In Praise of Cornfields

I just finished re-reading Scott Russell Sanders’ Writing from the Center. Sanders, despite completing grad school in England and having an opportunity to stay there to teach, chose instead to live in and write about the Midwest. He writes, “The Midwest does not often show up on posters. It is a modest, subtle, working landscape, yet even in this country of prairies and glacial plains and wooded hills, wildness wells up everywhere, in the midst of towns, inside closed rooms, within our own bodies. No matter where we live, the energy of creation flows in each of us, every second. We can feel it in heartbeat and dream and desire.”

Kathleen Norris is Sanders’ kindred spirit; her book Dakota is subtitled “A Spiritual Geography.” I like that term, because it suggests to me not only the spiritual power of place, but also the defining, shaping capacity of the land. I have never been drawn to cities, because in cities the man made consumes the God created: in the clog and congestion, the busyness and distraction of the city, little space remains for an unobstructed view of the sky. The lights of the city pale the brightness of the stars; asphalt paves over the ground of our origin.

And this is why I have always chosen wider expanses for my soul, why small towns have pulled me gravitationally to them, why permanently living in the Midwest, where I began, is my most sustainable spiritual geography.

Biblically, mountains are points of God reference: thunder and pillars of fire on Sinai; a view of Canaan from Pisgah; a wandering ark nestling to rest on Ararat; multitudes fed bread and Ichthus  on a Palestinian mount; death overcome at the place of the skull; Christ climbing a mountain, steps closer to the father, before gravity released its hold on his feet, releasing him into heaven. Yet here in the Midwest, where there are no such mountains, no peaks to train our gaze upward, I feel God’s presence more palpably than if there were.

Indiana is all horizon, land stretching out flat and solid and unobstructed. Sky meets land in all directions, spirit and flesh joined with every glance, the Incarnation a recurrent miracle. God stretches himself out flat on the patchwork of fields–russet spans of soybeans, tawny patches of swaying, golden wheat, the living greens of cornfields and lawns–the sun glints with his movements. Every autumn kindles the woods into flame, countless burning bushes alight with the voice of God. Here, maple keys whirl like chariots to the ground, offering, as Annie Dillard claims, the key to unlock the meaning of the universe, a Rosetta stone to decode the Word of God: unless a seed dies and returns to the soil, no new life can come forth. Here I can track the sun in its circuit and see myself as only a shadow in its glare. The night sky opens like a vast, onyx tablet, with the stars like seared inscriptions written with his finger, a silent, unwavering message to read night after night. This geography rolls out the seasons in a repeated cycle of resurrections, with a winter long enough to tempt despair, yet always, before hope is consumed, spreading out a feast of crocus, lilacs, spotted fawns rising on wobbly legs, ragged grass returning green.

This place contains the spiritual geography that restores my soul and leads me in the paths of righteousness. Other terrains and climates reveal different faces of God, but the Midwest mirrors the one I love the most: furrowed, freshened with horizontal rains, his hair a snow drift, his eyes twinkling with the stars.

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