Once Upon a Midwest: ‘Harvest’

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 - 1:48pm

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NOSELL

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

Almost 14 million acres of Iowa is cornfields. If you’ve ever been inside one, you know that the inside of a cornfield is different. It’s quiet when you’re surrounded by the stretching green stalks. At dusk, when the summer sky turns gold and lavender, the light dances on the tips of field. For some, cornfields are a place for exercising the disquiet of adolescence. Many pickups have found themselves stuck in a field with an engine full of cornhusks and a teenager at the wheel. Corn is the gold of the Midwest, lining the autumn outskirts of our hamlets and villages with honey-colored fields.

In television and film, cornfields are the setting of darkness, horror and confusion. The unfortunate farmer in “Field of Dreams” walked into his cornfield with the sunset on the horizon, only to hear a whisper telling him to “build it and he will come,” which haunted him until he mowed his field down into a baseball diamond. Likewise, the gullible couple of “Children of the Corn” must have wished they never found that dead boy in the road, leading them to the town populated by children. No one would ever want to step foot in Peaksville, Ohio — even though everyone in town is smiling and happy. That’s because if they have any unhappy thoughts, little Anthony Freemont — from “The Twilight Zone” episode “It’s a Good Life” — will banish them off to the cornfields with his godlike powers.

Once, I found myself driving along a country road during the small hours of the night, passing through middle-of-nowhere, Ohio. I drove over a train track with a little too much gumption and heard some clanging in my driver’s-side wheel well. I pulled the car over on the side of the road next to a cornfield — the only noticeable sign of life — and got out to look for whatever might have fallen off my car. The white light of the moon cast a pale glow on the dusty dirt road. I searched near the car, on the road and on either side of the tracks.

When I turned back around toward my car, I saw a house. Only, there had certainly not been a house there before. A growling filled the night when a massive dog emerged from under the shade of a tall oak. That dog looked at me and I stood dumbly, staring back at it with my phone tossing a feeble light on the ground. Then the dog charged me, barking and drooling all over itself. I winced inward, but the dog was yanked back not but ten feet from me by a chain anchored near the tree. I moved quickly back to my car to leave. Suddenly, a train horn clobbered my eardrums. I turned around, and there was a whole train, just moseying by, where I had neither heard nor seen a train just a moment before. I got in my car, pulled off the side of the road, and sped away from that cornfield.

My story is one likely in a long line of midwestern folklore, finding kinship among crop circles and moving scarecrows. In fact, there is a whole subgenre of Midwestern Gothic — a subgenre in itself — dedicated to “the unknown lurking in the cornfield.” (If you go to Tumblr and search up “Midwest Gothic” or “Michigan Gothic,” you’ll find hundreds of posts with midwestern gothic attributes, cornfields being the most common.)

I cannot say for certain why cornfields terrify Midwesterners so much. Perhaps we’re scared of what sustains us. It would be untruthful to suggest that both cornfields and terror we’ve attributed to them are not midwestern media. Certainly they are, or they would not be so prevalent. But I would like to offer an alternative vision.

Someone once told me their first kiss was in a cornfield. When I’ve asked people about cornfields, they say they’re boring — until they think about them. And then they think cornfields are beautiful, that there’s something special in their quietness. Much like previous archetypes of midwestern media, cornfields are simply misunderstood. They ought not to be the setting of horror and confusion, but rather a symbol of what we can be, of unknown possibility. Cornfields are acres and acres of unique plants, each one with a story. They’re a lot like us, in that way. So I ask you, next time you find yourself in a cornfield (and I hope it’s soon), harvest not fear, but promise.