Saturday, May 22, 2021

The #Midwessay: Robert James Russell, Holarctica

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.

Nebraskans: we'd love to have more essays complicating/confronting the #Midwessay! Contact me at kristinelangleymahler at gmail and I'll get your viewpoints included in this project.

—Kristine Langley Mahler


Robert James Russell


The river is too deep to ford. You lose:

          • 1 set of clothing
          • 92 bullets
          • 3 wagon axles
          • 5 oxen
          • Beth (drowned)

The Oregon Trail


Nebraska is hollowed out by purring wind, I think.
     I’m new here, on this soil, so I catalogue everything as a way to make sense of my footfall. But I come back to the wind often, the lack of cover here, how the weather changes dramatically hour to hour, blustery and cold and warm and bright and back again. We’re made by wind. It determines how we dress, our moods, our hair. I’m surprised there aren’t dust storms. Anyway, a quarter of Nebraska is covered by sand dunes.
     There’s a kind of isolation here that I can’t put my finger on. We’re at the edge of something, a threshold to the West, a window to the East, a funnel connecting North and South. Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz once wrote, “The hills of one’s youth are all mountains.” I think about this a lot on lazy drives west on I-80 when there’s no one else on the road. If you squint your eyes just right, the pinkening clouds form a colossal, alpine wall, some near-invisible mountainscape always past the horizon you can never reach. But it’s not real. It’s a mirage.
     You’re certainly drawn to the flatness here, but I see it now for what it is: not that the earth refuses to rise up, but that the sky here swallows it. It needs room to spread out. There aren’t many clouds in winter and the sky sparkles blue and it doesn’t seem as if it would take much effort to push your heels off the ground and step right into it.
     And so, I keep an inventory of how Nebraska has changed me and my art, a catalog of my presence on this land: 


My first natural love was for trees, especially pine and sugar maple. Then grasses; the wildness of swept meadows. Here in Nebraska, the forests are frail and thin, hand-planted. The Nebraska National Forest, established in 1907, was at one point the largest man-made forest in the world. If you hike there, there’s a passive sadness to the scenery. That it shouldn’t exist. Nebraska is home to the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the planting of trees. How many trees does it take to make a forest? How many is enough to convince you this land is something other than it is?
     Here, I find myself relishing the vast seas of grass. Full of bluestem and wild rye and dropseed. Festuca and millet. Especially out west: the Oglala National Grassland is nearly 95,000 acres in size. You can’t contemplate waves of pastureland like this until you see it. My whole life, I’ve had an idea of walking into some unending grassland and getting lost, of making camp with a small fire, of harvesting wild grass seeds to make flour and bread, to be swallowed whole and to walk out again someday completely changed.


Native Nebraskans call bags sacks. At the grocery store check-out it’s “You want a sack?”
     I’ll never get used to the nomenclature. I can’t help it: the word “sack” makes me giggle. I miss the long, nasally a in bag found in the upper Midwest. 


I often dream of extinct megafauna like cave bears and the American lion and dire wolves and giant tortoises. I like feeling small and insignificant. It’s why I’m drawn to trees, I think, their age and mighty magnitude. In some way this is me paying reverence to the earth. By acknowledging my triviality we have an agreement of sorts: I let it pass through me and on, and on. I won’t get in the way.
     Mastodon and mammoth fossils have been found in every county in Nebraska. In 1922 in Lincoln County, researchers discovered one of the world’s largest mammoth skeletons belonging to a Columbian mammoth nicknamed Archie. It’s on display in a dimly-lit room in the Nebraska State Museum of Natural History. It nearly reaches the towering ceiling. I go there on lunch breaks, and I’m often the only person there. How easily I could be crushed by it. How easily I could disappear.


When I played The Oregon Trail as a kid on those creamy-colored, chunky ‘90s computers, I never made it out of Nebraska. I’d just sit and stare at the pixelated representation of Chimney Rock and lose interest in the game. Eventually, we’d all die of starvation.


The empty lot across the street, needle-and-thread grass concealing cocoa-powder loam.
     Mixing purple and orange yields a range of soft magentas, red-mauve, the feather-ends of the grass stalks flitting in contusing dusklight.
     It’s hard to describe, but let me try:


Lately I dream windswept, raw-steel cumulonimbus like battleships come to port, a parade forming in the streets ready to greet bluejackets back from combat. No, it’s a charcoal smudge of a sky. Better yet: it’s a fist, not a slap. 


Surprise: there are pumas in Nebraska. But nobody knows how many. I love that we have no idea, that we don’t need to see a thing for it to press on.


The ecology of Nebraska is measured in loss: 

  • Bison, once in the tens of millions, simulacrum of the Great Plains, were exterminated from this land by 1883.
  • Grassland elk was killed off in the late 1800s. The Great Plains wolf was hunted to extinction by the 1930s. 
  • Passenger pigeons, which blackened the Nebraskan skies in their flocks, were removed from the wild completely in 1900. The last of its kind died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, alone. 
  • Tallgrass Prairie, a unique, important biome that once blanketed the heart chakra of the North American continent, was decimated for farming. Only 4% remains intact today. It’s still there, yes, but you need to know where to look.


Nest boxes for mountain bluebirds are staked in intervals along I-80. If the entrances aren’t exactly the right size, the bluebirds will have to compete with the larger starlings and swallows for the roosts. House sparrows will go after bluebirds for their nests, too. Once, driving west to Colorado, I saw a pair of bluebirds fighting off a hawk five times its size. I hope they at least stood a chance.


I met a man named Ted in a Nature Center here who waters the owls. There they keep birds of prey in barbed-wire cages with faded brass placards, say they’re Rescues, how they couldn’t survive on their own.
     Ted’s job is simple: on hot days he comes out and sprays down the birds with a hose. And you’d think an owl might not like a hosewater bath from a man like Ted, garish and unkempt, the opposite of such a stately bird, that godly visage, but I’m telling you: those barred owls spread their wings and close their big-tender eyes and relish every drop.
     I wonder where they go in that moment? Spring rains atop mature evergreens.


My first day in Nebraska, a tornado rips through downtown Lincoln. I’m in an extended-stay hotel. Me and the desk clerk and a handful of other residents step outside to watch the sky darken purple-black. We don’t say anything to each other. The funnel forms a block away from us, gaining speed. Thundering alarms blare all around us. There’s an immortality in the waiting. 


Heatwave, a dozen (or maybe more) red admiral butterflies lay lifeless on the sidewalk near a scatter of withered prairie mallow, wingbeats stilling. I scoop them into my palm and try to make sense of their faded paper-lantern patterns as I lay them among mouth-black loam where, overhead, a sign says the land will be torn up later this year for a brand-new parking garage. 


According to Nebraska pioneer folklore, to cure any illness in cattle, hang bittersweet around the animals’ neck.
     On a hike in a nature preserve, after I see a penned-in herd of buffalo grazing lazily in a greened-over pond, I find a strand of bittersweet growing wild along the trail. I stop and look up. It really is spears of pink light here chucked down from heaven. The buffalo snort, indifferent to my presence. A Cooper’s hawk circles above, hungry for field mice and toads, clearing the path ahead. I put a wad of the bittersweet in my front pocket and carry on. It’s still too early to see if it’ll make any difference at all.



Back to the wind and the land, please: to live here, to be writing of this place, to some degree, feels like a passing through. Dying butterflies on the pavement, land that will be razed and transformed into concrete masses, vast expanse of changing sky, a tornado that reminds us, together, how temporary everything is—this place is a breadth of transience, a midpoint at the heart of it all.
     I’m new to this land, but what I know is this: it’s full of beautiful movement that can’t help but find its way into our art and our being. Here, seeking steadiness amid shift and drift, we dance.


Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla and Sea of Trees, and the chapbook Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out. He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his writing and illustration work online at and on Twitter at @robhollywood.

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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