The Beautiful Land: an Album
From time to time, I hear someone comment on what they consider to be the ugliness of the Midwest–the flat, agricultural land that for them holds no beauty or charm. Here, in a photo essay, is my response.
In early summer, the wheat starts to change from green to gold. I remember going with my father to the field to gauge whether the crop was ready to cut. As many of you know, he’d lost his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. He couldn’t snap off a seed head and roll it in his palm to free the kernels and then chew them to see if they were ready to harvest. That became my job. I placed the kernels on my father’s tongue. His lips brushed my fingers. We stood there in the twilight. A communion.
The native grass growing alongside the gravel roads holds a reddish tint as it bends in the wind. At first, I thought this was turkey-foot grass, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe one of you will tell me. Milkweed, foxtail, multi-flora rose, trumpet vine, brown-eyed Susan: all of these and more grow in the fence rows and make a trip down a country road a pleasure.
Young corn plants break the clay soil on a hillside in a geometric arrangement of arcs. Blue sky, the dark green of the oak leaves, the reddish-brown clay worked to tilth, the bright green of the corn plants. By summer’s end, they’ll be taller than anyone who walks their rows. Their yellow tassels, their russet silks. In early autumn, the stalks will yellow and dry, and the ears of corn in their husks will be ready for the harvest. All winter, the corn stubble, bent and ragged, will wait for spring and the plow, and the cycle will begin again.
The honeysuckle is in bloom at the Brian Cemetery in Lukin Township, Lawrenceville, Illinois. My great-great grandmother is buried here on this hill along a gravel road. For long stretches of time, I can be in this place without hearing a single man-made sound. Just the chatter of squirrels, the sound of the wind moving through the hickory trees, a call of a crow overhead. All that, and the intoxicating scent of the honeysuckle.
The wild blackberries are in bloom, too. The berries will turn to red and then that purplish black, but first there’s the white blossoms, so delicate around the seeds.
A spring lamb has grown bold enough to strike a pose.
Canada geese and their goslings come to shore at Red Hills State Park.
The Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, at twilight.
The Old Cathedral at Vincennes.
The George Rogers Clark Memorial.My great-great grandfather and his second wife, Eliza French Phillips Martin, lived on this property across from the Ridgley Cemetery in Lukin Township, where they’re both buried.
They lived in this log house in this beautiful land.
What a lovely post! Really a prose-poem. That last image is wonderful, a keeper.
Thank you so much, Maureen. I have a cousin to thank for that final image. I’m glad that you liked it.
Oh Lee, this is just Beautiful!! Now I’m homesick to return again there. But where is Brian Cemetery? I shall go again next month and check things out again.
Ruth Ann, if you come out of Sumner on the blacktop, turn on the road before the one that you’d take to Ridgley. There will be a sign about a Yoder’s Sawmill. Follow that road back west a good ways. Brian Cemetery will be on your right, and you’ll easily see it from the road.
I grew up in Richland County, and every Spring I get so homesick – for traipsing through the woods carpeted with wildflowers, hearing & seeing the cardinals and bluebirds (we don’t have them in the West), wading in the streams, . . . . the list is endless! One thing I especially love is driving the old country roads and spotting a field of daffodils – I can never go on past, but have to stop to walk among them and pick some to take home. I’ve been told that these daffodils mark the locations of the old homesteads, because they last forever (they’re not hybrids, and the deer won’t eat them). I love the dogwood trees (I’ve even planted some here in this alkaline soil) and the eastern redbud trees (yes, I chose eastern redbud for my yard, because it’s the one I know and love!). I do know that when I’m in Illinois I miss our mountains. I can’t imagine anyone calling the plains of the midwest “ugly” – it’s home to me!
I understand you’re a distant cousin of mine. I’ve read some of your books that I’ve purchased online, and enjoy them. Thank You for sharing these photos and poetry. judy
Hello, Judy! Thanks for sharing some of the other details that make southeastern Illinois a lovely place. You’re right about those daffodils showing us where homesteads used to be. Last spring, I was able to visit my old home place, and I found the daffodils that had been around our house still blooming. Living away from a place, sure makes it more vivid and poignant for us, doesn’t it? Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.
There is also comfort in having learned to discern these subtleties as we grew. Your photos and the expanding descriptions give those untutored eyes the connection. Beautiful. Thanks.
Jennifer, when I was young I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to such details, but as I grew older I realized that it was those small details of the landscape that tied me to it. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.
I love the serenity of the midwest. Away from the traffic, where you can actually hear yourself think. Just reading this made me feel a sense of calm.
And I could be way off Lee, but that looks like a type of switchgrass to me.
beautiful picture essay, lee!
as a recent transplant to the midwest, i’m deeply moved by the landscape you grew up with. it reminds me, in some ways, of the rural corners i so loved in my native hudson river valley — especially after 34 years in metro atlanta.
Thanks, Eileen. Glad to have you with us in the Midwest.
I’m a Pacific Northwest born woman, but I’ve been reading Doc: A Novel of late, and you cannot get more midwest than Dodge City.
Here is Doc Holliday’s take on the landscape. I just bookmarked this yesterday because I thought it was such a beautiful description…
“It was a wonder to him now that he’s once failed to appreciate the beauty of this land. The trick of it, he’d lately realized, was to pay attention to the sky as part of the landscape. The rising sun was gilding high cottony clouds from below. In a few hours, as the light shifted upward, those clouds would send amethyst and turquoise shadows racing over the emerald ground, and their sweep across the land would reveal subtle undulations in terrain that only appeared flat to the careless observer.”
It’s no wonder many a sailor came from the midwest.
Sarah, thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I love the passage that you include. I remember when I lived in North Texas suddenly realizing, ala Doc, that I had to include the sky in the landscape. Thanks for the reminder.
I stumbled across the photo of the French/Martin family in your blog. Do you happen to know who is pictured? I too have French family ancestors buried in the cemetery in Lukin.
Best wishes & thank you for your time.
Hi, Erin. All I know for sure is that the elderly lady seated in the photo is Eliza French Phillips Martin. She was married to Ed Phillips and then after she died, she married my great-great grandfather, John A. Martin. There was a big gap in their ages, but they had four children together–three daughters and a son. I hope this helps.