Song from the heartland

THIS is my neck of the Midwest. I love it here. I love it so much I drive it again and again. Some days, on waking, I am gripped with the desire to take a drive in the country. I scan the bottom section of my tattered Illinois map and I pick a town whose name intrigues me, a town usually within a two-hour drive of St. Louis. Then I go there, stopping often at small towns and cemeteries along the way. Sometimes I send post cards postmarked from exotic places like St. Libory, Red Bud, and Prairie Du Rocher. There is a calm, timeless feeling that comes with driving the back roads of the Midwest. At times, I can drive for miles and miles, seeing no one at all - unless you count an occasional startled woodchuck or farm cat on the prowl. Besides reading, country driving is the only way I know how to relax. Funny, I would have relished being a 19th-century explorer in the fashion of Mungo Park or Alexander von Humboldt; instead, I content myself with a series of meandering automobile expeditions into the gentle countryside of neighboring Illinois.

I can see the question forming in your mind: This fellow lives in St. Louis, yet he tours Illinois. What's wrong with Missouri? Answer: Nothing. Missouri is a fine place, but everybody has to draw a line somewhere, and I draw mine at the Mississippi River. You see, the Mississippi does something to land on either side of it. Two states: two different feelings.

Missouri is hillier, rockier, seems less accessible. Plus, Missouri has lizards, those little fence swifts. In spades. Don't get me wrong. I like lizards even if their tails do snap when you pick them up at their southern end. It's just that when you think of the Midwest you don't think of lizards. No, you think of salamanders, tree frogs, and possums. At least I do.

Southern Illinois is predominantly agrarian, sylvan. Its fields and meadows gently unfold while lush, green fields sooth jangled city nerves. There are no sharp turns in the road and it's flat. I like flat. It enables you to see long distances, which gives you a nice perspective on the topography of the land.

Wherever you may be in southern Illinois, you are almost always in sight of a silo. If you don't see one silo, you see a pair; if not a pair, then you see three silos in a cluster like stumper mushrooms round the base of a dead oak tree. If not a silo in the distance, then at least a church steeple, the traditional spire stretching to the clouds.

For the most part these are one-church towns. Whether Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or Methodist, the churches are generally about a century old; most have graveyards beside them. Since the population of the area is largely German, inscriptions on the tombstones in the churchyard as well as on the church itself are auf Deutsch. I read tombstones as some people read historical novels; there is probably no better way to learn local history, although you have to learn to infer certain details.

I stop at most of the small towns, often buying something I don't need just for the opportunity of small talk. I'll talk or listen to anyone - the pale girl at the Dairy Queen stand, a kid engaged in the time-honored Midwest pastime of frog hunting, a farmer in seed cap and dusty overalls. I once listened to a farmer near New Hanover describe the spectacle of wolves swimming across the Mississippi from Missouri to Illinois during the winter of 1945.

Sometimes, I'll overhear snatches of shop talk among farmers. Pesticides. Now, there's a subject. Here in the Midwest, we have the best pesticide commercials. There's one where the weary farmer nods out on the couch at day's end. At the other end of the room the TV shows a pesticide commercial. Suddenly a long weed snakes through the open window, changes the channel. The unsuspecting farmer dozes on.

Of the two things I photograph, people and buildings, people are the more difficult; they blink and scratch and act unnatural before the lens. You have to get to know them before they reveal their character, much less allow a stranger to take their picture. Inscrutable as these rural folk may be, the ways in which they touch the land are not. I would photograph that, I thought, because the land will not change terribly in the next century, nor will the people - a new cast of characters, of course, but the same basic human grist. However, that which they have put on their land, shelters and implements for working and living, will change. Is changing.

So I began photographing the grain elevators, quarries, silos, barns, oil wells, graveyards, telephone poles, and sundry other objects of southern Illinois. But there was a problem. I knew that such an undertaking could only reveal the tangible, that which is perceived by the sense of sight, and even that to a limited measure.

For example, photography cannot image a passel of June fireflies (lightning bugs, if you prefer) illuminating the trees with their spectral, temporal phosphorescence. Nor can photography convey the aroma of a cow pasture, a dead skunk on the road three miles away, or fermenting silage - all of these smells more pleasingly evocative than offensive to the discerning nose. A camera can stop a tornado, even suggest its menace, but there is no way a picture can inspire the primitive dumbstruck reality that comes with actually seeing one of these enormous, roaring black vortexes bearing down on you.

The point being that photography as a visual record best serves posterity, but when attempting to conjure the Big Picture of the Midwest one must enlist all of the senses. Photography's chief advantage: Memories go when their owner does, while photographs are a relatively permanent record.

With the inception of my photo-essay came a slight shift in perception. Whereas I had been driving for sheer enjoyment, I now began to work at it, surveying the region with a critical eye. I saw southern Illinois as a component of a great heartland mosaic, a montage of scenes and events peculiar to no other part of the world.

What are the scenes in this great mosaic? I see a hawk circling a farmhouse at midday. The farmhouse is typical of Midwestern farmhouses, white wooden-frame structure with black or green shutters. Porch with chairs and a swing. It has two stories and a cool earthen cellar. A stand of stately oaks and maples shade the yard. There is a tractor in the driveway, for it is planting time and the farmer is home for lunch. The hawk swoops toward some unseen prey.

The southern Illinois portion of the mosaic has close to 1 million tiles making up 20,000 scenes. These are but a few of them: family plot in the middle of a cornfield; cylindrical hay bales, the first cutting of the year, curing in green, chlorophyll-redolent meadows; oil wells; few lakes, but scads of creeks and rivers all flowing somewhere - the Ohio or the Mississippi; great flocks of starlings, 10,000-strong, descending on a wheat field after fall harvest; thunder clouds that seem to touch the ceiling of heaven.

This is the land of elongated vowels, intersection of the corn belt and the Bible belt. Here is the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Lee Masters, 50,000 pioneers. Bountiful, exuberant, a place to live and breathe - this is my neck of the Midwest.

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