early last March I drove from Maine to Iowa to attend a residency through AgArts, a program run by poet Mary Swander, which places artists on farms for one to four weeks to get to know the farmers, to explore and educate themselves about farming issues.
I was traveling alone, lucky to have been placed in a farmhouse in western Iowa on the Whiterock Conservancy, a 5,500-acre land trust that balances sustainable agriculture and conservation. I was looking forward to being isolated to paint.
As you leave New England and cross into the Midwest, the landscape dramatically changes. Everything is far away, spread apart on the long horizon, and no matter how fast you drive you never seem to get closer to that division of land and sky. Farms dot the landscape, delicately detailed, all with the traditional L-shaped windbreaks. The roads of Iowa are planned in a grid pattern west to east, north to south. Fields are plowed in parallel lines, the symmetry mirroring the lines of sky, horizon, land. Driving in these precise mathematical patterns felt like the Golden Mean in action. I felt waves of optimism and I was ready to travel that philosophy into a measured path of moderation and goodness.
But first, before heading out to Whiterock, I stopped in Cedar Falls to meet up with an old friend. I joined her and members of her family for their weekly excursion to take their mother, at that time 98 years old, to the Village Inn. It was a Wednesday, Wednesday being important as it is free pie day, and because Wednesday is free pie day, the Village Inn was crowded. We waited to be seated, standing by the large, refrigerated, revolving pie display, all of us staring at the slowly moving slabs of fruit and crust, each piece six inches tall, eight if you have meringue or toasted coconut. Once we were seated in our booth, we were handed large, laminated, foldout menus with color photos of sliced pie. The colors, joyful and electric, added to the festive atmosphere. At our table peach, cherry and lime, were being discussed.
High above the seating area, hanging on the walls, were many large-screen TVs all tuned to The Weather Channel, sound muted. The screens were tilted at every angle so no matter where you sat you could glance up and see, running in a loop below the animated weather guy, the farm report, trade deals and tornado updates. Years before, while attending college in Iowa, I had learned that a “tornado watch” was just an early mention of a storm or high winds, but a “warning” is a seek-shelter situation.
It was a pleasant afternoon, our pie selections finally delivered and waiting in front of us. I could hear easy chatter from other tables about politics, relatives, going on a diet, prices of corn and soybeans. There was a generosity to this day. The drive across the plains, sitting with friends, the huge revolving case of pies, and because I am a romantic, I felt my heart swell. Coming from a small island rich with a history of generations of people going to sea to fish, here I was surrounded by generations of farmers who work to feed this country and are moored not to the ocean but to the land.
As I happily bit into my peach pie and glanced up at the screen above our booth, I saw the words “WARNING SEEK COVER IMMEDIATELY” silently flashing in red, the mime weatherman smiling and gesturing at a curved line moving across central Iowa. No one else seemed to notice the red flashing from the screens around the room, the low drone of conversations continuing. Pointing my index finger at the screen I said loudly, “Tornado warning!”
I startled the people at my table as well as those at tables nearby. People looked up from their pies, at me, then at the TV screens. A woman sitting at the table to my left leaned towards me and said quietly, “That is in Tama and we are in Blackhawk.”
“How far is Tama?” I asked.
“Well, it is the next county down, just a few miles from here.”
“WHAT?” I said a little too loudly.
The whole room had now noticed the small explosion at our table and heads were turning towards us.
Back at our table, my friend’s mother, her fork frozen in the air, was looking over my right shoulder. My friend’s brother, Bill, was staring intently at his left hand, and everyone else was looking away at some distinct spot, not making eye contact with me, which is the polite Midwestern way of dealing with someone who is causing an embarrassing disturbance. My friend, whom I have known for 40 years, had that reserved, Lutheran, don’t-make-a-fuss look on her face. Turning to the table to our right, she announced, “She is from the East Coast.”
“Ah,” said that whole table. My geographical origins seemingly explaining everything.
I received smiles of sympathy, and encouragement, from the people at the tables nearby, and the room returned to their pie eating. My friend’s 98-year-old mother looked down at her plate and said, “Well. This is very good pie,” signaling that we would now move on from this awkward moment, the incident not to be brought up again.
Standing in the parking lot saying goodbye, I foolishly brought up my fear of driving west into what is known as Tornado Alley. Bill suddenly looked up, fascinated with something in the sky, and everyone else started rummaging in their pocketbooks. My friend put her hand on my right arm and said, “I am sure it is just a little tornado.” Her mother put her hand on my other arm and started to talk about a soup I had made nine years ago, how good it was, and how when she thinks of it, it brings her such good memories.
I said my goodbyes and my friends waved me west. As I drove, watching the sky and checking my rearview mirror for funnel clouds, I thought of these farmers who live with constant uncertainty. Drought, floods, climate change, bad trade deals—any of these can end a five-generation farm in a season and yet their perseverance is consistent, their hope endless.
I thought about my friend’s mother reminding me about that soup, remembering it as a pleasure and not the fact I made it the day after her husband had died. This seemed to be the message of Iowa: It is not just the small things, but it is the small things, the small kindnesses, that anchor us, so we are not blown off our feet. It is the soup made on a day of grief, the hope that there will be good weather, and the fact that every Wednesday, no matter what, you can go to the Village Inn for free pie.
. . .
It is hard to narrow it down to one, as I feel I have so many, and am not sure if I feel that guilty, but here is my list:
Fried chicken pieces from the grocery store, cut up and put in a salad with mustard and beet greens and while I eat, watching cooking shows, like “The British Baking Show,” “Chopped” and “Top Chef.”
. . .
About Buzz as a Bear
Reading “Pie + Tornadoes” gave me a glimpse into the intricacies of narration that Buzz navigates, not only in her writing but in her fine art as well. It became very easy to inhabit the story that was unfolding, hovering around the reactions and responses of her friends. Although, I too was being watched. Perhaps you know the feeling, when walking through the wilderness, of something very much larger than you tracking your form. It locks its eyes onto your movements, ambling parallel to your path. This is very much a bear of a story. Buzz writes a living, breathing commentary on the poignant life moments that mark us, waiting in the shadows for the moment they are called into the light.
—Ariel R. Nelson, illustrator