generation where whole families all lived in one town. i could cross town to see my uncles, my grandparents, everyone; they all lived in the same town, even the same neighborhood. but that was hell for me, because my grandmother was domineering, and had a feud with my uncle, who i never got to hang around with, because she forbid it. she was always around, and she made my mother's life miserable, to the point that my mom died early. so i rejected that kind of extended-family way of life. i decided that when i had a family we would be off by ourselves where we could still visit extended family, but not have them around all the time. and that's what i did. when i got my own family, we made sure we had our own town, our own place.

when my parents got old, in spite of their insistence on being independent and not burdening us, they needed us, and we came around. by now they were in new mexico. my sister was in new york city, but moved to new mexico to be near them. i had settled in illinois, as near iowa as i could get, but illinois was broke and i took my chance to move out to texas to be closer to them, and from there, ended up in new mexico myself. my sister and i spent a few of their last years with them, and i would occasionally hear stories of iowa when they spoke about their earlier days. it occurred to me that there were lots of questions i should be asking but simply didn't know what the questions were, so, didn't ask. but i knew the outlines of their lives and knew their relationship to iowa itself, right alongside their late but newfound love of new mexico.

my dad's dad had been a builder - built solid homes all over des moines, and collected mortgage money sometimes for years from people who sometimes could pay and sometimes couldn't. my mom's dad was an ag extension agent. he would go around the state, encouraging farmers to try the innovations developed at iowa state, including such things as automatic pig feeders, hybrids, and new kinds of tractors. unfortunately some of these things didn't work out, or turned out to be bad for the state. hybrids themselves were arguable; was it good that the whole state now planted a single variety of corn, that couldn't reproduce itself, and that required an entire seed industry to back it up and make sure people were ready to plant the following year? but the innovation that will do them in, i feel, was the pesticides. this was after my grandpa's time, i'm sure, but eventually they not only developed the chemicals to wipe out every bug that could possibly eat corn, but, they also developed the genetic modification to ensure that the corn itself wouldn't suffer, and so they could saturate the state with roundup, kill every bug in sight, and increase yields thus feeding the world that much more efficiently.

i lived in iowa for eleven years, 1975-1986, and finally went to college there, got a graduate degree, and left for my own career, but left a huge part of my heart there. i always thought that not only was the corn itself beautiful, changing incrementally every day, by the field-full, but the natural rolling of the hills of the eastern part of the state, the river valleys, were exceptionally beautiful all by themselves, especially when the wooded areas moved off of the riverbanks and took over the hillsides. it was a serene, gorgeous landscape, with naturally rich soil, in spite of what was being done with it or to it, and i felt personally responsible for it as one who it seemed could claim it as an ancestral home. ancestral, of course, only in the sense of a couple of generations, which hardly compared with those native tribes who had been there maybe forty generations, and were now pretty much gone, except for a small reservation up near tama. but there was also nothing to be done, as far as i could tell, about the saturation of the state's world-champion topsoil with roundup, or similar pesticides - this was controlled by forces much greater than i, and i had set myself up as a language person, a writer, and couldn't tell you any of the science behind nerve-gas being used to kill bugs, and causing damage to humans, to kids, in the process. but even in illinois there were signs of trouble, and we lived well outside of the strong pesticide region. rates of autism were skyrocketing. a neighbor who regularly put "poison" signs on his yard as he sprayed hard metals on the grass, had a grandkid with multiple heart problems, barely surviving his childhood. people were not healthy, and it was obvious. in my opinion, the roundup saturation was the beginning of big trouble for the whole midwest region. it's poison; it's nerve gas. it's in all the water; there's no getting away from it. one couldn't, for example, have an organic farm, out in the country, and hope that somehow your well would provide real water, untouched by the thousands of square miles of roundup-saturated lands all around it.

but, no matter, i was out here, in new mexico, anyway, and the last of my kids would drink mountaintop water, or, water that is purified and sold in a store, like most people in new mexico drink. now the desert southwest has its own problems, namely, that in the process of pulling 250 billion gallons of water out of the aquifers beneath us, in order to survive, and drink water, and have the water necessary for such things as fracking, or swimming, for example, we have taken water from a place where it can't be very easily replaced, and put it into the atmosphere where it will cause such things as hurricane florence, storms that dump unusually high amounts of water into random places. there's more water in the atmosphere than ever before. whereas iowa used to have floods every hundred years or so, now it's had four or five of them in the past eight years, as storm systems get stranded over the mississippi and just dump water by the field-full on every square inch. and big dead-zones full of pesticide and every other travesty end up down by new orleans, killing the seafood, making it impossible for normal bayou life to go on with living things enjoying real sea water.

but new mexico is, at least, an entirely different story. there's very little roundup here. people are used to fighting over water; they've sucked the rio grande dry for so many years, that most of us have never seen real water in it. one has to be high in the mountains, as i am, to see real water in a river bed, or to see water come down out of the highlands and into a place where people can grab it, whoever being upstream having the first chance (excuse that little turn of language please). the future of a landscape saturated with roundup does not seem to be an issue on the table, and, there are so few new people in the area, that generally those of us who move out here are welcomed, as the place needs a few more to keep its sustenance, and to keep it from falling in to intermarriage and bad habits (i had once felt the same way about iowa - that in order to keep the smaller towns from falling into intermarriage and despair, we needed ways to get new people to move to the area). there is the danger, here, of upsetting the tenuous balance between anglo, hispanic, and native, all traditionally about a third, at least for the last six or seven generations. the third and fourth generation new mexicans often have a healthy mix of the three - and comment on it to each other - one is darker than the other, or one has a hispanic name but anglo face, or the other way around. the kids are well familiar with racial mixing and it's a constant presence in everything from education to elections and government. the state is having a boom now, of oil production in the southeast and other parts of the state, and for the first time in a long time, has the chance to pull itself out of the dregs of national economic last-place bottomness. but the settled-in nature of corruption and entitlement (been here five generations? whatever resources anyone is selling, you can call them yours) - is similar to iowa's, in the sense that the future of our children is very rarely considered except in the light that some of the money spent in the sell-off of resources, might be spent on them. the state has needs, though: roads, waste disposal, education, etc., and if there's a way to pull that much more oil out of the underground caverns, i believe it's going to get done, regardless of whatever i or anyone else has to say about it. it's different from the corn situation. it's not good for our water. it's set us up for maybe a thousand or two years of pure desert emptiness, after it becomes clear that people simply cannot live in a place with bad water or no water, and nature will have to take its course, taking as long as it needs to restore some kind of balance.

and so it will probably happen with iowa, too. when it becomes clear that 1) roundup is bad for the water; 2) one cannot avoid the water that has roundup in it; 3) one has to move someplace for a few hundred years, until the water can heal itself and become drinkable again; in my view, iowa is not the kind of place that one can settle roots in, claim as an ancestral home, and plan to live there with one's descendants for many generations to come. and new mexico may also not be such a place. we americans may have to accept the fact that we've messed things up to such a degree that, once again, we have no land to call home, or no place that we can claim to have set up a sustainable system that will take care of our kids, grandkids, great-grands, etc. we blew it. and that doesn't mean we'll perish altogether, that just means we'll thrive best if we keep moving on, to some place we haven't already spoiled. like alaska, or africa, or maybe the moon, or mars.

it's a little depressing, to consider the fact that perhaps we've despoiled the place, made whole swaths of it uninhabitable. in that sense, it was a mistake for the native tribes to let us in in the first place. and it leaves open the question: are england and scotland despoiled as well? what other places are truly inhabitable, now that so much of our continent is not? has our production and transportation reached the level where one could live in iowa, for example, and not have to drink the well water, or any other local water, so that one could simply eat well and survive, raise kids, and haul in anything that won't grow in the area? we here in new mexico, for example, get used to chiles, and cherry tomatoes, such things that grow well in the intense sun and mediocre soil, but which will sustain us from year to year, and which will get by with sporadic water that is characteristic of the place. we had a rainy year this year, which meant that things like wildflowers sprung up all over the place, but the excessive growth of grasses and weeds makes everyone nervous about the upcoming fire season, as inevitably it is very dry from october until about june, when the fires come, and the greenery, long since having turned brown, threatens to engulf everyone in intense flames. i think of how, in the original prairies that covered the western parts of iowa, fire was a natural part of the cycle, in that it cleared out the grasses and allowed everything to start over again. it does the same for us in the mountains, but we fear it, and have legions of men with hoses and fire retardants, and helicopters, ready to pounce on anything that could swallow up our homes and beloved possessions. we are nervous, anxious, connected to the news about any particular fire breaking out, eager to jump in the truck and go dig a ditch. quick with the fire-extinguishers and flame-retardants, which, by the way, are a close relative to roundup in terms of their deadly ability to permeate the landscape.

another sunrise has lit up the white sands, and the puppy barks. something is going on out there.


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