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Visiting Iowa

I've always liked pigs. In Iowa I learned to call them hogs, or haahgs, as it is pronounced there. When I told people in New York City that I was going to Iowa, they said, "Oh, yes, potatoes," or nodded sympathetically and declared, "Real flat." In fact, I learned that Iowa is not flat and that potatoes are grown mostly in Idaho. The rank and file seem to know little about the state, and Iowans have a good enough opinion of themselves not to care—perhaps they even encourage this ignorance. John Cheever believed Iowans took pleasure in urging visitors to keep going toward Omaha. Don't you listen to them: Stop in Iowa.

The Amana Colonies, seven tiny red-brick towns around a loop of road, are one of the few attractions in Iowa that guidebooks mention. The scenery—old dairy farms, red barns, tall grain elevators with silver domes and black-and-white checkered trim—is largely the way it must have been a hundred years ago. Yet I couldn't decide whether farming is thriving in the hands of enterprising young farmers who have made the (now profitable) decision to farm organically like their families before them, or whether it is about to be swallowed up by industrial agriculture.

I wondered: If this place has survived the "modern era" without being developed or ruined, why can't it stay like this?It is no surprise that Iowa, where even bits of land along highways are being restored to wild prairie vegetation, was the birthplace of one of this country's first conservationists, Aldo Leopold, who believed that a society rooted in the soil was more stable than one rooted in pavement. Laura Jackson, a biologist at the University of Northern Iowa, invited me on a student field trip she had organized to restore five acres of prairie in Dauben- diek, one hour north of Cedar Falls. I drove about 150 miles to get there. Leaving Homestead, in the Amanas, at dawn, I sipped an RC cola and ate two slices of bread that I'd saved from my dinner the night before, thinking of the early departure. I turned on the radio and fell with glee upon the lyrics of a country song whose refrain went, "If I'm not in love, I'm on the verge."

I arrived at about 11 by a dirt road and parked near what appeared to be a field of weeds. I looked more closely at what had once been, and will soon again be, a prairie, and under the expert guidance of Professor Jackson, it blossomed into words—Indian grass, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, mountain mint, bottle gentian, meadow blazing star. There are hundreds of plant species in a prairie, almost as many as in a tropical rain forest, and to restore one you have to burn it down to get rid of encroaching sumac and quaking aspen. The native plants survive and what doesn't belong is eliminated. Some prairie animals burrow deep into the earth to wait out the fire. Lanes have to be cleared so that it can spread safely, which was the purpose of this field trip. Shortly after I arrived, Mike Natvig, a farmer of Norwegian descent who lives nearby and looks like a blond Jesus, pulled up on a silver tractor known as Field Boss, which I coveted right away. He belongs to a group called the Practical Farmers of Iowa, which meets regularly to exchange ideas on how to make a living as independent farmers.

While Natvig was chopping down the bigger trees, I inspected his tractor, at first from the outside and then, since no one seemed to be paying attention to me, by stepping into it gingerly. The moment I sat down, I knew I had found my ideal studio: high above the landscape, with views through the windows on all sides, I was on a bouncing seat, free from interruptions other than those of daydreaming, with a radio, heating, and air-conditioning at my disposal. What more could a writer want?As Jackson and her students girdled quaking aspens and cut down other shrubs that could not be handled by the tractor's blades, I sat on my perch in seventh heaven, rocked by the wind, watching the grasses sweep right and left.

Back at my inn in Homestead that evening, I sat on a rocking bench in the garden beneath an ancient leafy tree. The excited fluttering of birds from branch to branch at sunset made some leaves drift off the stems in a dancing rain of gold. Cicadas could be heard, and the distant mooing of cows; then, suddenly, a big hooting noise and deafening thunder, as though all the air had been sucked out of the atmosphere—a freight train rattled by, behind the barn across the street. I counted more than 30 cars; then stillness, and the cicadas and crickets were heard again—long, low trills, like a distant unanswered telephone, and constant, barely audible tweet-tweets.

On Professor Jackson's advice, I tried to catch a glimpse of buffalo the next day at the Walnut Creek Wildlife Refuge. A sign warned promisingly, BUFFALO ARE WILD AND UNPREDICTABLE ANIMALS: STAY IN YOUR CAR. It made my pulse race, but the only creature that dared cross my path was a field mouse. At least I saw what a properly maintained tall-grass prairie looks like. It was time for lunch, so I headed to the Prairie Rose Tearoom in Prairie City. It has white lace curtains and tablecloths, and a doorway decked in pink tulle. At the table next to mine, one woman was telling another about a 12-step program for chocoholics. I'd have signed my name on the bottom line to reach the age of 102 as fit as the woman at another table who was eating cake to celebrate her "little sister's" 100th birthday. The only sign of her advanced years was a hearing aid. As for the sister, she had flown in from Phoenix for the occasion. I thought perhaps sweets, steaks, and country air are the recipe for a good life. I could see myself at age 100, sitting out in a field on a late-summer night, listening to the corn grow. (I'm told it makes a loud crackling sound.)

I HAD JUST DAINTILY PICKED CLEAN a wonderful Dover sole at David's Milwaukee Diner in the grand Hotel Pattee in Perry when, since the night was still young, I decided to inspect the bowling alley in the hotel's basement. Two young women had preceded me and were tying their shoes. When they caught sight of me peering through the window in the door, they invited me to join them. No one admitted to knowing how to play, and I turned out to be the only one who didn't. My companions bowled expertly from the start. As I continued to spin one ball out of two into the gutter, they instructed me on how to improve my aim, and also on the strangeness of names in Iowa—Keokuk, Poweshiek, Appanoose, Pottawattamie, Oskaloosa. They were farmers' wives, they said, or rather "widows," since it was harvest season, and their men left at five in the morning and returned at midnight. One of them, Mollie Schlosser, invited me to Colfax and promised me a tour of her farm.

I knew by now that I could not resist the lure of a farm, especially since I'd already dispatched some of my tourist duties. I had been to the covered bridges of Madison County, made famous by Robert James Waller's best-seller and the film with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. "Hogback Bridge is like Sophia Loren," a woman at the Madison County Chamber of Commerce told me. "You can't take a bad picture of it." I had made a somewhat hurried pilgrimage to John Wayne's birthplace in Winterset, where the guide explained that although this was the ek-chul house and the ek-chul place, these were not the original furnishings: John Wayne's parents took their furniture with them when they moved, "because they didn't know they would have a star." Stars were all very well, I thought, but the hogs were calling to me, so I phoned Mollie and made a date to meet her in Colfax. After all, Iowa is hog coun-try, and that's why the corn is grown.

I drove through the town, past the convenience stores and the cemetery, all the way to the end of the road, where I found the green house with a two-car garage that Mollie had described. She had changed from her city clothes—a pleated wool skirt and boiled wool jacket with pewter buttons—into jeans and a sweatshirt. She asked if I had any "down" clothes, which I didn't, having long ago given up dressing either up or down for a place. We skipped over two iron fences to the sow farm, spread across several acres of open fields.

A creek makes the soil sandy, and most of the trees have no bark because the pigs scratch themselves against them. Each sow had a corrugated metal shelter shaped like a tunnel. On one side were the pregnant sows, which stay pregnant "three months, three weeks, three days, three hours, and three minutes," Mollie's husband, Greg, later told me. On the other side were sows with their young—some pink, some white, some black with a white stripe. The piglets stick close to their stern, watchful mothers, who grunt at regular intervals. When we approached, the piglets drew near with a look of intense, arrested curiosity in their eyes, their snouts pointed upward as though they might retrieve some information from that higher altitude. "Who are you?" they seemed to inquire, and not for the first time in my life, I wished I could converse with animals, like Francis of Assisi or certain lion tamers.


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