How to love this broken land

September 2, 2023 8:00 am

Daisies in the ditches. (Photo by Anne Marie Easker Miller; background via Canva)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.When I was a child, my dad would quiz me on the kinds of trees growing in our yard and throughout the acres of sloping timber behind our house. Cherry tree, shagbark hickory, red oak, white oak, pin oak. I learned their names like they were dear friends. I knew the ditch flowers, too, gathering them into summer bouquets: daisies, bee balm, Queen Anne’s lace, clover with the little purple petals.

When I moved to Florida for my first real job after college, the native flora felt like strangers to me. Everything appeared to be vaguely a palm. I had no connection to the land.

Like many of my peers, I left Iowa as part of the brain drain. In 2022, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research reported 32% more college graduates leave the state than stay. Iowa seemed to hold few opportunities. I mostly agreed it was flyover country with next to no culture. When people told me they’d never been to Iowa, I only shrugged: “There’s not much reason to go.”

But when I came back for holidays, I loved to see the trees whose names I knew arching overhead from the tall glass windows of my parents’ living room. In Florida’s everlasting summer, I longed for a familiar spring of crocuses and wild geraniums, bleeding hearts and bluebells. I did not love Iowa as a whole, but I loved it in these small particularities.

When I moved to North Carolina for divinity school, I started to question my disdain for my home state. I read Wendell Berry on coming home to Kentucky, questioning the assumption “that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places” has become irrelevant. I read about him looking, listening, smelling, and touching his homeland. He faced Kentucky’s violent history and its land degradation, but loved it all the same.

I read Gracy Olmstead in “Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind,” describing her frustration in college on the East Coast, encountering derision toward rural places that enables their exploitation by corporations and politicians who don’t call these lands home. Her home state of Idaho – and much of rural America – have had their resources extracted by those who see them as unimportant, no-places.

I read the Bible, where the creation story tells of God shaping a human creature from soil and divine breath, placing this being in a garden to “work it and keep it.” The Hebrew verb usually translated as work or till could also mean to serve, and the word for keep is usually deployed to describe God’s protection of God’s people. Surely this vocation – to serve and protect the land – is a labor of love and a mutual exchange. Humanity cares for the soil, and the soil produces food for all living things, and in death, it is nourished again – the blessed give and take of creation.

Land reminds us of our dependence on all other living things, forces us to know our limits, and requires that we treat our neighbors well if we want to thrive – both human neighbors and plant neighbors, bird neighbors and microbiome neighbors.

When I began to think about land as a gift, I started to wonder what will happen to the acres of timber behind my childhood home? Or to my great-grandpa’s farm where my dad still hunts and plays hobby farmer as cookie-cutter housing developments crowd ever closer?

Land use issues can be overwhelming. The state of our soil, water, and air in Iowa is overwhelming. I moved back to the state with a master’s degree, but I don’t know much of anything about this place. But I hope to begin with love.

Picking strawberries. (Photo by Anne Marie Easker Miller)

My last year of divinity school, I worked at a camp and retreat center that was also home to an outdoor preschool and community farm. I had hoped for an internship where I could practice sustainable farming and perhaps engage in advocacy work. Instead, I spent mornings with 3- to 5-year-olds making mud cakes and turning over logs to look for worms.

When I told Miss Becky, the lead teacher, about my interests in creation care and environmental justice she said, “We’re about those things too. But we believe to care about something, you have to have a relationship with it.”

She opened my eyes to something I had almost forgotten. Love is never in the abstract. Every day the children spent down in the dirt, catching and identifying toads, gathering leaves, or planting seeds at the farm, they were developing a relationship, learning to love the land by encountering it up close. Hopefully, one day, that love will motivate them to nourish and protect it.

So here in my new-old home state, I am learning the names of perennials and neighboring farms. I am picking strawberries and raspberries to taste the sweetness of this earth. I am befriending again the ditch flowers I know – daylilies and black-eyed Susans – and yes, those star-shaped, periwinkle ones I can’t name just yet.

This column was originally published by Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Anne Marie Easker Miller
Anne Marie Easker Miller

Anne Marie Easker Miller is a creative writer and journalist interested in faith, place, and justice. She is a 2023 master of divinity graduate of Duke Divinity School and formerly worked at the Sun newspapers in southwest Florida. There, she won awards from the Florida Society of News Editors in 2020 for enterprise reporting and community leadership.