OBSERVER/Joan Zwagerman Curbow

A patch of earth echoes a distant sea

I stand at the corner of 40th Avenue and 580th Street, but don't get the wrong idea. You may think of hot sidewalks and acrid exhaust, a place of mortal coil, wound tight, a place like Times Square. In some part of the world, in some unparallel existence, 40th Avenue and 580th Street may collide in a melange of metal, concrete, glass, and flesh. But not here.

At this juncture, there are no high-flung towers, no trash-strewn streets. There are no raised fists of irate drivers. Instead, there is bird call and cricket chirp and some say--if you really listen--the sound of corn growing. I have opportunity to test this theory, but I hear nothing from the field of seed corn to my left. The other three corners are planted in soybeans. The only billboard is a small DeKalb seed sign posted near one of the soybean plots.

It is nine in the morning, a day of high sun, but there is a cool breeze-a rare gift for late July. I am on a morning walk in the country. I meet one car on the gravel road; it swings wide to give me berth, but doesn't slow down. A berm of earth runs parallel to the road; a railroad runs on top of this levee, but this is the wrong time of day for a train. Highway Seven lies on the other side of the tracks. It runs parallel for a short way, then veers north and west. Cars zip by, but I barely hear them. The levee blots their whoosh and hum.

I take the highway when I travel by car, a road that feeds (eventually) into Interstate 29. It is a way "out," if out is where you're headed. It was, in fact, the beginning of a great escape West for us last summer. Although my husband and I drove every mile to the Pacific Northwest, we might has well have flown, for the road gave us wings, and we flew far. We stood on the outermost reaches of the land and heard (heard!) the ocean and fell silent at its feet. We ferried through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and watched bald eagles nest on island outcroppings. Like Dorothy Gale's tornado, we were plucked and lifted into a sort of dreamworld, a dreamworld where everything seemed strange and bright, tempting and wild, but not home.

This is home, here, in the fields, even though I am a town kid who couldn't tell the difference between a rasp and a hasp. Still, standing on this rural corner, in high summer, satisfies. And this is a strange thing, but no stranger than Dorothy's longing for plain, drab Kansas. It was where she belonged.

For my husband, this matter of belonging is not so neat and easy. He is a child of mountain majesty. No matter how often his eye scans the land (and appreciates it), it still surprises him. He'll see mountains take shape in low, western cloud banks. "It looks just like the Olympics," he'll say. I see them too, jagged edges and peaks, but I have no wish to dream of mountains.

I dream, instead, of the ocean and how we gathered sand dollars as the waves chucked them, whole, on the beach. We had only to stoop and pick them up. Real harvesting, though, requires a bit more effort, whether one steers a tiller or tills the soil.

That day at the ocean's edge, the water was made of soil. It churned jade and brown and was heavily furrowed. It echoed a similar scene in Iowa during spring planting when everything is in flux. Staring at the roiling water at hand and, farther out, at the horizon, where the earth curves away, I understood why some pioneers felt adrift on the prairies, lost at sea. The sea is a rolling plain. I could live by the sea.

In a way, I do. This open bowl of land in northwest Iowa, this undulating quilt of sane, green squares, exerts its own tidal pull. I have rarely plunged my hands into loam, nor worked so much as a garden plot, yet I feel an undertow.

It is the undertow of time. Centuries ago the place where I stand was covered with a thick shield of ice. The fact that it is now planted in corn and soybeans is a blip on a radar. Alexandra Bergson, Willa Cather's farmer heroine in O Pioneers!, said in a rare, philosophical mood, "We come and go, but the land is always here." This is a fact that resounds on the corner of 40th Avenue and 580th Street. Time tells the story of the land. We, mere wisps in the wind, steal away, living on borrowed time.

Joan Zwagerman Curbow lives in Alta, Iowa, where the Western prairie begins.

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