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Out here on the eastern emerald cusp of the Great Plains, on some balmy early fall days it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are. Warm southern breezes sweep all the way up from the Gulf, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.
On exactly that kind of fall morning, I like to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, a place whose remnants still exist, eight miles west and two south of town, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a village that was, but is no more. Likely as not Highland fell victim to a century-old phenomenon in the farm belt, the simple fact that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do now, when the portions are ten times bigger.
What’s left of Highland is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was once a post-office address for some people—a Main Street composed of a couple of churches and their horse barns, a blacksmith shop, and little else. The town of Highland, Iowa, once sat at the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over the undulating prairie.
I used to bring my students to Highland because what was not there never failed to silence them. Maybe it’s the skeletal cemetery; maybe it’s the south wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the treeless Plains; maybe it was some variant of culture shock—they stumbled sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and woke up suddenly in sprawling prairie spaciousness.
I’m lying. I know why they fall into psychic shock. It’s the sheer immensity of the open land that unfurls before them, the horizon barely visibly there where earth seams effortlessly into sky; it’s the vastness of rolling land William Cullen Bryant once claimed looked like an ocean stopped in time. Suddenly, they open their eyes and it seems as if there’s nothing here, and that’s what stuns them into silence.
One year, on a a morning none of them will ever forget, we stood and sat in the ditches along those gravel roads. No cars went by. We were absolutely alone—20 of us, all alone and vulnerable on a swell of prairie once called the village of Highland, surrounded by nothing but startling openness.
That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11, 2001. My class and I left for Highland at just about the moment Atta and his friends were steering the first 767 into the first World Trade Center tower, so we knew nothing about what had happened. While the rest of the world stood and watched in horror, my students and I looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent before him.
No one can stay on a retreat forever, of course, so when we returned to the college we heard the news. Who didn’t? All over campus, TVs blared.
But I like to think that maybe my students were best prepared for the horror of that morning not by our having been warned, but by our having been awed.
Each fall it was a joy to sit out there and try to describe the character of the seemingly eternal prairie, but that year our being there on September 11, I’m convinced, was a blessing.