Much as I hate moving, a new home does bring hope for a new garden. Spade in hand, I survey my new domain, looking for a ripe spot to notch out a new plot. What I seek is fecundity, and then I plan to slice it down.
Where the grass grows the best is where my plants will too. I hate that. I’d rather try to make something work in the rocky no-man’s land behind the fence or along the garage. But the sun shines where the sun can, and the rain pools in places I can’t always control. So, cruel landlord that I am, I do what I must. The native shoots and leaves I’ll soon slay for the greater good of peppers and tomatoes and peas.
I wonder what the first settlers thought when they arrived in places like Kansas. After walking for weeks through Appalachian mountains, under forests thick enough to blot out the sky, then over the still-green hills of Iowa tumbling up from Mississippi and back down to Missouri. They must have thought they’d hit the Californian desert, that they’d gone too far and should put the Conestoga in reverse. This wouldn’t seem a place to plant a garden. Not to me.
Marilynne Robinson disinters these pioneers of the prairie in her novel Gilead. It’s an interesting work – conceived as a memoir written by a dying Iowan preacher from the first half of the last century, penned to his young son who’ll soon be growing up without a dad. His forefathers first came to Kansas not to build a life, but out of a sense of altruism. A quick wave of migration flooded the western territory before the Civil War broke loose, as antebellum Jayhawks and Freelanders fought to stake claim in the virgin sod, to bring the new state into the Union on the side of the Abolition.
Under the circumstances, nothing was built to last.
Nor was much built with any permanence just up and over in Iowa, where the bulk of the novel takes place. The town, Gilead, is filled with people from somewhere else – New Englanders mostly, with a few Negroes who ran north and recent European immigrants thrown in. And they’re all willing to move again when trouble comes, when the drought arrives and the dirt starts to blow, when the wars cull their young, or when luck simply runs its course. While here, they toiled at the ancient work of man – they subdued the black earth, bore babies, established a grid of order on the open land. But when looking back at Gilead, they find that there wasn’t much that they had left behind.
This is the essential sorrow of the Midwest, and Robinson taps into it like the deep root of a prairie thistle. She welcomes us to the in-between country, or fly-over country as you’d call it now. Always an ephemeral place, a great swath of transition, defined by what it has not more than by what it has. You’ll know it as the place without forests, without mountains, without deserts, without coasts.
Yes, the fullness of life can be known in these parts, there is no reason why anything worth doing can’t be done on this land. Our Reverend looks over his sermons and finds he’s written as much as Augustine and Calvin, that he’s contributed to the scholarly conversation as thoughtfully as any man can. He’s experienced extremes of love and loss, of plenty and want, seen great virtue and heard all manner of confessions from his congregation. As he says, “There have been heroes here, saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth even if no one remembers it.”
Nothing is unknown to the people of Gilead, though it wouldn’t do to speak of it in polite company. Still, life is spread thin on this patch of the Earth’s flat crust. Even the wooden church where he preaches wasn’t meant to stand:
“They’ll tear it down once I pass away.”
“A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our own children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That’s all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lance could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest. There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me, I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”
“Just look at this place. Every time a tree gets to a decent size, the wind comes along and breaks it.”
This is the great conundrum of the plains: It’s just as good as anywhere else, but never the best. Caught between gratitude and yearning, stuck in a place that meets our needs but can never satisfy our wants, we are thankful for the blessings yet nagged by a sense of a better life somewhere over the next horizon. The very same drive that brought us here pulls us to move on again, to plant new gardens in new fields. We make a proud use of the present, but as for the past, it fades like Grandpa’s Kansan grave. Half-marked with a wooden cross, soon and sadly lost as another generation moves away.