As a sixth-grader I learned, in a course delivered via TV, that Iowa had the highest percentage of land in agriculture of any state and the best soil of anywhere in the world. Its first settlers grew wheat for the staple crop, but they discovered the climate of hot humid summers were better suited for corn. The state then became famous for corn and “corn fed Iowa beef”. There was even a ditty we sang that ended with, “Iowa, that’s where the tall corn grows.” Actually, most years Iowa was second to Illinois in corn production but number one in raising hogs. I guess you can understand why Iowa never pushed this fact. Imagine a song ending, “Iowa, that’s where the big pigs eat”.
All my adult relatives either farmed or were raised on farms. My father worked in agribusiness. Until the age of five, I had lived on a farm. At that time my world was filled endless opportunities to get into mischief with my brothers. Barns offered places to hide, climb, and swing on ropes. Stacks of baled hay could be turned into forts. Cornfields became dense forests. Pastures were huge parks filled with cattle to herd and cow pies to pitch.
Animals were everywhere. Most farms had cattle, hogs, chickens, ducks/geese, big dogs, and prowling cats. I loved kittens. The scene related in Dreams of Life where four-year-old Stevie became very upset when a tomcat killed kittens, actually happened to me. What my Dad did in response – tried to kill the tomcat but when he could not, had a neighbor do it – was also true. This memory became the seed of the idea for the role cats played in my novel.
In addition to the animals providing food for the table, pigs and cattle could be sold for cash, and fowl produced eggs. Dogs guarded the property. Cats killed rodents. Crops entered this cycle because they could be fed to the animals in addition to being sold at market.
Farmers could not grow corn only because it would deplete the soil of nutrients. Instead, farmers raised grasses such as oats and corn (yes, corn is a grass) on some fields and legumes such as alfalfa and soybeans on others. Periodically, fields planted in grasses were planted in legumes and vice versa to enrich, or more accurately re-enrich the earth. Fertilizers, including animal wastes, were also used for this purpose with the aroma of manure adding an interesting aroma to the air. In this ecosystem almost all of the parts of the plants that were not sold could be fed to the livestock in one form or another, even the cornstalks.
After my parents moved to town, I still spent many happy hours playing with friends and relatives on their farms. As I grew older, farms were places to hunt pheasant and other small game, but I always appreciated living in town – my friends and cousins living in the country did chores before and after school and all summer long.
Iowa, like most places, can be beautiful in each season. It can also be too hot and humid (which is great for growing corn), too windy, too gray, or too cold. But to the child I was then, everything seemed full of wonder. I remember waking up one morning on our farm delighted to see small snow drifts inside the windows of my bedroom because that meant we were in a blizzard. (It was not that we were too poor to afford a better insulated home. It was simply an old farmhouse like those in which my parents grew up.) I loved blizzards, being outside in the envelop of pristine white air, jumping into sculpted snow ridges, watching the wind quickly erase all sign of my passing, and then going back into a warm cozy house to enjoy a hot drink.
I also loved history of any sort. The stories my mother told of life on the farm always intrigued me, whether big events or small things. An example of a “small” thing was that before World War II, any of the corn grown on a farm could be eaten at the table. After the war, with the introduction of hybrids, only “sweet” corn tasted good. The corn grown in the fields came to be called, aptly enough, “field” corn.
From her came the seeds for the first part of Dreams of Life such as when I was a child, our first farm had no running water and a wood stove. It did have electricity thanks to President Roosevelt creating the Rural Electric Cooperative. I used my Mother’s description of the house and the work she had to do there and in the fields in the novel. The land around the farm that I describe in the book I drew from my memories. There actually is a place called “The Knob” and I lived close to it for the first two years of my life. As I grew up we often visited the area because my Norwegian grandparents owned the farm adjacent to my first home.
There is more to be said about how my mother’s memories and my own influenced the novel, but I will save that for another time.
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