Farm life, and loss, in Iowa’s Loess Hills

June 28, 2023 5:28 pm

A farm at the foot of the Loess Hills. (Photo by Cheryl Tevis)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.It’s been decades since I had walked those hills. Formed by southwesterly winds during the last Ice Age, erosion chiseled and carved these majestically rounded mounds and ruggedly steep cliffs. The only other place in the world that you’ll find loess soils rivalling these 60- to 200-feet Iowa hills is northern China.

Growing up on this western Iowa farm nestled beneath the Loess Hills, I didn’t realize the landscape was remarkable. The Loess Hills simply formed the backdrop of my childhood.

When my brothers, sister, and I were kids, the hills were our backyard playground, the canvas for our farm chores, and the scenic route of our school bus. We picked wildflowers in the spring — yuccas, prairie blazing star, and flax. In the winter, we hauled our sleds to the top of the hill, and hung on for dear life, on the descent. After the USDA offered conservation funding in the 1950s, terraces were added. We jumped our sleds over them for an extra thrill.

We lived on the same farm as our maternal grandparents, and sometimes our parents left the farm, knowing that our grandparents were at home. I recall one hot summer day when the terraces were unusually full. We decided it would be a good idea to go “swimming.” We splashed around for awhile in our skivvies to cool off, and then hurriedly got dressed again before Mom and Dad got home.

Our three cousins on the adjoining farm often shared our adventures. I remember one summer when we were inspired to attach an old mailbox to a fencepost between our families’ Loess Hill pastures. We’d leave “secret” messages to each other, but there were no mailbox alerts available. It was a beautiful, but long, walk across the hills if the box was empty.

Farm was home base

Our walk to the hills last weekend was beautiful, too, with bright blue skies, voluminous white clouds, and a panoramic view of the Missouri River valley below. Twenty family members, ranging in age from 74 years to a four-month-old in the arms of my niece, formed the procession up the hill. We had traveled from as far as Santa Barbara, Tampa, and Kansas City, but most arrived from across Iowa: Muscatine, Pilot Mound, Moville, and Sioux City.

My older brother loved this farm, and these hills. He left Iowa to earn his master’s degree in Colorado, and later his doctorate in New Testament in Texas. But he returned to the state to serve five United Methodist churches (Solon/Bertram, Sioux City Crescent Park, Des Moines First, and Burlington First) and many others as a district superintendent based in Webster City. (He was leading the Burlington UMC in 2007 when an arsonist destroyed the church.) But through all these years, his goal was to return to the four-generation family farm that he had purchased from our mom and her siblings in 1978.

Dennis Tevis with one of his goats. (Photo courtesy of Anita Tevis)

He and his wife retired there in 2014, remodeling our grandparents’ home, making it comfortable, but keeping its character. He added goats to the flock of sheep that he had raised in partnership for years with our younger brother. You could say that he exchanged his church flock for a more rambunctious four-legged flock. He enjoyed almost a decade of sunrises and sunsets from the porch overlooking the panoramic view of the flat bottomland stretching across to the hills of Nebraska.

We lost him suddenly one night to a massive stroke during a January blizzard, as his younger brother and his brother’s wife desperately shoveled a path to the ambulance.

But on this June day, with temperatures in the upper 70s and a gentle breeze, the paralyzing snowfall and chaotic darkness of that night were swept into the catacombs of memory. As we gathered at the hilltop, I shared an excerpt from one of my brother’s sermons, based on the great cloud of witnesses in the Book of Hebrews. At the beginning of Chapter 12, the author compares the Christian life to running a race. My brother, who medaled in the Senior Olympics, had written, “You can almost see the stands filled with spectators cheering on the runners. We are not alone in the race of life.”

This great cloud of witnesses listed in Chapter 11 are named saints. But I went off-script. “Today, on these hills and on the farm that our family has known and loved, I’d like to lift up a different cloud of witnesses, the four generations before us who roamed these hills,” I said. I named each individually: grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins on adjoining farms, and now, Dennis, who had joined them.

Returning to Chapter 12, verses 1-4, I said: “They have run their race, now it is our turn, to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, casting aside our drooping hands and weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall, but become strong.”

Then my brother’s widow handed us Dixie cups filled with my brother’s cremains, and we spread these over the hills, as my brother had requested.

Different paths, same journey

Cremation is a difficult concept for me. As much as I love our family’s Century Farm, scattering what’s left of a loved one’s body to become part of Nature, seems to demand an even greater surrender than a burial. But as a minister for 37 years, my brother attended countless bedside vigils and officiated at scores of gravesite ceremonies. Cremation, and the scattering of his ashes, was an informed decision.

Each one of us, in our own way, and our own time, determined the best descent from the hills that day. Our paths were not straight. They were riddled by ruts, and worn from decades of weather and the hooves of cow and sheep herds heading up to hill pasture, or descending to shelter on the farm overnight. But no one stumbled or was hurt. The wounds all were on the inside.

Each one of us will continue to map our own route through the peaks and valleys of grief. My brother’s widow showed us a sofa backrest cover and a table runner made from my brother’s vast wardrobe of neckties. This fall there will be an endowment for a college scholarship in his name. She’ll serve as an interim advisor until his position as the director of a course of study for licensed, local pastors is filled.

My sister created a T-shirt for family members, with the words, The “GOAT” and a recent photo of our brother kneeling beside a new billy. She lavishes love on her granddaughter, born on our brother’s birthday, a few days following his death.

As for me, I search for meaning in the written word, rereading Anne Lamotte’s book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair”:

“And because our lives are hard and difficult to understand, you acknowledge the slipperiness of those who died — they got out. You hold on to them because it can be so appalling here, until you can’t hold on anymore, because you’re not holding onto anything after awhile. Either they had a Get out of Jail Free card or became part of the bigger natural order of things. You can’t tether them to earth anymore, because the thread has grown too fine. All you can do is say, ‘I get it: You are somewhere else now.’ But little flecks of you remain, like mica in rock, which glint and say, ‘This was all true.’ “

Leaving a caring legacy

Looking back on that day, another presence in the cloud of witnesses also loomed above us. The hills themselves, which have stood the test of time over the past 125,000 years.

Although they seem unchanging, they’re not. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Iowa Loess Hills have one of the highest erosion rates in the U.S. Intrusions into their ecosystem include:

  • The 1/2-mile-long driveway and new home visible from our hilltop. Others have been built up the road, toward Sioux City.
  • Invasive eastern red cedars crowding out native prairie grasslands. During prolonged drought, controlled burns are even more fraught with hilltop homes.
  • Fragile hillsides, once kept in pasture, now planted to crops.

But if we care for the Loess Hills, they’ll remain long after we’re gone. With or without the fifth generation on our farm, they’ll stand sentinel, in sunlight and shadow, throughout the centuries.

As the oldest, our brother, throughout his life, always went ahead of us, doing his best to straighten the path for our feet — and for so many others. Now in death, he’s still the first. Like the Loess Hills, he belongs to the ages. We can’t tether him to earth anymore.

This column first appeared on Cheryl Tevis’ blog Unfinished Business, and it is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Cheryl Tevis
Cheryl Tevis

As farm management editor at Successful Farming magazine at Meredith Corp. in Des Moines, Cheryl was the first woman editor in the magazine's history to write about business. Her monthly column elevated the role of women in agriculture. She also wrote the longest-running farm magazine's health and safety page. She retired in 2015, after 36 years. Cheryl served on the board of Farm Safety For Just Kids, and is a founding member of Iowa Women in Agriculture. She farms and is a longtime 4-H leader and community volunteer in Boone County, Iowa. Her column, Unfinished Business, is on Substack and she is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative.