Today I’m writing from southern Missouri, in America’s Heartland, close to where the Ohio River collides with the Mississippi at the bottom of Illinois. Every day has been chilly, damp and dreary just as I expected.
I know this country. Decades ago at this same time of year, when I was 7 months pregnant my husband and I packed up and hauled a dozen horses and a half dozen truck and trailer loads full of belongings across the country to start over again right here in America’s “Heartland”. This is where he grew up and knowing that a grandma would be right down the street was reason enough for me to give it a try.
When we arrived we stayed with his parents in their home situated on his grandparents’ 40-acre farm. We took walks through the defunct pastures and down the tree-canopied defunct railway that bisected the property. He rigged horse stables and pens together in the weathered old barn and when the deep chill of winter finally broke I dug a vegetable patch in the barnyard.
The soil was damp and loamy, scented with decomposed manure’s soft pungency. Sunshiny yellow daffodils sprouted randomly at the barn wall’s circumference. The pastures greened with the spring warmth and tiny iridescent green leaves covered the old trees along the railway. Almost instantly spring had arrived in the Heartland.
I daydreamed about eating red ripe tomatoes and sweet peas off the vine as I worked the soil. I marked rows, dropped seeds and waited for my garden and me to give birth.
Away from the barn, we drove through the country to meet my husband’s friends, past old strip mines and woods suffocated with tangled vines and overgrown underbrush. We visited the horse trader whose mumbles about horse genealogies made the book of Genesis look like an adventure story. And the coon-hunter, who, in a slow monotone drawl—praised—his—fast—hunting—dogs—for—treein’—dat—dar—coon—n—keep—em—der—til—mornin’. (Sounds like some excitin’ hunting now don’t it?)
But back at the barn there was more happening than either of these two men could have kept up with. Within hours green sprouts appeared on the garden’s surface. I mean, I’m here to tell ya, those seeds were barely in the ground long enough for that horse trader to get through even one mare’s lineage.
When night fell we nestled into our guest room and listened to the thunderstorms. Violent thunder. Winds. Cracks of lightning. Another thunderclap followed by a flash of lightning, again and again. And thick rain as if we were standing directly behind a waterfall. I feared for my fragile little garden greenlings.
In the morning I ran to the barn in and what do you think I saw? I swear those darn greenlings had grown an inch overnight. Stronger than I could have imagined. After pulling equally prolific weeds and feeding the horses we hopped in the truck and headed off for another day of visiting Heartland natives.
Again that evening rain storms moved through. The next morning, with ruler in hand, I’d surveyed my garden. Another inch on the tomatoes, green beans, peas and corn. Feathery stalks promised carrots within days, and lettuce would be on the table by the weekend. It was unbelievable, this life in the heartland. So lush and green and ready to grow that I dubbed it “the Jungle”.
Within weeks I was cradling my newborn, picking carrots and eating peas off the vine.* I could hardly wait for the tomatoes and corn to ripen to perfection and plate the combination for dinner. Oh how my mouth salivated just thinking about it.
But I was robbed. Literally. A heartland jungle Grinch snatched them right off the vine. Stole every last tomato from every last plant. Gone. Just like that. The peppers too, and most of the corn.
A few days later my dog disappeared.
I couldn’t believe it. I never expected such surreptitious acts, particularly in a place named Heartland.
After all that we took matters into our own hands. With a newborn in tow, we packed up and disappeared from the Heartland. It was not what we expected. But then again, starting over is like that. You never know what you’re going to get.
*If you get a chance to eat fresh peas off the vine, I suggest you do. Few finer treats exist on the planet.