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Paul Berge: Iowa, Land Between Two Rivers

posted on November 27, 2007 at 1:50 PM

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From time to time, we invite commentary from our fellow Iowans, personal perspectives of life in the state. This week, we hear from author, humorist and pilot, Paul Berge, who shares with us a view of our state from a thousand feet up.

Iowa is “the land between two rivers.” But that’s a two-dimensional view and ignores the vast wilderness where I've spent much of my life—in the sky.

My favorite way to experience Iowa's aerial frontier is from an open cockpit biplane, alone in the elements. Seeing Iowa the way the barnstormers and airmail pilots did in the 1920s. The sky itself doesn’t change much, and looking down from a thousand feet I imagine that the Iowa landscape below may not have changed all that much in 80 years.

Farms carved out of prairie and woodlands still produce grain and livestock. Railroads still run through small towns but rarely stop for passengers, anymore. Instead, they haul Wyoming coal to be burned in Iowa power plants. Judging from the abandoned coal mines I see across southern Iowa, that’s certainly a change from the past.

From above, you can see how a state grew up, how towns followed the railroads and rivers. You’ll see how surveyors mapped the state in orderly section lines stretching to the horizon. And how this grid subtly formed the need to view the world in boxes with thoughts planted in orderly rows.

Up here I noticed that all of Iowa has been shaped by human willpower. There’s really nothing wild about the state—beautiful, indeed, where the forests roll across Decatur county or lonesome above the wide pastures of Taylor County. But not untamed.

Glaciers formed much of Iowa, but all of it felt the plow, chainsaw and bulldozer. It’s a land sensibly constructed between two rivers.

Flying alters your perspective. Drive between two walls of corn near harvest time and you’re inside a canyon of gold. From above, those same fields become fluid. The wind swirls across them, pressing the stalks in changing designs like a child finger-painting with colors that never dry.

From up here, Iowa is a canvas between two rivers. In flight, I look into time itself.

Iowans hate to throw things out. I see old cars behind sheds or in ditches at the back of the farm. Antique collectors would marvel at what I see rusting in Iowa's back acres.

Iowa is the time capsule between two rivers. Two thirds of the planet’s surface may be covered in water, but all of it is crowned by sky.

Like the ocean, the sky can take you in any direction, provided you’re willing to accept the quiet passion that grows above a landscape formed by what comes from the sky.

There’s a danger, however, that the mind, once allowed to soar across miles of farmland and pastures, will return in a state that never surrenders to gravity.

Iowa is the land between two rivers and also beneath a glorious dome that’s open to anyone willing to attach wings to their dreams.

Tags: aviation geography Iowa

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