Daddyland: The Most Magical Place on Earth

After the devastation of the recent hurricanes, writer and storyteller Kevin Kling has been thinking about places and people — and the connection we have with our neighborhoods and the land. His thoughts turn to his grandfather's farm.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

People who lost their homes after the recent hurricanes lost more than possessions. Storyteller Kevin Kling has been thinking about places and people and our connections with our neighborhoods and the land.

KEVIN KLING:

Last spring I was driving through northern Iowa and the green was so vibrant from the new growth it seemed to hold every color in the spectrum, almost too much for my rods and cones to bear. As evening approached the rolling fields held a softness like a Hopper painting. It was so peaceful. Everyone has a geography that gives them peace, whether it's a mountain or a desert or an ocean, and I think mine's cornfields.

I'm a first generation off the farm. My dad grew up on a farm. We used to travel to his birthplace. He called it Daddyland. Now to hear him describe it, it was the most magic place on earth. In Daddyland there was the ravine where he chased a badger with a two-by-four and the upside-down horse weather vane on top of a dilapidated barn that he'd flipped over as a Halloween prank. Oh man, you can have "Pirates of the Caribbean"; take me to Daddyland.

My grandpa, who farmed, could fix anything and he always smelled like tractor grease, even in church. He could back up a trailer into a thimble and had a high laugh and always referred to our guinea pig as livestock. At the state fair we'd spend hours on Machinery Hill, an area devoted to farm implements. When we'd leave, he and my dad's shirt and pants were covered in grass stains from crawling under all the gear.

Grandpa taught me to always carry a pocketknife and a pliers. He taught me to be good to your neighbors because there will be a day when you will need them. Farm kids taught me to smoke in the hayloft and how to ride on the backs of calves as they bucked. My grandparents had this old bantam rooster that would chase my brother and me and peck us. We'd cry and my grandmother would yell at us to stay clear of that prize rooster. The only thing Grandmother loved more was my sister and one day that rooster made the decision to peck at my sister. He didn't even get her but we ate chicken that night. Toughest chicken I ever ate. I learned from that rooster to be careful who you peck.

I drive through Iowa now knowing this, too, is somebody's Daddyland. To the outside world it's the home of the world's largest Cheeto and a place where Buddy Holly's plane went down. I've been told it's the fourth-windiest spot in the world and huge wind machines dot the countryside. Hubert Humphrey, the great filibusterer, is from these parts. There's also lots of churches. With livelihoods relying on fickle weather, crop selection, market values, you can see why faith plays a large role in farmers' lives.

Two hundred years ago this was the land of the Dakota, the Sioux, the Crow and the Cree. And as settlers pushed west, trading posts set up a credit system with the Native Americans, and when the bill came due oftentimes it was collected through land acquisitions or the land was simply taken. Now the same thing is happening to family farms. Large debt is common. It actually costs more to produce the crops than market prices will bring. Mostly farms with massive equipment and acreage can turn a profit, corporate farms. About two-thirds of the farmhouses are empty. There's a concern that most of the owners live on the coasts and this disconnect to the land may lead to unhealthy farming practices.

My friend Dave is a third-generation farmer and at the state fair I see his name on a plaque commemorating farmers from families a hundred years or older. I remember in 1993, the year of all the flooding, we stood next to his field and Dave turned to me and said, `Bet you never saw whitecaps on a cornfield before.' Nope. He quit trying to save his farm through farming and took a job in town and now runs his farm in his spare time. He's taken to calling his farm his art and he says it's the only way he could continue living there. A few years ago, due to the declining population in the town, the processing plant threatened to close. And suddenly, almost overnight, there were people from Haiti, East Africa, Mexico, Thailand. The plant was saved.

Dave said he was listening to the radio the other day and it was first-generation Americans talking about the struggles they faced straddling two cultures. Suddenly, his 92-year-old grandmother came on the radio. He'd forgotten she was a first-generation American. She was telling stories and laughing with the other guests in a way he'd never known. One girl was talking about going on a date and their car went into the ditch. And when she arrived home late her father was hysterical, yelling at this poor farm kid in Spanish. Dave's grandmother burst into laughter. Same thing had happened to her only it was a horse and buggy and her dad was cursing in Swedish.

Last year Dave planted a field of sunflowers. His neighbors thought he was crazy. I mean, there's no money in sunflowers. When they asked him why he would do something so foolhardy he replied, `Because I can't afford a Van Gogh.'

We're on this land a short time. The seasons turn and will turn long after we're gone. There's a Native American saying, `We inherit the earth from our children.' For my part, I try to remember to carry a pocketknife and a pliers and be good to my neighbors and watch out who I peck.

BLOCK: Storyteller Kevin Kling lives in Minnesota.

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