Iowa Writes

DOUGLAS BAUER
An excerpt from Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home (nonfiction)


When these skies are cold and dark, as they are today, the town seems to lose a finishing dimension, some depth or adornment it normally has, is entitled to have. The absence is visible, as if an artist had left Prairie City incomplete on his canvas.


This is a purely private aesthetic, but everyone in Prairie City has his ideas about the skies. They drop low and close and hold the future; approaching weather is in the skies, and Prairie City's crops, Prairie City's economy, rely on properly timed weather. There's a particularly constant burden on farmers and their merchants, seeing their situation in the skies. There's no escaping them, and if the skies stay clear when water is needed, or if they refuse to break after drowning rains, they are everywhere, hanging, reminding. Over generations, these people seem to have developed an extraordinary pessimism about nature. They will look up scornfully into ideal weather, then squint into the west, inspecting the horizon like a cavalry scout in a '50s Western looking to the earth's edge for that inevitable forming line of Apaches.


Moving into the cold, gray skies, the newest Co-op grain silos are nearly finished, nearly as high as they'll be. It takes only ten days to build a silo, the work never stopping once it has begun. A silo is, elementally, a hollow cylinder of concrete several stories high and the concrete, once poured, must not be allowed to dry. If it did—if work stopped at the end of a day and resumed the following morning—a seam would form where the day's fresh batter met yesterday's, letting air into the silo. Air and moisture do nothing good to stored grain. So up and up the silos go, methodically, undetectably, growing as a crop grows, and every foot of growth adds space enough for one thousand bushels of grain.

When these skies are cold and dark, as they are today, the town seems to lose a finishing dimension, some depth or adornment it normally has, is entitled to have. The absence is visible, as if an artist had left Prairie City incomplete on his canvas.


This is a purely private aesthetic, but everyone in Prairie City has his ideas about the skies. They drop low and close and hold the future; approaching weather is in the skies, and Prairie City's crops, Prairie City's economy, rely on properly timed weather. There's a particularly constant burden on farmers and their merchants, seeing their situation in the skies. There's no escaping them, and if the skies stay clear when water is needed, or if they refuse to break after drowning rains, they are everywhere, hanging, reminding. Over generations, these people seem to have developed an extraordinary pessimism about nature. They will look up scornfully into ideal weather, then squint into the west, inspecting the horizon like a cavalry scout in a '50s Western looking to the earth's edge for that inevitable forming line of Apaches.


Moving into the cold, gray skies, the newest Co-op grain silos are nearly finished, nearly as high as they'll be. It takes only ten days to build a silo, the work never stopping once it has begun. A silo is, elementally, a hollow cylinder of concrete several stories high and the concrete, once poured, must not be allowed to dry. If it did—if work stopped at the end of a day and resumed the following morning—a seam would form where the day's fresh batter met yesterday's, letting air into the silo. Air and moisture do nothing good to stored grain. So up and up the silos go, methodically, undetectably, growing as a crop grows, and every foot of growth adds space enough for one thousand bushels of grain.


The day crew leaves the circular wooden scaffolding as new workers ride up in a bucket, and flood lamps maintain a rising halo of daylight. People from town come in the evening to watch the work, but not with the awe they felt when the first new towers were built, several years ago. This kind of construction has become an almost annual event, with the increasing yields, and the sense of spectacle has worn off. Nevertheless, there is something optically magical in watching the silos rise—silently and with no signs of strain—especially at night, when the workers are lit up in the black sky of the sleeping town. Their words and comradely laughter float down and they seem celebrities up there, floodlit and watched from below. They drew crowds years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen and came with my father to watch them. Now they get a few couples, for a minute or two, and head cranings from passing car windows. The magic has gone and the town views these growing silos with the same ennui that the rest of the country feels about seeing men in space.


After its shift, the day crew heads directly across the highway for cases of beer at Jim Billingsley's Cardinal Inn. They are mostly young men, with the shaggy heads, and beards of the new blue-collar worker, and they move with an almost parodistic muscularity. They look like members of a motorcycle gang, and they create a kind of compressed tension whenever they come down from their work and rub against the town. It's a more complicated matter than their appearance, though that's some of it. They possess an unaccommodating boldness that clashes with the settled tempo and they're not the least apologetic for it. They stride into the Cardinal with authority, suggesting the tension between an occupying army and its provincial village.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


DOUGLAS BAUER

Douglas Bauer has written three novels, Dexterity, The Very Air, and The Book of Famous Iowans, and a book of essays, The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. He has taught at Harvard and the University of New Mexico and has been writer-in-residence at Rice University and Smith College. He currently teaches at Bennington College.


Established in 1969 and housed in the historic Kuhl House, the oldest house still standing in Iowa City, the University of Iowa Press publishes scholarly books and a wide variety of titles that will appeal to general readers. As the only university press in the state, it is dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the region.

University of Iowa Press

This page was first displayed
on January 21, 2009

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