Nebraska ain’t Newark

It was true of about 85% of people I spoke with.

When I told them we were going to be spending a month in Nebraska, they invariably grimaced like they smelled a fart, screwed up their faces and asked “God…Why?!?”.

And every time I received that response I’d feel my confidence slip down a little farther through the cracks of my psyche. I’d try to bolster myself (and save face) by talking about the residency, explaining that it was supposed to be a time for work, contemplation and isolation. It was going to be a welcome, rugged change from NYC where we were all going to focus on our project and move it towards completion.

A response to which most people would then counter, “Well that’s good because there’s NOTHING there.”

Yes, according to almost everyone I talked to, Nebraska was a no man’s land, filled with “nothing”. It was a black hole; a non-entity; might as well be called “No State Here”.  Even my best friend, who can make a picture opp and a good story out of a trip to the dentist, had told me that listening to Springsteen’s Nebraska while traversing its namesake hadn’t been the life changing experience she had hoped. Instead it had been merely… boring.

So by the time we were ready to leave I was dreading the very real possibility that I had arranged for my collaborators and myself to spend an entire month in a place that most people gave as much regard as Gary, Indiana or Newark, New Jersey.

And if there was one thing I didn’t want, it was to spend a month in the Newark of the Midwest.

But I’m here to tell you that they were all wrong. Yes, even my BFF. Nebraska is filled with all kinds of something. It is a veritable horn of plenty. You just have to take the time to see it. Sure, to the cross-country trekker it may not have the braggadocio of Colorado’s Rockies or the tourist draw of Wyoming or New Mexico. For many it might just seem like a state that gets in the way between you and bigger, bolder things. But that’s unfair. Sure, it might not possess many large landmarks or historic monuments, but Nebraska is modest like that. You have to get to know her, take time with her and get acquainted. Nebraska, like her people, doesn’t put her best furniture out on the front porch for the random passer-by. You have to be invited in to set a spell in the parlor before you get to see the crown jewels.

For instance, here at Art Farm we’re surrounded on all sides by cornfields owned by local farmers. But inside this corn fortress is a stretch where the prairie grasses grow wild. Right now out my studio window they glow the color of honey, and to watch them move in the constant wind is almost as enthralling as watching a fire. In fact, I’ve observed that the prairie is a single continually evolving organism, performing it’s own dramatic opera. Each week some new species steps into the spotlight, and undertakes a dazzling aria by which it shows me how it prepares for the coming winter. Our first week it was the goldenrod, slowly browning from its summer yellow into a dark umber, its heavy stalks drooping lower and lower by the day until they were completely veiled by a curtain of grass.

Next came the milkweed, cracking it’s pods and commencing a sugar plum fairy dance across the fields. Apparently before we came it had been the diva sunflowers who had held sway; the brilliant Maria Callases of the field. But by the time we had arrived they sat petal-less, retired and bitter, their small centers black and round. At a glance they may seem ugly and past their prime, but when it rains they are strikingly black and alien against the yellow grass. Even aging divas have their appeal.

And then there’s the animals. You may have only seen cows when you passed through, but we saw our first coyote as he bolted across a freshly harvested cornfield. He’d most likely been hunting for mice, who in turn were helping themselves to the stray corn left behind by the machines. But the sound of our bikes sent him into a sprint, and we were able to watch the delicate way he ran. We weren’t the only ones who were curious: once he was out of harm’s way he veered his course back towards us and stood off, watching and smelling us as we rolled along the dirt road.

And in the floating barn there’s an owl. John saw him briefly, and we’ve begun a full on campaign to make his acquaintance. We’ve perused his boneyard of pastdinners, found his leftovers. His feathers are striped and downy and we can see them scattered across the rafters of the barn. Some have made it to the ground, where we’ve collected them in our mission to learn more about him. We’re detectives, hot on the trail of a Great Horned Owl. Even if we don’t get to see him again, spending time in the barn is a treat in itself. Stacked on iron beams and wood pillars, this rapidly decaying structure moans and squeaks in the wind. It seems alive, even as we crunch the ribs of tiny mice under our feet.

And then there’s the more humble animals, like the crickets and the grasshoppers. As you walk from building to building along the grass paths, they clear out of your way as though you were an ogre. Some are big, some are small. Some have wings and are brightly colored. Others sing for you while you hang the laundry.  They’re nothing like the brown, meaty crickets of North Carolina that jump out of cabinets only to scare the bejeezus out of you. These crickets are charming and non-confrontational.

And they serve another function: those crickets and the other Nebraska bugs are part of what create the chicken eggs we eat here. We buy them from a farm down the road where  Doug and Keiko Andersen have 70 chickens of various colors, shapes and sizes. The yolks are bright orange and flavorful.  A dozen of these beauties costs 1.50, and when you crack one next to a store bought version you wonder why you ever wasted your time before with anything else.

And I could go on. And maybe I will, but not today. Now it’s time to eat chili and stoke the wood stove and watch the sunset burn a hole into my retinas as it fades behind the plains.