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The Loss of a Rural Heritage

Helen D. Gunderson
Gilbert, Iowa

RHS Class of 1963 and RHS Web Site Editor

(Note: When I was going through my computer files to find photos of the D.M.T., Havelock, and Plover schools for a feature story for the bulletin board page, I recalled writing a piece several years ago about abandoned school buildings. That prompted me to looked for that material, but it was not to be found. Instead, I came across the following essay I wrote in1990 after earning a seminary degree in northern California and making my home in St. Helena in the Napa Valley for several years. At the time, I was struggling with whether to move back to Iowa or not and whether to continue photographing and otherwise documenting rural life. Little did I realize that the change happening then 11 years ago    would continue to escalate.) 

St. Helena, California January 1990

The story that begins in the 1880's when my Gunderson ancestors came to Iowa, through to now when I sit here in California, wondering where I can find a sense of homeland, is not a unique drama. It parallels a whole era of Midwestern rural life. It's an era that began with people seeking new land for farms, homes and communities and an era that totters now as people struggle either to remain a part of that land or move away, seeking new places to call home in this modern age where such a small percentage of the population lives in rural America or is involved in farming.

The story of the rise and fall of the Midwest is not one to be explored solely for the ears of Iowans or other Midwesterners. As Wendell Berry says, the crisis of agriculture is a crisis of culture. What the Midwest and the state of Iowa are going through, what I experience as an expatriate, are connected to issues of the country as a whole. They are issues related to meaning, vision and values, and to environmental, economic and spiritual health.

I admire Garrison Keelor and how his stories on Public Radio use details of everyday Midwestern life, and yet appeal to a wide spectrum of people, including city folk. He has done what artists, theologians and other story-tellers are called to do and that is to look at the ordinary under their noses and shape it in a way, that if held before us, helps us look at our lives, seeing them in ways that we have not seen them before and giving us new meaning and vision.

I am concerned about loss and grieving. There have been only a few times in our nation's recent history when we collectively faced death and grieved together. That happened when we watched the funeral procession for John F. Kennedy and saw the harnessed, yet riderless stallion. An event of similar impact, yet without the same ritualistic treatment, happened when we saw the space shuttle "Challenger" explode. Another example, albeit of a different nature is that of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. For too many years, the United States had no collective focal point for reflecting on this war or honoring its war dead. Many people bottled up their feelings. Fortunately, the country now has this mirror-like, black statue with its engraved listing of casualties. People can come individually or in groups, look for a specific name or feel the impact of the entire memorial, create their own rituals and know they are united with others in their grief and healing.

The question then arises as to when, where and how do we come to terms with changes in rural America, less spectacular than the previous examples, but involving the death of an era and the loss of a way of life? The changes are slow and stretched out over time. It's hard to know when to stop and pay tribute because, although the shadow of loss is obvious, there is some question whether or not there actually is a death. It's easier to deny the possibility than face it squarely. In addition, many of us have a stoic heritage that has taught us not to admit feelings to each other or even to ourselves. So if change is slow, and it's not certain there is a death, and if people don't talk about feelings, how can there be a focal point for the masses to turn to in collective grief? Where is the symbol that will unite people, affected in diverse ways by the trauma happening in the rural Midwest? Where is the event that allows us to look into the darkness, knowing that in some way and at some time, new symbols will arise?

The good thing about funerals, whether we like them or not, is that they are collective rituals, marking a point in time, allowing people to unite, tap into their grief and allow healing to begin. Small town Memorial Day observances are wonderful in the ways people mingle at cemeteries, running into old acquaintances, greeting each other and in many cases reminiscing about their heritage. Yet, the shortcoming is that the actual ceremonies pay respects only to military personnel without honoring our rural heritage or touching on the important questions related to the passing of an era. If there are no collective rituals designed to face the changes, there at least needs to be prose, poetry, photographs, videos, paintings and other works of art for people to gather around and engage in the issues and in ritual.

In 1988, I did a slide show on this theme of death and renewal to present at the 125th anniversary of my hometown of Rolfe. I put sweat and tears into it and thought it would be the last photo project I would do about Iowa. I figured I would get on with my life here in California. But "getting on with life" has meant "going back." I have felt torn between going "cold turkey" and ending my photography of Iowa or, on the other hand, investing more in my project ideas. Is the work important? Will there be support for it and an audience?

From the fall of 1989 to the fall of 1990, I spent 17 weeks in Iowa. At first I was naive and diffuse in my focus, but gradually I am defining my goals.

My perspective is one of love for people like my grand-parents and their way of life on the home place farm and for other elements of growing up in Iowa. Yet my perspective is also one of disdain for aspects of that same heritage: the favoritism shown to men, the limited roles for girls, a rigidity about what kinds of relationships that are acceptable, the denial of feelings, the repression of the imagination and the style of discipline. Mine is a perspective of compassion and tenderness complicated by anger and frustration that stems from the kinds of issues Carol Bly talks about in her book of essays, Letters from the Country. My perspective also consists of a tug-and-pull process, dreaming about moving back to Iowa and yet wanting to stay my distance in order to do as Joseph Campbell suggests and come to terms with the myth system that I grew up in and, in turn, grow into the myth of my own life.

There are two sides of the coin in regard to my rural heritage. The stories and issues that I want to explore are extremely important to me and at the same time are quite ordinary. There are plenty of Midwesterners with similar stories. But the "commonness" is not something to be swept aside for it connects my story with others, and hopefully whatever symbol or icon that comes to me in the process of creating a work of art, will sustain not only me but others. The dichotomy of the special against the mundane of my heritage provides the raw material for me to work with as an artist and quasi-theologian.

There is synchronicity in my quest. In the spring of 1989, as I contemplated more photo and video forays to Iowa, I had no idea that during the next 12 months, workers would tear down my grandparents house on the home place and that my hometown would hold its last high school commencement exercises. It is clear that at the same time that I am growing in understanding the significance of my rural heritage and coming into my own as an artist, the symbols of change in Iowa are ripe for harvest and important to interpret.


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