Monday, April 5, 2021

The #Midwessay: Ashley Bethard, The Cycle of History (and What We Leave Out)

There's one story that I keep returning to, over and over, writing and rewriting, turning it and tilting it this way and that so I can examine it from every possible angle. It's this story of growing up in Vandalia, Ohio, the "Crossroads of America". 
     I’m always at those crossroads, figuratively and literally. I’ve been there all my life. Sometimes it consumes me. Sometimes it plagues me. I’m there physically, psychologically, emotionally. My history is there. It’s where I’m most comfortable. 
     The crossroads are where East meets West and North meets South. It’s where Route 40 crosses Route 25 and where I-70 crosses I-75. If I did dare to leave, which direction should I go? Which path should I choose? Or, is the ideal path to stay put? Should I continue to live at the Crossroads, facing every direction but moving in no direction at all? What good is a crossroad if you don’t choose a path?
     All of the Ohio essayists seem to share this strange sense of wanting to leave or, for those who did leave, wanting to return. What is it about this place that makes people want to escape but then, draws them back? Read this weeks' essays to find out.
     Ohioans: We'd love to have more essays in conversation with the #Midwessay. Email your take on the subject to and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be. —Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator

The Cycle of History (and What We Leave Out)

Ashley Bethard


The idea that Ohio’s memory is long is an illusion. The Midwest carries the same truncated histories as everywhere else. But the illusion is strong here, reinforced by its repeating cycles: work the land, plant the seed, tend the crop, harvest the bounty. And after the work, the descent into a grey decay, the deep freeze, the cold stillness that eventually gives away to a blessed thaw: green shoots poking through snow, spikes of last year’s cornstalks worn smooth and colorless.
     If you live in Ohio, your life is defined by cycles, even if you’re unaware of it. There’s no way around that. Ohio’s agriculture industry, which largely depends on Ohio’s weather, climate, and ability to experience all four seasons in a day, represent $124 billion of the state’s economic output, ranking it alongside manufacturing and healthcare. I didn’t know the name for a gravity wagon until I was an adult, but intuitively, I knew what its purpose was when it appeared in the fields next to our house. Just like the urge to leave when it becomes too much – too cold, too grey, too barren, too boring – it also draws us back in, those green shoots enticing us, encouraging a connection to the land as sustenance, the land as joy.
     But the land is challenging, too. It comes with its own rules, rules which vary greatly from the north of the state to the southern tip, and across its wide, swath of a middle. If you are a farmer, or even if you are vaguely familiar with what it takes to work the land, you know a thing or two about soil: the many different types, which regions have hard clay deposits, where the loamiest layers are, which soils are most conducive to growing Ohio corn and soybeans.
     To grow something is a paradox: knowing and loving the land, while at the same time wrestling it into submission. A study in contradiction: the hedge row that lines the farmer’s planted field. One unruly, brambles springing forth from the earth. A gnarled mess of vine and branch. The other tamed, treated, coaxed into giving a very specific kind of life. Rows reminiscent of raked sand in a Zen garden, sprouts lined up neat, fenced in by geometry. A history to excavate, and one to repeat. That seems like an essay to me.

Ashley Bethard is a writer who has lived in Ohio for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in VIDA Review, Catapult, The Rumpus, and others. She currently lives in Dayton. Find her on IG or Twitter @ashleybethard or at

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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