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.
In Red Cloud, Nebraska there is a stretch of prairie that has never been broken by the plow.
Native grasses like big and little bluestem, side-oats and hairy grama, switch and cool-season buffalo grow in an ecosystem free from the narrative of modern agriculture, which prides itself on progress, yield, uniformity. Waist high, the dense grasses are deceptively sharp. It takes effort to wade through them, a reminder that nature is not meant to surrender.
At first glance it is easy to skim the surface of this place, assume it benign, simplistic because of topography, the flat expanse. But a richer story is concealed below.
More than three-quarters of the prairie’s biomass is beneath the surface, beyond our comprehension. If you flipped the Plains upside-down, you would see the true story of twisted roots stretching ten to fifteen feet underground. To understand Nebraska, we must dig, must abandon Americana narratives in favor of a murkier truth.
Like the prairie, the Nebraska essay dives deep for the story buried somewhere in the tangle of memory and history. The essayist traces grass stalk to soil, through loam and silt formed the last time a fire burned the prairie black, the system stronger from injury. The surface gathers sunlight, but survival exists underground in the root web, buried as protection against grazing and drought, fire and frost.
The essayist reaches fingers, then a tentative hand through the topsoil, further until they are wrist high, elbow high, until their arm is subsumed and they plunge headfirst into the darkness. If the roots of a strand of prairie grass were stretched end to end, they would reach for miles, meandering, discursive. The essayist works through the strata of subsoil and bedrock, weaves through time to untangle the threads.
Much like nonfiction can be overlooked for fiction and poetry, the Midwest is often dismissed in favor of the coasts. Those outside the region seek to define it by what it lacks. Similarly, nonfiction can be erroneously viewed as a genre of limitation or absence, prose that is not fiction, devoid of the pageantry of poetry.
Described as “flyover” country, portions of the Midwest have been left off of contemporary maps as if their absence and erasure do not matter. These are the states students struggle to name, the outlines too uniform to be of interest compared to those jagged coastal and border shapes. Indeed, Nebraska seems to be pop-culture catchall, the Midwest state most often referenced in television and film, music and meme as exemplar of generic sameness. But while outsiders view the state as nostalgic symbol indicative of the entire region, Nebraska is a contemporary text actively dismantling social and political narratives—in the 2020 presidential election, the state split its electoral votes, pulsing red and blue at the country’s heart.
When I flew from the central coast of California to settle in Nebraska to pursue a PhD and work as an essayist, I wondered what it would be like to claim a narrative in a space so frequently silenced by those who do not understand it. Beneath the plane, the land gridded in patchwork, crops carefully cultivated to feed the country.
But this vision of precise life on the plains is only possible if you are flying over it, never landing to live. In Nebraska I encountered the ferocity of a place so often described by its naivety and wholesomeness. Storms turned the sky sickly green, the metallic smell of rust and blood in the air, birds flying into the sides of buildings before the static lightning gash, a funnel forming like a clot on the horizon. In summer the wet heat felt like walking through the sweat of the land, thrum and throb, while in winter the windchill dropped far enough below zero that my very heart slowed. Human will did not matter; nature wrote the narrative.
Writers often describe the essay by way of its French origins—as a try or an attempt—but etymologies are never more apparent than in the Midwest, where the narrative of survival is an endeavor.
The Plains are full of the dead. The skeletons of bison—hunted as part of the nation’s efforts to exterminate Indigenous populations—once littered the prairie, enough at the peak of hunting to fill two rows of boxcars stretching from California to New York. Children collected bones like wildflowers, carted them to trains heading to St. Louis or Chicago. Brokers purchased bones for a high price, filled railcars with the slaughter, transportation, like death, evidence of progress. At fertilizer plants the bones were baked and ground, sold back to farmers to feed the very crops that would not grow after that the bison vanished. In this way, the Midwest feasted on the dead, sweetened sorrow with sugar refined and filtered, too, through bone.
Drive through Nebraska and see farmhouse skeletons stark against the sky, leaning from years abandoned in the sun. Though the land is beautiful, the history of Nebraska is fraught with brutality and burden—after Indigenous populations were driven from their homes, massacred en masse, the Homestead Act promised 160 acres of land to anyone willing to believe land was free. Those who arrived to try and thrive in an inhospitable place often abandoned their stolen homes when the weather and the loneliness proved too much, even the land giving up and simply blowing away during the Dust Bowl. Empty houses still hold chipped china, brittle rockers on the porch, yellowed wedding dresses hanging lifeless in the closet. The trees have closed in over the years, prairie grass eager to reclaim its place.
To essay is to persevere through the troubled narrative, try and give shape to the stories that haunt us. Essayists use skeletons to construct stories. They gather the bones.
Like the essay, the craft of the Midwest is one of contradiction. Winding through wildflowers like sedges and fringed puccoons, native thistles and prairie coneflower, echinacea and ironweed seems like swimming. Early settlers went mad thinking they saw ocean waves in the prairie grass. Some dove from the plow or plunged themselves into granaries to drown.
But the impulse to see water in the wheat is instinct—the Plains were once a Cretaceous Sea, fish and crocodile, sharks and diving birds swimming through the fossil record. Walk the halls of Nebraska museums—Mastodons evolving to great Mammoths, giant sea tortoises alongside Plesiosaurs with great slithering bodies—to witness a curation of contradiction.
Farmers dug up the bones of sea creatures along with bison and crops, all of history snarled beneath the soil’s surface. They struggled to unearth where one narrative ended and another began, to understand the where claim merged with identity. Writing their narratives required reconciling past and present, experience and truth, a careful braiding of disparate threads.
Nebraska essays inherent and accept contradiction. Writers reckon with the splendor and cruelty of the geologic and human record. They reckon with a place whose violent history is often rewritten as American abundance.
The Midwest essay requires a revision of perspective. Land is subject not scenery, the essayist merely observer. The sky on the Plains will not be ignored, so to write the essays of Nebraska, a writer must utilize the craft of open space. The form of the Nebraska essay is not precise as fields viewed from 30,000 feet, instead wild and strange. They meander like driving backroads in fall, the smell of sorghum and hay, or spiral in on themselves like the storms that send towns to rubble, a doll on the lawn next to the toilet and the broken teeth of a window. Sometimes they are silent, ruminative as snowfall at dusk, the purple gloaming.
The Midwest essay is as rooted in tradition as the sandhill cranes who return each spring to the same stretch of Nebraska Platte river. Nearly 80% of all the cranes on the planet come home to this state each year, feeding on the grain left behind in the cornfields that once grazed bison, mammoth, and large wild rodents, that once held a sea with creatures we can’t imagine, even with their bones right before us. It is a difficult flight, one that meanders across the globe, shifts with time and perspective, but only in Nebraska do the cranes cultivate the strength they need to make their ways to arctic and subarctic nesting grounds, to survive the long journey.
Fossils reveal that the sandhill cranes have claimed this place for nine million years, returning, time and again. They seem contradiction in the sky—fierce red eyespots on muted plumage, strong muscled bodies despite slender necks, creatures prehistoric and peculiar.
Look to the skies to see they do not fly over what others would erase, but return to write their stories of home, rooted as they are to this place.
I am not from the Plains and I do not live there now, but I am deeply rooted in Nebraska. It is impossible to unclaim a place where you worked hard to survive.
The sod house is an idyllic prairie image, much like covered wagons or quilt squares painted onto the side of barns. In a landscape devoid of trees for lumber, early homesteaders recognized the value of deep roots.
Prairie grass evolved to thrive in a place difficult to survive. The competition for nutrients and resources in a land defined by emptiness makes plant roots thickly interwoven. They tolerate extreme heat and drought in summer, bitter cold and ice in winter, maddening calm juxtaposed with unrelenting wind, storms where the sky is a wailing mouth.
Grass roots can survive nearly anything, even fire, for they strengthen by regrowing back from nothing. It is no wonder, then, early homesteads constructed homes from the land itself, digging out the sides of hills or stripping sections of stolen land to stack into walls.
The homes smelled of dirt and musk, of rain and the breath of residents telling stories late into the night. The roots tangled to hold the soil together and inside the home looked like a prairie upside-down.
Those who essayed themselves on the land had no choice but to embrace the contradiction of place—they survived because they wrote the stories of themselves underground.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Split Lip Magazine, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery