Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator
The Midwest for me will always be home, and even though “home” has been many places over the years: Chicago, Tehran, Fresno, California, and now Reno, Nevada; Oklahoma City, my place of birth and life for the first 25 years, will always signify my origins and claims a forever hold on my heart.
What could be considered more “Mid” than Oklahoma City, a short 355 miles +/- south of Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the 48 contiguous US states? What Neil Gaiman describes in American Gods as “a neutral ground where the modern and old gods can meet despite the war between them,” which seems particularly percipient, given the area’s 35+ registered Native American tribes and the crisscrossed remnants of former federally demarcated Indian Reservations. Though the West long ago was designated as everything beyond the Appalachian Mountains, exploration, migration and settlement later shifted that “frontier,” so that the vast expanse west of the Mississippi River became known as the West.
My Midwessay would include the farm where I grew up, just south of Oklahoma City, where when asked, my family described, in our linguistic-lazy Okie accents, as “six miles south-a the airport, a mile west-a Meridian” and eight miles west of the town of Moore, where I attended all twelve years of primary and secondary school. The dirt road leading to our rented 100-year-old farmhouse nestled on forty acres, was lined all along the south side with hickory trees and still is, though they are shadows of their former selves now, ravaged by Wizard-of-Oz tornadoes and Northers certain to storm through every year, over and over, like clockwork. That rickety cellar door Dorothy stomped her foot on to get in, blown back again and again as she tried, was the spitting image of mine.
The pecan tree in the backyard, beyond the cellar, windmill, and outhouse we used when the toilets clogged or the septic tank filled up, still stands in all its Papershell Cultivar glory. It watched our young family of four move in, shaded my Dad’s greyhound dog pens, and saw us pull out of the sandy driveway twelve years later, to a new home further south, all our own. On a visit a few years ago, on yet another drive-by to see how the place was getting on, I’m greeted by the owner, who shares that the tree, likely two centuries old by then, produced over 400 lbs. of pecans that year, almost ten times the average. I immediately write down this happy longevity story in my notebook. Of course, the old house and even the cellar by that time, only existed unseen below ground, since the former had been dozed and buried on its very spot, while the latter ultimately caved in on itself.
For me, my Midwest Essay is full of color: the red dirt of the South Canadian River, the red cardinals perched on snow-drifted fenceposts, the golden sway of wheat fields, the black-green sky of a Cat. 5, the flaxen hair of broom corn, and the clear colorless glass of icy highways. And smells: fresh-baled alfalfa, the petrichor of raindrops on parched soil, the must of fallen leaves or the sharp scent of the first cold spell that pierces your nostrils like a dull knife. The Oklahoma winds could have their own dictionary, and maybe they do. All of this, the shade and scent of nostalgia, of childhood memory, of that place that was your first remembrance, and really your only—home.
Phyllis Brotherton, a memoirist and essayist, holds an MA and MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Brevity Blog, Under the Sun and elsewhere. Her essays received two Best of the Net nominations, the most recent by Under the Sun literary journal for “The Year of Assassination.” She recently relocated with her wife to Reno, Nevada, where she watches for bears at the bird feeder from her writing desk.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
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