Iowa Writes

AMY NOLAN
from "Writing Home," an essay


[. . .]


I have gone deeper into the Midwest than I thought I'd ever go, to a place I'd never even considered, much less traveled. Only a twelve-hour drive from my home state of Michigan, my home in Iowa sometimes feels as far away as the Land of Oz. Iowa is a place where vanity feels foolish and unnecessary—stripped away by the ongoing current of the wind. The wind here is different than anywhere else I've ever been: it wraps around my whole body, like water.


This is a place where I have learned a new respect for rivers—for these rivers are not the narrow streams of northern Michigan, covered with tiny, soft stones, the water clear and clean, the fish visible under the glass surface. Iowa rivers are yawning, muddy, wide, moiling—the bottom is impossible to see, and the contents are always under suspicion. These rivers, like all rivers, defy control, seeping and sometimes tumbling into swamps, farm fields, basements. Within a week they can transform a cornfield into a lake that attracts white cranes. Their power, like Iowa's beauty, is subtle and formidable.

[. . .]


I have gone deeper into the Midwest than I thought I'd ever go, to a place I'd never even considered, much less traveled. Only a twelve-hour drive from my home state of Michigan, my home in Iowa sometimes feels as far away as the Land of Oz. Iowa is a place where vanity feels foolish and unnecessary—stripped away by the ongoing current of the wind. The wind here is different than anywhere else I've ever been: it wraps around my whole body, like water.


This is a place where I have learned a new respect for rivers—for these rivers are not the narrow streams of northern Michigan, covered with tiny, soft stones, the water clear and clean, the fish visible under the glass surface. Iowa rivers are yawning, muddy, wide, moiling—the bottom is impossible to see, and the contents are always under suspicion. These rivers, like all rivers, defy control, seeping and sometimes tumbling into swamps, farm fields, basements. Within a week they can transform a cornfield into a lake that attracts white cranes. Their power, like Iowa's beauty, is subtle and formidable.


When I moved here two years ago after living in Michigan for my entire life, I wasn't prepared to be embraced by the open spaces, waved to by strangers who will also pause and talk to me. I wasn't prepared to find myself planting trees, roses, and sweet potatoes, something I'd never done before in Michigan. I wasn't prepared to find a strong community of small farms whose farmers were part of a movement to counteract agri-business with local and organic produce, dairy, and meat. I wasn't prepared for the calm, the sanity, the quiet joy of watching the trajectory of a red-tailed hawk trailing figure eights in a clear, sub-zero sky. I wasn't prepared for the discovery of a familiar deadpan, ironic outlook that seamlessly weaves into Iowans' self-deprecating humor and quiet strength. What I found here is what nature writer Terry Tempest Williams describes as a place of rest and safety—a place at last to find my voice, now far away from the din of other versions of the person I've tried to become, and the person I've tried to deny. This landscape forces me to confront myself, because it denies nothing.


Running on the sand-colored Iowa country roads is to be enfolded by this honest emptiness. The cloudless sky seems to crash down on the slightly curved landscape. Here there is nowhere to hide; this place shakes loose a new honesty and directness in me. The trees are few and far between, so when I see one, I study it carefully. Wherever I run, the wind runs with me, shaping my spirit as surely as it shapes the corn and the prairie grass. Dust and sweat create a layer of skin over skin, and there is no shelter from the sun. I marvel at how I could ever have imagined that I would find such peace here in this fiercely indifferent place. I respect the way it keeps others away simply by being what it is. It has no pretensions to be anything else. There is no façade. It makes sense to me why so many people I knew from Michigan thought I was crazy for moving here.


People joke that states like Iowa aren't even worth passing through because there is "nothing" there. The landscape will receive anyone who comes through, but it doesn't care if you're here or not. Iowa is indeed the "middle" of the country—the "fly-over" zone that is largely forgotten by most people. It is a way station, certainly not supposed to be a destination. I realize that Iowa's "middle-ness" is precisely what feels right to me. I marvel at living in a place where no one else wants to go, but where everyone I talk to here loves to be. I belong here because this is where I've always been, inside—at the crossroads, the "fly-over" zone. Places of quiet, even seeming desolation, and ruin, have drawn me, called to me. Here there is sweet, complicated paradox laid bare: unceasing mystery and revelation exist together.

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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


AMY NOLAN

Amy Nolan teaches creative writing, the graphic novel, and film at Wartburg College, and she is currently at work on her first book, a memoir called Water Music. An excerpt from the memoir, an essay called "Close to the Bones," was recently published in The Bellevue Literary Review.

This page was first displayed
on July 16, 2009

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