A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
Living in a flyover state often means two things: first, that we are self-deprecating in our humor. We acknowledge, readily, the flatness of our landscapes and the unremarkable nature of our cityscapes. We’ll regale you with small town simplicity: the often-miniscule number in our graduating class (just 40!) and the nature of knowing someone who knows someone that once stole a golf cart, climbed the town’s water tower, and ended up front page news of the local newspaper. That the number of our cattle often surpass our own human population is the punchline of many a joke. The second, however, is how steadfastly we defend our homes in spite of this. How we proselytize to outsiders the splendor of our skies, wide without the hinderance of mountain ranges, how the tall native grasses of our precious prairies wave and ripple like the ocean, how we have one of the best zoos in the country, thank you very much. We balance a healthy humility with pride, and I can feel the effects of this in the way I write.
As a Nebraskan, as a Nebraskan Writer™, I catch myself playing the self-deprecating humble citizen of the flyover state. I have described my hometown as Nowhere, NE and have done so without guilt. I have exposed the insular nature of small-town conservative upbringings (my own upbringing), lamented the anti-abortion billboards I pass on rural highways, mused good-naturedly on the Midwestern tradition of standing on the front porch to watch the tornado blow in. I have done this because I have heard this, have learned this from the Nebraskans around me, have read and laughed along with other Nebraskans the same repeated joke: if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.
But for the ways I may lambast my own home, and the ways I may explore its faults, I will and always have sought to paint with words the unique beauty that is Nebraska. How can I distill into black type the shiver in my stomach as I crest a hill on a familiar gravel road, the blur of the cornfields out my car windows, the easy nature of the blue sky opening before me and the farmhouses that dot the way? That I have gone out in the night, on a whim, to see the stars and found both the gentle grazing of curious cows amid the quiet of the pasture and the disquieting grandeur of constellations unhindered by the city lights? The pleasure of roaming the streets of downtown Omaha, kindred among people who have come from small towns just like me, found their ways to “the city” just like me, and have still retained the same affable nature that makes flyover states so easy to love?
Sometimes I think the task is impossible—that I can never reach the depths I want to, can never bring you, reader, with me. I worry that I might lose you before I’ve got you, that your appetite is more Rocky-Mountain-Majestic than it is Great-Plains-Pastoral. But then I wouldn’t be a Nebraskan Writer™ if I didn’t at least try, would I? We’ll find each other yet. I’ll be waiting in this flyover state, ready to welcome you.
Elizabeth Fiala is a native Nebraskan and current graduate student studying Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, 13th Floor Magazine, and numerous self-made paper booklets which she sold for a quarter each, as an industrious child, to kind elderly neighbors.