I lived three years in Iowa City as though upon an island. I have no doubt that countless others before me have not felt quite the same. The peculiar beauty of the Midwest lies in its vastness and non-specificity. It is not so much that the clichéd “sea of corn” dominates outside the city, so much as that the city itself—any town, large or small, upon the prairie—is its own habitat, like the pockets of woodland which line the little dells, a place which provides the only shelter, the only physiognomy which defines the location and by which we are able to relate to it.
I arrived in Iowa from the west, leaving home behind in western Washington state and passing through mountains and wide, empty plains of dust toward the sunrise. I came from a place where glacier-capped mountains dominated the horizon from a hundred miles away, and I found the Midwest exotic and exhilarating. The heartland, while sometimes disparaged as flyover country, is just as much a part of the American popular imagination as the autumn leaves of New England and the glowing mesas of the Southwest. As the architect Louis Sullivan found it as a landscape imbued with immense power, I found its remoteness, its sweeping horizon, its buzzing fields and frequent thunderstorms, all electric with vitality.
That first summer I learned that it is possible to sweat from places which I had never before known possessed the capability. I saw a mantis as long as my hand on a neighbor’s screen door, and a wasp the size of my thumb. I began to worry about what I had gotten myself into. Then fall came, mild and beautiful—it felt like a Northwestern summer—and I began to fall in love with the landscape. Winter followed, the little woods behind the graduate student housing filled with snow, and—mirabile dictu, for the Northwesterner—sparkled in sunlight. One bright morning, while waiting for the bus in cold so deep that my nose could no longer sting, I watched the most perfectly formed snowflakes settle one by one upon the shoulder of my coat, tiny glass ornaments which did not melt.
On a weekend, I drove out of the town. In less than five minutes I was in the fields. But that winter landscape was so utterly different than I had last seen it, empty of corn and leaves, a barren desert of snow and stubble. I had never seen such a lifeless landscape. Yet it was beautiful, and when spring came, it erupted from the ground with an exuberance such as I had never before witnessed.
The Midwest was the wilderness which I went into as a young man unsure of himself and the world. It tested me in ways I had not expected. It revealed much of myself to me which had prior lay hidden, both shortcomings and strengths. It is a land which is defined by transformation. Prone to devastating winds and floods, fertile and bursting with life by summer and frozen and barren by winter, the Midwest is a place which is constantly changing, yet in its vast fields and small, forgotten towns seems to stand still.