A delight of travel is to be introduced to new surroundings. For four days this fall, my venue shifted from the pavements of New York City to the cornfields of South Dakota.
Canton, S.D., population 2,700, is located by the Big Sioux River in the southeastern corner of the state, a few miles from the Iowa border. Canton was founded in 1867 by Norwegian settlers. Draw a line from this spot through the earth, the residents thought, and you would reach Canton, China. Hence the name of the town. Canton is the retirement home of a friend from childhood.
New Yorkers enjoy walking. I decided to walk around Canton. I was attracted to the huge grain elevators in the center of town. They are the skyscrapers of Canton, about 10 stories high, towering above everything else. From a distance of many miles, gazing across the flat landscape, they stand out like cathedral spires or castle battlements.
The soybean harvest is in full swing, favored by warm, bright Indian summer days. The farmers work 'round the clock harvesting the crop. From fields, trucks carry the soybeans to town. At the grain elevators, the cargo is weighed and stored.
Next to the grain elevators is the Canton railroad station, now boarded up. No one has alighted from a passenger train for more than 20 years, but freight traffic is booming. Empty freight cars of the Burlington & Northern Railroad are maneuvered into place by train crews to receive soybean loads from the grain elevators.
The cargo will travel thousands of miles by rail to the West Coast, and perhaps thousands more miles across the sea to Japan.
Many streets in Canton end at a cornfield. These fields surround the town. The wonderful opening words of "America, the Beautiful" - "O beautiful for spacious skies,/ For amber waves of grain" - for the first time have a real meaning for me.
The corn will soon be harvested. Standing in the fields, I listen with pleasure to the rustling dry leaves in the wind. Thousands of miles from the sea, the sound reminds me of ocean surf.
Having lived my life in one place, a 32-block area of New York City, I have a strong sense of place. I am drawn to others who have felt the same way about where they lived. To Whitman and Emerson and Thoreau.
My ties are to the bridges, buildings, and bustling streets of New York. But if I had been born and raised and lived in Canton, my ties would be to the waxing fields of grain, the quilt-like pattern of farmlands seen for many miles in any direction, the massive grain elevators, the whistle of train locomotives, the passing of slow-moving freight cars filled to the brim with grain from the rich dark earth, the endless horizons.