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.
I sometimes wonder if people view me as the outsider that I am, an Idaho potato trying to grow in Nebraska sand, silt, and clay. After moving, I picked up bags of Nebraska-grown potatoes at the grocery store and inwardly wondered if they would really be as good as the “Famous Potatoes” of my upbringing. But I cajoled myself that the state motto, “The Good Life,” lined up so much so with my maiden name of Goodliffe that I was really meant to be here.
When we moved our herd of five youngsters here, the cute yellow house included a backyard with two rectangular garden boxes and one triangle tucked in the corner of the yard. I tell myself I like being connected to the Earth and feeling my fingers in the dirt. Yet my eight summers here, where sweat drips down my face and soaks my clothes as I try to pull out the weeds that seem to just reproduce like rabbits—including poison ivy which intertwines with the sweet potato vine that grows along my backyard fence—seems indicative of hard living and the “not for everyone” slogan that recently made headlines. After I finish outside, it is hard to get the dirt out from under my nails. I treasure sitting inside in my air-conditioned house to mitigate the humidity and question my gardening hobby.
A neighbor’s mulberry tree (considered a weed tree by many) grew up quickly and took over shading our garden from the sun, and retarding growth. I cursed as it was in a neighbor’s yard, and out of my control to remove. Yet it was in Nebraska that I first tasted my now-favorite mulberry jam. Mulberries are described as tasting like a firework went off in your mouth, just like the non-stop fireworks that fill the month of July, every inch of the evening sky, the booms covering the sounds of cicadas mating.
Nebraska offered a family-oriented culture where we were not viewed as outcasts for having a large family as we were in Oregon. We moved our garden and to overcome the clay soil, borrowed a neighbor’s 1970’s Ford to haul in a load of manure (yes, neighbors do that in Nebraska and about anything else you may need help with). I threatened to put a security camera on the garden as “neighbors” (bunnies, squirrels, birds) ate any tomato that was just about ready to pick. We finally started to have success with (of all things) potatoes, maybe because they are grown underneath where prying paws have access. I was astounded and finally overcame my failure to thrive.
People on the interstate often don’t like the monotony of driving, looking at miles and miles of corn. Corn sweat, or the humidity sometimes felt in the summer, can feel oppressive. In the winter my breath escapes in short, puffy bursts and the landscape is same, white, snow-covered, similar to the ethnic makeup of this region. But, like me, there are transplants. The refugees in my community college classroom are more obvious than my blonde hair, blue eyed self, but like me, they seem to thrive! Some may even argue that the immigrants have replenished the soil of this area, allowing new crops and ideas to grow, as seen in the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in Omaha in the spring of 2020.
Some may say that it is the middle of nowhere. It could easily be said that it is the middle of anywhere, the middle of these great United States where all I must do is fill up my gas tank and drive a thousand miles in any direction to see anything these states have to offer. The openness doesn’t seem to bother me anymore. It feels like there is room to grow.