“Here are your waters and your watering place.—Robert Frost, “Directive”
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
In my parents’ living room is a fat paperback book with a white cover and a lot of fold-out maps in it—the “Soil Survey of Livingston County, Illinois,” issued by the U. S. Department of Agriculture in April 1996. As my father said, in a tone that mingled awe and rue, it’s really got a lot in it; besides providing more detail than almost anybody would want to know about the soil, it discusses weather, history and land use in the dry but thorough way of official reports. Still, it’s rather silent on some points. Its account of “history and development,” for example, begins with the arrival of W. Darnall and Frederick Rook in 1829, mentioning that at the time “the area was inhabited by Pottawatomie and Kickapoo Indians” but saying nothing about their involuntary withdrawal. We learn that Livingston County was formed in 1837 “from parts of McLean and La Salle Counties” and named after Edward Livingston, Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state, but nothing about the surveying and plotting that resulted in the current shape of roads and fields, the rectilinear grid imposed here, as it was all across the Midwest, according to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an orderly, neat set of states spreading west from the original colonies like the work of a very careful, very orderly doodler.
The results of that vision define the map of Livingston County, a map divided into over 1,000 neat, precise sections, nearly all of them a mile square, or as close as possible on a curving surface. The roads run straight north-south or east-west except for the twin lines of the old Route 66 and the new Interstate 55, both of which run southwest from Chicago to St. Louis. Making an “x” with them on the map is the Vermilion River, which divides the county almost exactly in half as it passes from the southeast to the northwest corner on its way to the Illinois.
To see only the river’s main track is to ignore the hundreds of small meanders, curls and adjustments it and its tributaries make as they find their way over and through the black, deep soil. And even the mapmakers know that the grid system is a convenience, not a final solution; the rippling lines of the rivers, the rainbow colors of the soil areas, show that even this late the prairie still defies a geometry of squares and right angles.
Before being gridded and plotted, Livingston County was part of what used to be called the Gridley Prairie, itself part of the great sweep of tallgrass prairie that began in the middle of what we now call Indiana and covered much of Illinois, Iowa and parts west. The prairies were settled relatively late, well into the mid-19th century. The first settlers preferred the wooded tracts along the rivers, where trees were at hand for fuel and building material. They also presumed, reasonably but wrongly, that the prairies’ lack of trees meant less fertility.
In its post-colonial situation there are 669,620 acres in Livingston County, which includes about 619,946 acres of cropland and another 12,419 of pasture. There are 6,688 acres of woodland, much of it along the Vermilion River, and much of the rest is given over to “orthents,” the text’s term for areas where “concrete, asphalt, buildings, streets and parking lot cover as much as 65 percent of the surface.” Some gravel and limestone are quarried near Route 66 south of Pontiac, and a few ponds and some scrubby brushlands surround areas that have been quarried out.
In my parents’ township, the percentage of farmland must be even higher than 93.The usual 6-mile square, Waldo Township has been converted efficiently and almost absolutely from prairie to agricultural enterprise. There are no towns, no housing developments, no substantial rivers or creeks and very few trees except those in the farmyards. The sections are farmed from corner to corner. In our square mile only five houses stand, only one working farm, and— except for ditches, waterways and the yards around the homesteads— every scrap of ground is cultivated. On the surface, at least, there’s virtually nothing that hasn’t been changed by human enterprise, plotted out, divided up, bought and sold, plowed and planted over and over again.
In the summer, if the rains have been good, Waldo Township seems unbelievably fertile, the corn and soybeans a lush, deep, sturdy green, growing so fast you can almost see them, setting ears and pods at an incredible rate. In the winter, especially when there’s no snow cover, it could be Exhibit A for Wendell Berry’s grim protest that much of the Midwest has been transformed into an “agricultural desert.” The winds sweep for miles across the bare, gray plains, the cornstalks and bean stubble lie low and defeated in the furrows, and the pale lines of the roads—good asphalt now, muck and dust only a dimming memory—could be the cords of a huge net, keeping it all in place.
For the last few years, my father and my brother Gary have farmed all 630-some acres of actual farmland in the section where my mother was born and my parents have farmed since the early 50s. Their operation is a culmination of the inexorable mathematics of modern farming: bigger farms, fewer farmers. Uncle Lyle and Aunt Merna still live on their place just a mile south, retired for a few years already, but they rent their land to Gary. Across the section, Mike Barth’s sons grew up and moved away years ago, and now he and his wife are long gone, too. My Uncle Vernon farmed the home place, not quite a mile south of us, while I was growing up, but in the early ‘70s his back started to bother him. After he moved to Bloomington and found work in a bank, he sold the nice new house he and Thelma had built on the land where he, my mother and Aunt Merna grew up. It’s been re-sold a couple of times since then, always to people who work in town. But Vernon kept the land—160 acres, give or take a few, plus 40 across the road. And, yes, my father and Gary farm that, too.
The other quarter-section belongs to a man I don’t believe I’ve ever seen, who according to my parents has gradually sold off most of the acreage he inherited so that he and his “friend”—a word my mother puts invisible quotes around—could live at a level and in a manner the good farmers of Flanagan would consider not only unnatural but absurdly presumptuous, though they might not use those words. Not too long ago, down to his last 160, he decided it would be wise to hang on to some of it and offered the rental to my father. He and my mother have been careful about buying land on credit—too much debt has ruined a lot of farmers lately—but renting is another story. I don’t think they’ve ever turned an offer down, and little by little the 240 acres they farmed when I was a boy have grown and grown.
For years the family wondered what would happen to the farm. My three brothers and two sisters have all had odd thoughts about coming back to the farm, but we all also have various degrees and careers. My own hazy fantasies about becoming a farmer-poet along the lines of Robert Frost didn’t last beyond my first chance at an academic job. I gave in easily to the promise of more talk about books and less about weather, some free time in the summer and the chance to spend the drudge hours grading papers instead of bouncing through fields on a huge tractor. My other siblings found their own work, too, so we were glad when Gary first came back to the hometown to teach high school, then began farming half-time with Dad, and finally decided to give up teaching and become a full-time farmer as Dad begins to cut back. It’s safe to say that he’s the first farmer in the township, maybe the county, with a master s degree in chemistry, but he’ll be able to use a surprising amount of what he knows, I think. The business gets more complicated every year in some ways, though in other ways it doesn’t change much.
The soil book is full of information, as I said, but hard to navigate. To find the home place I had to look at the big map in the front, figure out the section number (5) for the township (Waldo), and then find the page number for the detail map (100). Each of the detail maps is really an aerial photo with more lines and numbers drawn in, something like a topographical map, but keyed to an arcane array of soil types that are further described in exhaustive detail.
Most of the land my father farms—land my mother’s father and his father farmed before him—is of three types: they’re numbered 232, 541b, and 614a and b. Number 232 is “Ashkum silty clay loam”:
This nearly level, poorly drained soil is on upland flats and in shallow depressions and drainageways, on till plains. It is ponded for brief periods during the spring. … Typically, the surface soil is black, friable silty clay loam about 20 inches thick. The subsoil is about 27 inches thick. The upper part is dark grayish brown, mottled friable silty clay loam. The next part is dark grayish brown and gray, mottled firm silty clay loam. The lower part is gray, mottled, firm calcareous silty clay loam. The underlying material to a depth of 60 inches or more also is gray, mottled, form, calcareous silty clay loam. In some areas the subsoil contains more sand. In other areas the subsoil contains more clay. …
Number 541b is “Graymont silt loam,” and the description is quite similar except that it is “gently sloping, moderately well drained” soil on 2 to 5 percent slopes. This makes drainage better, and erosion is more of a problem than ponding. The water table is 4 to 6 feet down in the spring, or roughly 5 feet lower than on the Ashkum soil. But the topsoil layer is only about 12 inches.
Numbers 614a and b are “Chenoa silty clay loam,” nearly level (a) or gently sloping (b), “somewhat poorly drained” and falling more or less in between the other two types. The spring water table is 1 to 3 feet below the surface.
All these soil types come with warnings that they are not well suited for dwellings or septic tank fields because of the high water tables and shrink-swell potential. All are classified as “prime farmland,” though the Ashkum carries the proviso “where drained.” (More later on drainage.)Yields per acre are estimated at 140 bushels of corn, 47 of soybeans, 54 of winter wheat for Ashkum, 138, 46 and 59 for Graymont and 135, 45 and 61 for Chenoa. Those are high, though a few types in the book range even higher, up to 160 bushels of corn. On the other hand, none of it is worth much of anything for recreational development, according to the charts. Too wet.
In reality, of course, nobody is hustling to set up campgrounds on the prairie farms except for your odd spot right along the interstate. Those cater to the overnight crowd or to the folks who park their rigs all year in rows more crowded than all but two or three urban concentrations in the entire Midwest, next to one of those ponds scooped out to get fill dirt for an overpass. I’ve been too repulsed and baffled by their very existence to inquire into their drainage or septic systems—unable to understand why anyone would choose to spend time in such a place, to come back weekend after weekend, year after year. (My current theory is that they’re the American gulag, places of subtle but real psychological torture, hidden purloined-letter style in plain sight.) But mainly, of course, nobody wants to camp on the prairies for reasons that have nothing to do with drainage. Blame it on evolution or instinct or what you will, but we have to train ourselves to live in such severe landscapes, build our little enclaves, plant our trees and teach our eyes and our minds to understand beauty in its starker forms.
It would take a technical education to understand much of the data in the soil book. There are plentiful tables, with titles like “construction materials,” “engineering index properties,” “physical and chemical properties of the soils.” One can look up the percentages of clay, moist bulk density, permeability, available water capacity, soil pH, shrink-swell potential, erosion factors and percentage of organic matter. One can learn the frequency of flooding, the high water table, the depth to bedrock, the potential frost action, the risk of corrosion. One can discover the family or higher taxonomic class each soil belongs to—Ashkum is “fine, mixed, mesic Typic Haplaquolls,” Chenoa is “fine, illitic, mesic Aquic Argiudolls,” Graymont is “fine-silty, mixed, mesic Aquic Argiudolls.”
I suspect even Gary’s master’s in chemistry will not help him much with big sections of this book. There’s a glossary in the back, but it doesn’t include “illitic” or “Argiudolls. “The romantic part of me is deeply suspicious of all this technocratic analysis, anyway, and is eager to just dig my fingers in that black dirt, throw handfuls in the air, rub it on my face and belly like some primitive. I want to feel the soil as soil, as an impure, densely complicated, enormous reality that includes within itself eons of history and the work of forces so slow and massive that it takes a huge effort of imagination even to glimpse them. And then I’ll want to go in and take a shower.
And yet a part of me likes the thought that someone learned and organized all of this, put it in a book and distributed free copies to the good farmers of Livingston County. (I have my own copy now—my father picked up one, then got another at a meeting for Gary, but he got one, too, and so they had an extra.) I can see the enemies of Big Government brandishing this book angrily, moaning and groaning about the cost to taxpayers of all this data. But I like to envision a few men and women driving around Livingston County in their official trucks, parking and walking into the fields, digging holes, taking samples, measuring this and analyzing that, recording it all carefully, taking years to assemble everything they know about the soil of Livingston County, fitting all their book learning to the actual, factual substance of the world. When they’re done they have something we can pore over in the long winter evenings, study for hints about what to plant next spring and why the neighbors always seem to get a few more bushels than we do. Aren’t there worse ways to burn our food?
The bigger, colored map toward the front shows the whole county, towns and creeks and homesteads and rare stands of trees. Looking for my home place, I find the waterway that runs through the corner a quarter-mile down from the house. Pleasant days when I was in school I’d have Fish the bus driver let me off at that corner and save 20 minutes of rattling on the gravel roads by walking home. If there’d been rain I might poke around under the bridge where the water ran sometimes and my voice made a weird, hollow echo if I called sharply. Sometimes there was new, black mud washed out of the field, and once in a great while tadpoles, but usually just the squared-off, concrete top and bottom and sides and a few straggly weeds trying to make a go of it in the silt that had stalled out under the bridge.
On the map the waterway begins in the middle of our section and weaves its way north and east, crossing State Route 116 east of Flanagan, 4 miles away, and finally emptying into the Vermilion River. The Vermilion runs northwest and joins the Illinois, which does not run northeast to Lake Michigan but southwest to the Mississippi, though it begins within a few dozen miles of the big lake. So the run-off from the big rains that heads north from my family’s land makes two-thirds of a complete circle before it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, if it doesn’t boil off into the clouds somewhere between.
What shook me was that on the map the waterway has a name.
We never thought of it as having an identity beyond the generic, or as much more than a nuisance, a necessary sacrifice of good farmland to the realities of gravity and rain. My father had to grade it out and reseed it at least once that I recall, and probably one or two times that I don’t, in the 40-some years he’s been farming the land. Planted in grass, the waterway will hold the soil and pass the water through; otherwise, there would be washes and gullies torn deep into the soft black soil after a single spring storm. It was a part of the farm, a place to lift the disk or cultivator and bounce through before dropping it again, not something with a name or an independent existence. I asked my parents, and neither of them had every heard it called anything.
On one map it’s called Scattering Point and on most of the others, Scattering Point Creek. Another, shorter watercourse begins a few miles to the northwest and runs more or less parallel—it’s labeled Short Point Creek.
There are 34 noun definitions of “point” in my dictionary and 15 verb definitions. None of them seems to fit this usage. The closest, in an inverted way, is number three: “A tapering extension of land projecting into water.” I thought vaguely I’d heard “point” used somewhere to refer to the opposite, water projecting into land, though I couldn’t say where or when. The other definitions are all over, from the obvious “sharp or tapered end of something” to the abstract “purpose, goal, advantage or reason” to the specialized: a dog’s hunting stance, a unit of scoring, an electrical contact, a socket or outlet (chiefly British), a musical phrase, a unit of type size, needlepoint, bobbin lace and “the vertex or tip of the angle created by the intersection of rails in a frog or switch.”
So what’s the point, you might well ask. Scattering Point. A watercourse that in the mile or so I know best is dry most of the year and has been for at least 40 years, probably for 100. Yet its nature, its reality as a route that water sometimes needs, has not vanished with the Indians and the buffalo and the big bluestem. It requires culverts where it crosses roads, drain tile and seeded grasses where farmers want to keep the soil and send the water on. It is a trace that certain water finds necessary at certain times, that continues to follow its wavering path despite the grid of roads, ditches and fields that on first view seem to have broken the prairie altogether. It is a track so obscure that even the farm family that has owned part of it for 40 years, seen it in all of its stages, from bone-dry to swirling with the runoff of a prairie cloudburst, and crossed it 10,000 times on foot or on a tractor or a combine, has no name for it. But somebody does. Somebody does.
I’ve been brooding on Scattering Point Creek for several weeks now, and the longer I do the more depths I find in the name. It suggests both coming together and splitting apart; it contains both the centrifugal word “scattering” and the centripetal “point.” Like all the best images, it’s only partly accurate, because both it and the Illinois countryside are anything but pointed. If any land anywhere is blunt, round, soft, this is it. Even after a century and a half of intense cultivation, the soil is thick, and under it is a heavy layer of clay. Bedrock must be down there somewhere, but like the bottom of the bog in Thoreau’s story, it’s a long way down—more than 5 feet at most places in the county, according to the soil book. In 40 years of farming my father has gathered a respectable rockpile, but fewer than a New England farmer might pick up in a couple of heavy afternoons.
And it’s country where distances are always before you. Except when the corn is high, it’s easy to see 3 or 4 miles in every direction. What happens in the sky is obvious, and often much more interesting than what’s going on below: thin skeins of cirrus, endless armadas of cumulus on long afternoons, the summer haze that will get you gazing to the west every 20 minutes, wondering if this might be the day that all the moisture in the air might wring itself out into some rain.
From the front yard of my home place you can see Flanagan easily, not quite 4 miles north and east: the elevator, the water tower, the spire of the Lutheran church, even the small clutter of houses and trees. Scattered off in other directions are the homesteads, with their sparse clusters of trees. Stray cribs and barns in varying stages of decline stand out clearly among the open fields, and every elevator and water tower is a landmark. At night in the country the thin constellations of lights seem like a half-conscious mimicry of the stars, inferior to be sure, not for want of effort but for all the solid, pragmatic rural reasons. When we have what will suffice, we call that enough and try not to think about the rest. Usually, at least.
In such a landscape I grew up with a kind of chronic scenery deficiency. In a half-conscious way I felt starved for forests, for running water, for any kind of dramatic topography. Any outing to a park or lake seemed like an adventure. When I went to church camp I could barely cope with so many trees all together, the little hills that had to be navigated constantly to get anywhere, the dirty lake we had to walk half around to the swimming beach. It didn’t take much to seem marvelous to me. When I first saw real mountains, on a trip to the Rockies with some college friends, I had no idea how to behave or respond. Fortunately, the mountains didn’t care.
It never occurred to me in my younger days to follow the waterway along, see where it led; I could see the next half-mile from the corner, of course, and it was just the same as the half-mile behind. Now, when I’d like to, I’m 300 miles away, and even trying to trace it on the soil maps is frustrating. I discover that my mother has cut out number 90, the area just northeast of our place, because she wanted number 89 on the other side of the page. I can tell, though, that Scattering Point Creek passes under State Route 116 about a mile east of Flanagan and meanders mainly north from there. By the time it runs through sections 29 and 32 of Amity Township, it seems to be a real creek. The soils along it were formed on outwash plains and stream terraces, and from the fuzzy aerial photographs there seem to be trees along the banks. In sections 20 and 17 the roads vary from the usual square grid to run along or around the creek, a sure sign that it’s become something to reckon with, not just a spring wash or tame waterway. At the north end of section 17 it turns a little west and runs into Short Point Creek, and the two continue north into the Vermilion River.
And so the Vermilion finds the Illinois, which finds the Mississippi, which finds the Gulf of Mexico and the great Atlantic. And if you allow just a little for poetic license you can see as I do, now: I see the water that runs from my parents’ farm becoming one with all the waters of the world, joined in the giant swirl of the oceans and the clouds and the rain, governed not by the linear geometries of the grid system but by the persistent, convoluted, flexible concatenations of earth and rock, gravity and wind and time. It has always been this way.
But of course it hasn’t always been this way, not nearly. The Grid-ley Prairie was not settled until the middle of the 19th century, and the grid of roads and fields and ditches that defines the landscape today goes back little more than 100 years. The heavy machinery and fertilizers and weedkillers that define modern farming are still not much more than a 50-year experiment, one on which, as the drought year of l988 reminded us, the jury is still out.
Another of the most important ways human beings have changed the landscape is almost invisible to the uneducated eye. Without tiling and drainage, much of the Gridley Prairie would be marshy much of the year, difficult to navigate, let alone farm. My father spends time and money every year to maintain and improve his tile lines. Many are 4-or-6-inch feeder lines, buried a few feet deep, but below Scattering Point is a 10-inch line that collects water from many smaller lines, connects into a neighbor’s main line and heads off along the watercourse, deep below the surface. The older lines are clay tile, a foot or 18 inches long, laid end to end with the joints simply butted against each other so that water can seep in from the top. The new method uses long runs of plastic pipe, slotted at the top, but the principle is the same: to give the water a free path downhill, a path that, being water, it will not even try to resist.
In a dry summer the lines might themselves go dry, but for much of the year, even when the corn leaves are starting to spike, they run with a steady flow of clear, cool water, probably laced with nitrates from fertilizer and traces of various other chemicals, but looking good enough to drink.
That unseen water resonates deeply within me. Somehow the sparse, massive landscape of my childhood seemed a little less barren, a little less devoid of interest and mystery, once I knew that water was there. I even remember, not clearly but strongly, the first time I discovered it. We were walking beans on a typically hot summer day in the field southeast of the house. In the waterway someone found a hole, and when we crowded around to look there was a glint in the bottom of it, 2 or 3 feet down. Among the orange shards of the broken tile, the water sparkled like some kind of gift, like a secret being shyly revealed and offered after a long wait.
We were thirsty, of course, but I was surprised when my father let us drink. The water tasted clean and good, surprisingly cold. I didn’t understand how it could be so clear, with nothing but dirt around it. It was hard to dip much up from the bottom of the hole, but it didn’t take much to make me feel refreshed.
Only now do I know that I was drinking from the beginning of Scattering Point Creek, one of the hundreds or thousands of minor tributaries that feel their way into the great Mississippi. I still don’t understand it, but for now it is enough to know a little more about Scattering Point, to understand that what scatters and what holds together are not always easy to distinguish, to remember the sweet, slightly metallic taste of that water, which was being born off toward the distant ocean through a tile line buried almost deep enough to last. It’s enough to think of the interrupted journey of that water as it passed through my young and unreflective body, soon to be on its course again.