These are two images from a short visit to northeast Iowa and nearby Minnesota in June 2010. To the east of this area, the gently rolling plain gives way to steeper more wooded hills and valleys leading down to the Mississippi River. To the west, the woodlots become scarcer as the land rises imperceptibly to a higher and flatter plain ideal for wind farms layered over the corn and soybean fields. It is a place of contradictions.
The land is open, weeds grow along the gravel roads, and many places are more than an hour’s drive from any town of 10,000 or more. Yet the landscape is being industrialized. Wind turbines, power lines and communication towers sprout like weeds; large scale hog operations miles away reveal themselves when the wind blows from their direction; and except for the Amish, modern chemical-intensive no-till farming has largely replaced more traditional methods. Some townspeople believe cancer rates are rising, and they suspect the presence of farm chemicals in their drinking water.
Many of the original settlers in the area were Norwegian, and that remains a dominant cultural feature today. There is an emphasis on utility more than design, lending an unpretentious plain-ness to the environment, culture and social life, and perhaps camouflaging the changes underway.
For example, until recently, diversity meant the comfortable divisions between Lutheran and Catholic, Norwegian and those of other European heritage, or even between individual families. Although a stranger, I looked like I belonged, and was always greeted with a smile and a wave. However, in recent years there has been an influx of Hispanic laborers who have taken jobs in meatpacking and the few other factories. An undercurrent of the modern anti-immigrant fear of the “other” spreads invisibly like the poison from the fields into the groundwater. Natural beauty, the past and the future collide.