|Iowans felt the way the corn looked. Image Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. |
On August 10, a straight line storm howled through Iowa, the state where I live. Meteorologists called it a derecho, a word for a widespread and long-lived straight-line storm. I had never heard the word before, even as a life-long Midwesterner who's seen her fair share of scary storms; but Wikipedia assures me that the term has been in use since the late 19th century.
In 2020, it meant winds equivalent to a category 4 hurricane with no time to prepare. I had been walking around the neighborhood in the morning before the storm hit; thunderstorms had been predicted for that afternoon and I wanted to get my walk in before the weather turned. When I got back I'd also paced around our yard, checking the tomato plants, puttering, and trying to delay the start of my work day.
There is a moment before a bad storm when birds and insects stop. Stop moving, stop singing, stop whirring. If you are paying attention, it is one of the most ominous silences in Creation. It made me lift my face to the western sky, where there was a bank of fast-moving darkness heading our way. I went inside, and half an hour later, the storm hit my town.
In Iowa there is a standard line of dark humor about the country rube who is too dumb to be scared, who watches tornadoes and hailstorms from his front porch, when all common sense and storm sirens and meteorologists are telling us we should be in our basements. But the plain truth is that we are all that dumb rube. I think Iowans feel that we need to "keep an eye on it." As though we could prevent it just by keeping watch. As though it is somehow likely to be worse when we can't see it, if we're hidden in a dark cellar corner between the boxes of Christmas decorations and the shelf of surplus canned goods. It's a perverse kind of courage. Tom and I played the part, watching from the front living room window, while transformers blew, trees cracked apart, and our street ran in full flood. As soon as the storm was done in the central part of the state, it gathered strength and blew full force into the eastern part of the state, finally petering out somewhere in Illinois.
The result was an estimated quarter of a million households without power in a state with approximately three million residents, and 10 million acres of destroyed crops, mostly corn and soybeans, but others as well. Split and crumpled grain bins. Thousands of downed or damaged trees. Wrecked homes.
Weeks later, communities in Iowa are still digging out. It would be more than enough in a good year. And by good year, I mean any year not this one. But here we are. Iowans are looking at a physical manifestation of all that's happening to our nation, as well as, you know, what's happening to our nation. That's some shit, people. It flattened us like it flattened the corn stalks.
Also weeks later, we have other layers piled on the flat surface of our physical destruction. News that Iowa's numbers in the pandemic have reached new and alarming heights. News that multiple school districts are in a legal fight with the governor's office over the right to protect their students and teachers from the risks of the pandemic. News that the executive office of our nation intends to reallocate funds from FEMA to other uses, funds that we desperately need right now in our state, and will not be getting. News that the federal aid package approved for Iowa was too small, and included no aid to homeowners or farmers, the very people who suffered the most damage. News that unemployment here took another big bump as a result of the storm damage. News that elsewhere in the Midwest, racial protest rages on and has cost people their lives.
It's a lot of layers. Layers of hardship, pressed down with more on top, and no sign of it ending soon. It makes me reconsider that perhaps we don't want to keep an eye on it anymore, and that it would be better to ride this (the storm, the country's political crises, the economy, the pandemic) out in the aforementioned basement, dusty Christmas decorations and cans of green beans be damned. But that would also be sinking beneath the acreage of all this flattening, all these suffocating layers. That seems as though it might be fatal, no matter how tired and pained we might be. Unlike the country rube, I am plenty scared of the flattened landscape of my state, my country, my people. But I will continue to keep an unflinching eye on it, even so. I may not be able to prevent it by keeping watch, but I will be witness, and that is often how one finds the fortitude to stand back up again.