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.
To outsiders, Nebraska seems like one long, bland, flat landmass, mostly given over to cornfields, with one good-sized city at the very end, like an exclamation point. To natives like myself, it is—to paraphrase Whitman—a contradiction that is large, that contains multitudes.
Take that eastern Nebraska, western Nebraska divide. East of the 100th meridian, Nebraska starts looking a lot like those other Midwest neighbors that stretch east clear to Ohio: a patchwork of farm fields, trees that grow wild any old place, land that’s flat or gently rolling, rain that falls easily, just for the heck of it. Omaha and Lincoln and their assorted suburbs and ex-urbs bustle and brim with people, all going somewhere very busily.
West of the 100th, the air is drier and smells like sage. The Rockies’ immense rain shadow means every drop of rain is prayed for. Trees are mostly the planted and coddled kind, except for the cottonwoods with taproots that go down for days. The land is rougher and shaggier. There are still farm fields, but more pasture. Prairie here means the short grass country: wiry buffalo grass, tough grama, blackroot. There are fewer people and more cows. The baseball caps give way to hats and boots. When I was a homesick freshman at Creighton, I once stalked a pickup truck for six blocks because the passengers were wearing cowboy hats.
Eastern Nebraska often feels like one big suburb with a few open fields still left, and you always have the feeling that the bulldozers will show up tomorrow to start grading for a new subdivision. But the towns get smaller and smaller as you roll west, and the land between gets bigger and bigger. The bright lights of the cities fade away, and the dimmer lights of the galaxy fill a planet-wide sky. It’s a change that makes some feel lonesome and the rest of us exhilarated.
The contradictions don’t stop with land. Nebraskans as a people are both kind and ornery, nearly always big-hearted, but frequently close-minded. I love that we are a state full of quirky individualists. East or west, you can’t toss a rock without hitting an artist or an entrepreneur. Want to start a brewery with brews made from ancient grains? Sure! Want to create giant ceramic sculptures or beautiful abstract art from photographic negatives? Awesome! I love that we say “I care” with casseroles and fundraisers. But I hate that our individualism sometimes devolves into a stubborn inability to see inconvenient facts, to acknowledge prejudice, to work toward the common good.
Nebraska is a land in transition now, but in many ways, it’s always been a land of transition. It was an inland sea, then covered with glaciers, then a sea of grass, part of “the Great American Desert.” It was one of the last places in the lower 48 to be settled up, even by the indigenous farmers and hunters who first lived here, and who were then dispossessed by a bad faith government and white immigrants desperate for a different life. It’s never been an easy place to live. Our climate is extremely hot and extremely cold, and will probably become even more so in the coming decades. Our brief history as a state parallels the history of agriculture, an industry now in upheaval with an uncertain future. But then I look out of my window at the hard bright sky, tree limbs outlined with white, a red-tailed hawk riding an updraft, and think, “Damn, it’s beautiful.”
Kirsten Macdissi received her MA in English and an Advanced Writing Certificate from UNO, taught high school English in Fort Calhoun and Brownell Talbot, and is currently a consultant in MCC's writing center. Prior to teaching, she was a journalist for the Midlands Business Journal, Omaha Business Journal, and Metro Monthly magazine.