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A Lake of Black Earth

By June 10, 2022 4 Comments

You simply had to know. Most of those who traveled the two-lane highways I did across the state last weekend did know, I’m sure, and most all of them probably felt what I did, even though I never lived on an Iowa farm. From Alton to Waverly the fields all around looked absurdly abundant, rich black soil much of the world would die for, perfectly manicured, all that ground now seeded but embarrassingly naked, Dutch Cleanser-clean, gorgeous rich black dirt, all in place and ready to grow–all the way across the state.

Highway 3 that weekend featured three stark colors—the sky’s spacious azure; thick emerald ditches; and a hundred miles of chestnut soil, nothing out there to grab the eye but Iowa’s rich farm land freshly seeded. You didn’t have to see what was there in the ground to know life abundant was about to rise once again. 

Reminded me of a passage from a Jim Heynen story in The Youngest Boy. Goes like this:

The youngest boy was not big enough to drive a tractor, but he was big enough to stand at the edge of the oats stubble field that bristled like the head of a boy with a buzz cut. The oats stubble was a dull color and definitely needed plowing over. The plow turned that dull oats stubble face-down and black dirt face up. Back and forth the tractor and plow went until the entire field was a lake of fresh black earth.

A wide lake of black earth.

Things aren’t the same this weekend. Thousands of tiny green troops march up the field in unending rows. That’s another kind of blessing, but that Friday there was only bare-naked soil, manicured and ready to bring forth what it always has and does. 

Most of my life has been lived in Iowa, but I’ll never be a real Iowan, like my late father-in-law, a man who, some late winter morning, claimed to hear seed corn rustling to get out of the bag. I don’t smell freshly turned earth. I don’t know the ways of animals. 

But last Friday, driving across the state, I told myself that I’ve become enough of an Iowan to be blessed by endless open fields, a once-a-year moment, a special blessing, maybe even something of what my father-in-law used to feel with the tractor in the shed, his feet up on the stool beside his chair, so much behind him. All those seeds were already starting to stretch their joints in freshly turned soil.

Even Iowans have forgotten Hamlin Garland, a boy who came to his “years of discretion” just outside of Osage, a writer who left to court high-toned literary passions of the age and then turned out short stories stubbornly dark with “literary naturalism,” all of us just pawns, after all, of some greater power or another.

Still, like Willa Cather, Hamlin Garland couldn’t really shake the “middle border.” A century later, his remnant work is all set here: Main-Traveled Roads, Boy on the Prairie, and Daughter of the Middle Border—won a Pulitzer in 1921.

On my way home, I stopped at Garland’s farm—amazingly it’s still there. A granite marker out front silently remembers, just like a man in Chicago does in “God’s Ravens,” a story from Well-Travelled Roads, every time this man, born here, feels wind from the west.  

There are imaginative souls . . .to whom come vague and very sweet reminiscences of farm life when the snow is melting and the dry ground begins to appear. To these people the wind comes from the wide unending spaces of the prairie West. They can smell the strange thrilling odor of newly uncovered sod and moist brown plowed lands.

That I’ll never be one of them doesn’t mean I’m sentenced to blindness of the beauty “these people” see.

Once upon a time, my grandparents fought about Grace (with an upper-case G), differentiating two types–“common,” of which we all are blessed recipients, and “special,” ladled out only to believers. 

Such distinctions are difficult, even pernicious, as is their history. But I’ll say it anyway: last week, with nothing to see but so very much all around, I can’t help feeling I was the blessed recipient of an abundance of special grace. 

All that land, just planted, a whole lake of fresh-turned ground, nothing to see there really, but simple, naked beauty. That much I know.

Listen to Calvin:

In seeking God, the most direct path and the fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us.

. . .which he does, trust me, even in a lake of fresh black earth.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jan Zuidema says:

    This is as rich as the earth you describe! Although highways can deliver one at a destination quicker, the less traveled way of farms, fields, minuscule towns, grain elevators, railroad tracks, and cascading streams tell the story of the people and how they inhabit their lives in any particular place. Your writing makes me want to visit Iowa again to see so many of the places you describe. Thank you for taking the ordinary and telling its often extraordinary story!

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    I saw it, felt it, and smelled it too—on the little fields of our Michigan fields which are my roots, a mini version of the vast, verdant black sea of Iowa soil you help us see and appreciate afresh. Thank you, Jim. The sight, the feel, the smell helped me taste God’s goodness afresh.

  • Peggy Mollema says:

    “with nothing to see but so very much all around”. Perfect phrase for the view out the window on a road trip. And how many shades of green or brown do you see? I think it has taught me to be more observant of God’s creation when the differences are subtle. Thanks for this post.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for reminding us Iowa-born of the smells, sights, and sounds not to be taken for granted. Those of us who, like your late father-in-law, happen to be in the right Iowa place at the right Iowa time might not hear “seed corn rustling to get out of the bag” but we do hear maturing corn popping and snapping as it strains toward the sky. Nurtured by the black earth lake that is not as deep as it once was, it still testifies to anyone who takes the time to listen to the sounds of the grace of God.

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