Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Nebraska November Memory

This morning as I got in the car to go to the gym and run some errands, I had such a powerful flashback that it was like some kind of out of body experience. Even though I was driving the suburban streets of New Jersey, the sky was like a Nebraska November sky.  The wind was blowing so fast that I could watch the clouds moving from horizon to horizon, like cattle ambling across the plains. I was suddenly and quite violently thrown back two years ago this month when I was back in my home state of Nebraska for my grandmother's funeral.

Although she lived the vast majority of her life on farms near Elm Creek, she was to be buried in Kearney, the place she referred to when she discussed "going to town." Every Sunday she and my grandfather used to drive 18 miles down highway 30 (never the interstate, which my grandfather abhorred), go to service at a Lutheran church, then hit the supermarket to stock up for the week.  For that reason I'd been in the church where her funeral took place on several occasions, mostly in my childhood summers where I would spend a week or two on the farm.

The day of the funeral something struck me hard that I had never really noticed before: my homeland is a strange, harsh, and forbidding place when it comes to climate and landscape.  Growing up there I assumed the insane temperature swings and endless skies were just normal.  Now it seemed that Kearney, a bustling little city of 25,000, was like a gnat on the prodigious rump of the Great Plains.  The gusting winds that morning as my wife and I went before the funeral to the Wal-Mart on the edge of town to get some baby supplies felt as if they could rip the town from its moorings and scatter its debris all over the prairie. The Wal-Mart there is on top of a hill, and I felt exposed and fearful, looking north to the barren land north of the Platte River Valley, where fields of corn give way to endless range.

A large murder of crows had made the roof of the church their home, a forbidding sight against the massive, roiling Plains sky, clouds darting across.  They crows would suddenly fly in the air, then after a flurry of hovering, rest back down on the church's roof. The church was near the edge of town, and in Nebraska towns that borderline feels creepy, making you realize that human habitation in such a place is almost an affront to nature.  On the edge of town you can feel as if the ground could open up and the earth could swallow the town whole.  When you grow up there you don't really notice it, but after spending some years in the New York area, where nature feels as if it has been wiped from existence, Nebraska in November was quite a contrast.

Nevertheless, Nebraska in November is a beautiful place, and fearsomely beautiful at that.  With the harvest in the fields are a humble stubble that allows an even more expansive view of the far-flung horizons.  Green, fragile as it is on the prairie, has drained out, but what remains is a stunning mix of hues of brown and yellow like spread Van Gogh brushstrokes across the canvas of the wide, flat plains.  The naked cottonwood trees are sublimely gnarled and twisted, like broken skeletons.  The fearsomeness comes from the feeling that the earth and sky are squashing whatever puny people happen to be stuck between them.  The sudden ice storms and blizzards don't make November's beauty feel safe or comforting.  It is more stunning and unsettling.  On this blustery New Jersey day, I am glad of the reminder of a place I see much too seldom these days.

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