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Thursday, October 2, 2008


A while ago I walked down the hall and sprung a word-association test on three colleagues, chosen strictly by whom I ran into first.

“I’ll name a U.S. state,” I told them, “and you tell me the first word that pops into your head.”

The state was Iowa, and here’s what they blurted out: “Fields.” “Corn.” And “corn.” A trend was brewing!

‘Here, Piggy’ on 20,000 Farms

Indeed, our 26th-largest state - Iowa is is about the size of Nepal or Tajikistan - is one American place that everyone associates with farming. It ranks first in corn and soybean production, and in swine raised as livestock. No wonder people in eastern Iowa joke about liking their neighbors but staying upwind. The Hawkeye State also rolls out more eggs than any other state, so there are lots of chickens, too.

(What’s a hawkeye? It’s not the eye of a hawk, even though the logo for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes sports teams shows a menacing close-up of a sharp-eyed hawk. Back in 1838, a Burlington, Iowa, editor named James Edwards suggested the state nickname as a tribute to Chief Black Hawk, a Sauk Indian warrior who was a friend of his even though Black Hawk had led a war - later named for him - against whites across the Mississippi River in Illinois.)

Where’s the Beef - or the Pork or the Corn?

Yet Iowa’s tourism Web homepage pictures a windmill, a train high on a trestle, two canoeists and an unidentified building. Nary a barn or plow or sunset over the cornstalks.

Iowa’s tourism Web site includes lovely photos, such as this fall shot from high above little Lansing, on the Mississippi River. But there aren’t many showing farms in America’s most famous farm state
The same is true of the tourism homepages of some other Farm Belt states. Indiana’s shows speedboats, a beach, two guitarists, rowboats, horsetrack and Indy car races, and a guy on a motorcycle. Minnesota’s features bicyclists, summer anglers and winter ice fishermen, a kayaker, dancers boogieing, a baseball field, a family with a big stuffed animal and a car driving past some flowers. Kansas, very much a farm state, tops its homepage with a stunning banner of urban Wichita at dusk. Below the Wichita photo are four small photos of “scenic byways,” including one of the unplowed countryside. The official “Visit Nebraska” site is topped by an ever-changing flash of rugged green hills, an elk, an airplane in a museum, a scary bird silhouetted against the sun, an ice climber and a family laughing with a gorilla. There is also a photo of a remarkable windmill array.

Farm states apparently don’t think that livestock, waving grain or combines and tractors scream “vacation destination.” But why? One of my most savory, relaxing, inexpensive and memorable holidays featured days of reading on a farmhouse porch, a stem of tallgrass insouciantly stuck in my teeth. Two goats, a nuzzly goatdog and a suspicious cat, and a fluctuating breeze kept me company. Tourist sites like to plug “adventures.” Mine was an ambling walk down a dusty road, kicking pebbles.

Sweet Life in the Country

One person’s monotonous farm scene is another’s portal to nature and tranquility. You pass thousands of these scenes in Iowa, but you appreciate them a great deal more in a quiet moment, up close
Recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg, an editorial board member of The New York Times, who was raised on an Iowa farm, wrote on the paper’s editorial page, not about politics or world strife, but about “the rural life.”

“The last couple of nights I’ve stood at the edge of the pasture watching the fireflies,” he began. And he closed by noting that every bird on that farm, “except for the insectivores, carries a secret knowledge of the ripeness of the cherries. I will know when the cherries are ready by their absence.” You could almost hear the crickets, smell the new-mown clover, and picture the diving birds.

For sure, there are more than silos and meadowlarks in the farm states. In Iowa, someone has turned the baseball field built for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” into a permanent tourist attraction. To corrupt the film’s famous line, “If you build it, they will come to buy souvenirs.”


Iowa and Iowans also take some shots from time to time as unremarkable, sheltered, boring or as the expression goes, “white bread” - white bread being bland and predictable compared with pungent rye or crunchy wheat. The sardonic comedian Fred Allen once scoffed that “Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for a star.”

Strawberry Point, in eastern Iowa, was named for wild berries in the vicinity. It boasts the “World’s Largest Strawberry,” which stands outside city hall
But Ioway, as one old-timey song calls it (Our land is full of ripening corn/ Yo-ho; yo-ho; yo-ho) boasts an eminent collegiate writers’ program at the University of Iowa, the nation’s third-highest high school graduation rate, fanatical girls’ basketball programs and fans, the world’s largest (fiberglass) strawberry, a transcendentalist university, a house museum that commemorates an ax murder, and America’s most famous kosher slaughterhouse.

Maybe we should ignore the slaughterhouse. In May of this year, immigration authorities raided the place. They detained two-fifths of the plant’s workers as suspected illegal immigrants. And then PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - published secretly shot photos of apparently abhorrent animal cruelty there.

Short Timer on the Prairie

Here’s what I remember from my year in Iowa:
  • Enduring a required graduate course in statistics, which I understood even less after taking the class. I know that this has nothing intrinsically to do with Iowa, but purging myself of the memory brings comfort, closure.
  • This photo was taken in Ontario, Canada, but it gives you an idea of just how nerve-racking it is to drive in a blizzard down an ordinary highway, let along one that has a curb along it
  • Winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs! Not just in town, but even out in the county. Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.
  • Iowans’ “rugged individualism.” In rural America, that’s a suspender-snapping term of pride. It celebrates success on one’s own terms without much help or interference. “Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” if need be.
This was made manifest in a curious way: My first wife was one of four carpool members who took turns driving from Iowa City to teaching jobs 40 kilometers away. The other drivers were native Hawkeyes. On the return trip when it was their turn to drive, they would insist upon dropping their passengers at a central point, rather than spending a few extra minutes to take everyone home. I had to go to that point each afternoon to pick up my wife. This was not because the Iowans were cheap or in a hurry. If you ask others to bring you all the way home you’re imposing, they explained. It would make them feel obligated to you. Best to take care of oneself and not depend on others.

Rugged individualism.

Now we rest, we've stood the test;
All that's good, we have the best;
Ioway has reached the crest;
Yo-ho; yo-ho; yo-ho.


Does the “mind your own business,” don’t-rely-on others mentality make sense to you? I’d like your thoughts, and any other points or questions you have about America, Americans and our peculiarities.


Also, I came across one of my “Only in America” VOA essays that I’d written three years ago. It was entitled, “Are Bloggers Journalists?” While Web logs had been around for some time, they were just coming into widespread view. The concern was whether first-person stories by reporters would violate the unwritten credo that journalists should be as objective and unopinionated as possible in print. Since I have a long career in newspapers and am now doing this blog, I guess I weigh in on the affirmative, that bloggers can still have enough of a detached look at the world to be journalists, as the word is evolving. What do you think?


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Insouciantly. Nonchalantly, in a lighthearted, carefree, or even careless manner. From the French for “not worrying.” People sometimes flaunt their insouciance, in the way many young Americans today, confronted with a serious situation, dismiss it with a casual, “Yeah, whatever.”

Nary. Not one. Nary – or as we sometimes see it in Old English such as Christmas carol lyrics, ne’er – a sound was heard. Or, as it’s used in a popular cliché: nary a word was spoken.

Sardonic. Sarcastically, even snidely or sneeringly, humorous. William Morris’s Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins notes that the word may trace to a Sardinian plant, the sardane, which was so bitter that it caused convulsions or facial contortions in those who ate it.

Transcendentalist. One who practices transcendental meditation, or “TM.” Introduced in the 1950s by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – who for a time was the spiritual adviser to the Beatles – it involves seated contemplation, with one’s eyes closed, for twenty minutes a day. In the early 1970s, the people of little Fairfield, Iowa, were surprised to find a number of transcendentalists (many in eastern dress) in their midst. They had purchased the buildings of private Parsons College, which had gone out of business, and began setting up a transcendentalist university in the midst of Iowa corn country. Now called Maharishi University of Management, the school teaches students what it calls “pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.”

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