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Landing on Cloudy Water: Discovering western Minnesota’s Heartland

Just standing there under the wide sky, skinny-legged and unsure.
Photo by Emily Brisse
Just standing there under the wide sky, skinny-legged and unsure.

The other weekend I took a road trip to visit my grandma in Pipestone, Minnesota. First I drove straight west on Highway 7 for two hours, then southwest for another two. I hadn’t made this particular trip by myself maybe ever, and for a while I lost myself in my college CDs, the open windows, the sunshine highlighting the tops of hills and the bellies of little crooked streams. We’d had days and days of rain, so the land was lush.

It didn’t take long, though, maybe an hour west of Minneapolis, before I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of farms. Grain, dairy, turkey–they spread out on each side of the highway, patchwork squares extending into the horizon. Flyover Country.

I did not grow up on a farm. My grandmother did, in Iowa. Two of my cousins did, in Pipestone. A few of my high school friends did: Elisha, Robyn, Mary Jo.

But, no. What many easterners and westerners might think about the heartland–everyone tied somehow to a barn and a silo–isn’t true, at least not true for most of us, not anymore. My family bought milk from the store. We didn’t have a cellar. There were no fences to mend or cows that got out or dinner bells to ring. Waking up for chores at five a.m. was something I only heard about, like a war story, and on those below-zero winter mornings, I thanked the Lord that I was a businessman’s daughter.

Still, I am a child of this region, and though the intricacies of farms and farmers are unfamiliar to me, I’ve watched the fields every season of my life, always aware of the height of the corn.
So that morning it felt like a betrayal, a jibe against something I should have admired, when I found myself admitting that the acres of farms I was passing were not beautiful. What was aesthetic about a square of soil? About box-shaped homes? About yards filled with implements and old tractors and ramshackle sheds? There was not landscaping; there was function. An elbow of sturdy oak woods left to stand as a windbreak on the northwest side of the house. Lilac bushes, tall and wrangly, along the highway for some semblance of privacy. Worn tractor tires turned over next to doorsteps and filled with dirt, sprigs of basil and chives growing inside. A mousing cat waiting at the end of a gravel driveway with no ears.

Clouds were rolling in, tinting the land.
Photo by Emily Brisse
Clouds were rolling in, tinting the land.

Surely it’s because of such images that some leave for mountains, for vast oceans, for cosmopolitan high-rises that do not, for all their height, overlook one plot of uncultivated land. I can understand that. We live in a time where we have every right and ability to choose the view from our windows. To follow our hearts.

I, for one, have always chased beauty. My desire to travel, to experience every faraway corner of the world is so strong, that it often drives my husband crazy and leaves me anxious for all I have not seen, for all I might never see, as time does not stop, as I keep getting older, as the rains keep falling and the sea levels keep rising and the islands keep sinking into places beyond my reach. There are moments when I am hyper-aware of all that I’m missing.

But then in the midst of those thoughts, in the midst of a morning drive west through farmland, I crested the smallest possible hill on the quietest stretch of highway in the most unassuming part of the Midwest, and a black calf was in the middle of the road one hundred yards ahead, just standing there under the wide sky, skinny-legged and unsure, glancing toward the fence he’d squeezed through.

I stopped the car. I got out. I walked a few steps toward him, a corn field on my left, a corn field on my right. Clouds were rolling in, tinting the land. I kneeled on the pavement. The grasses swished in the ditches. Birds called from fence posts. And we looked at each other, he and I, for a long time. This post was writteny by Emily Brisse and originally published on Landing on Cloudy Water.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Audrey Kletscher Helbling on 06/26/2011 - 10:16 am.

    I, for one, am thankful I’m a farmer’s daughter, a child of the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

    Although I no longer live there, but dwell in the southeastern part of our state, I will always, always appreciate the beauty of wide open space, spacious skies that stretch into forever, time-worn barns and farmsteads, and those acres and acres of corn and beans.

    I’m glad that you stopped to appreciate that spindle-legged calf. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and I am beholden to the landscape of my native prairie.

  2. Submitted by Emily Brisse on 06/27/2011 - 10:50 am.

    Absolutely, Audrey. Seeing that calf was a reminder that of course there is beauty everywhere, even in places that might not get recognized by travel agencies. Have you read “O, Pioneers” by Willa Cather? In it, Cather has some of the most beautiful descriptions of farmland and wide open prairie.

    Outside of those below zero mornings, I do envy you your childhood on the farm. Hard work, yes, but I imagine that growing up on a farm would be full of all kinds of gifts. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Submitted by George Kraemer on 07/09/2011 - 09:13 am.

    Insightful and enjoyable article about greater Minnesota. Your observations bring back wonderful memories of living away from the hustle and bustle of the Minneapolis/ St Paul Metro area. Please keep sharing your vision of Minnesota and the beautiful and exciting places that we often drive past without really seeing them.

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