Big Sky Iowa

If Iowa wasn’t so tied to farming, it could be in competition for Montana’s slogan of “Big Sky Country.”  Rather, with “A Place to Grow” and more recently “Fields of Opportunity,” Iowa’s slogans squarely place the visual toward the fertile, black farmland.

I grew up with the summer slogan of “knee high by the Fourth of July,” which was how tall corn should be by this time of year.  As long as I can remember, the field corn has been more like shoulder high on the Fourth of July.  But with late spring cold temperatures and devastating rainfalls, this year is different.  On a four-hour drive down the middle of Iowa, perhaps 5% of the corn was elbow high.  Most of the corn in the rolling fields could be measured with a 12-inch ruler. 

No matter how much of that humid corn heat we get in the normal corn-growing months, farmers need an extra-long growing season this year.  They need heavy heat through September and dry days through October before they can harvest any kind of quality crop late October or November.  Within the last few years, harvest has been done and equipment tucked away by mid-October.  Snowflakes will undoubtedly land on much of that equipment this year.

Farming is an extended, stressful game of roulette with nature.  A relentless pursuit of hoping for the right numbers to come up. 

At Mom and Dad’s on our annual summer visit, we were sitting at the kitchen table around 8:30 p.m. when the room abruptly dimmed.  There was a distant rumble of thunder as what felt like sunset fell upon us.  A peek through the south-facing small window near the pantry confirmed the blackening sky.  I opened the south-facing back door, and a quick glance confirmed that the storm front was south of us and not directly overhead.  Nothing was spinning; it was a solid mass of darkness.  Perhaps that is why I ventured outside – that lack of spinning. 

Four feet from the door, a white crack shocked me as it went from heavens to horizon.  It was an upside-down firework, a simple white blade of lightning.  The tightness of the lightning, followed by its immediate disappearance, was surreal.  Surely something that powerful should be longer lived than seconds.  Given the intensity of the crack, the solid, black storm cloud should have fallen apart like a freshly broken eggshell.  The strike was probably miles away from where I was standing.  And there was only that one.  Perhaps it was the tail end of the storm?

From behind me came light.  The tight, tall 50-foot high tree line along the west side of the house protects the buildings from wind and snow.  And it limits the open sky visible from the house.  Chasing sunsets, I venture around this border every visit when oranges and pinks highlight the clouds above and tease through the evergreen boughs.  This evening was no different: the sunset beckoned through those evergreen branches.

Satisfied that any additional bolts of lightning were too far south to reach me, I crossed the barnyard and shinnied through a narrow gap between the wooden fence and the barn.  That fence marked a division in the sky between north and south.  Past the fence was a pure summer sunset, unmarked by storm clouds but rather simple, white, fluffy clouds ran lightly across the northern sky – just the right amount necessary to catch the orange and pink rays that were cast up and over to the clouds in the northeast quadrant of the sky. 

To watch the sunset meet the true horizon in July felt wrong; the entire sunset was visible where sky met land.  Three days later, I realize why there was such a disparity in that sight: the field of corn behind the barn is only a foot tall.  In a normal year, this horizon line would be blocked by shoulder-high cornstalks.

After soaking up sufficient sunset, I turned south and squeezed back through the gap.  The whole southern sky was still dark and ominous – but, still, no spinning.  Mom and Dad’s white house contrasted against the dark, but my eye was drawn to another set of colors.  Looking like a gatekeeper between the northern and southern skies, a full rainbow arched over the house.

While sunsets are photograph-able, there was no way to catch Big Sky Iowa on film this evening in order to convey it to a third-party.  While the division between sunset and storm-set was powerfully marked in the sky by a rainbow, on the ground the border was a simple fence and bin between the barn and the hay shed.