And on the Eighth Day

 
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Just recently, my husband and I took a road trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for our tenth wedding anniversary. We excitedly planned out where we would stay (Teton Village, a mere hop, skip, and jump to Grand Teton National Park), where we would go (Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole, Laramie, etc.), and what we would see (bison, moose, pronghorn deer, mule deer, elk, and- of course- the Grand Tetons and Old Faithful). However, we encountered something on the road trip that we had not anticipated. Have no fear, nothing went amiss. What we found was something very good, and, for the purpose of this narrative today, quite poignant- at least for me. 

We planned out the the first portion of the road trip to take us up through Kentucky, St. Louis, Kansas City and north the length of Missouri into Nebraska, ending in Wyoming. I particularly wanted to go through Nebraska to see Seward as that is where my parents met. Now, I’m not sure if you are all aware of this, but Nebraska is farmland. For as far as the eye can see. From a driving aspect, it was perhaps the most boring scenery we could have had. However, it really opened my eyes to something that I don’t ordinarily give a lot of thought to: the farmer. 

Let me back track a couple of hours to the second morning of our road trip. Upon waking in the remote northwestern corner of Missouri, we wanted to find a local place to eat. Breaking out the trusty Tom-Tom, we GPSed our way down backroads to a local cafe, which was closed. We looked up another one, drove to it, and found it, too, was closed. Then we realized that we were driving through these very small farming communities on a Sunday morning and most places were closed so their owners could attend church. (I’ll add that the church parking lots in both these communities were full, which served to augment this conclusion on our part.) 

Deciding to get more miles under our belts, we forewent any more backroads and hopped onto I-29, resigning ourselves to pay attention to the signs on the road for a place to break our fast. We found one in Nebraska City, where we stopped at a station. Just a little historical context here as this place was much more than a gas station. When the West was being settled and stagecoaches carried people from the eastern metropolises to the rural and rugged landscapes of the Wild West, there were stops set up alone the stagecoach’s route where horses could be changed, meals served at a price, and rooms to let for the weary traveler. These places were called stations. We have retained an element of that history in the phrase ‘gas station.' Minus the letting of rooms (which could be had at a hotel across the street), this station was the hub in town. There was a restaurant which served delicious food, a coffee house which made an excellent cup of Earl Grey and some fancy coffee whose name I forget, a full store for clothes, groceries, automotive supplies, and, for the truckers and travelers alike, access to facilities such as showers and laundry services. This station was the place to go, and from the crowded dining room of the restaurant where locals all sat in their Sunday best, my husband and I had succeeded in our initial goal of finding a local eatery. Needless to say, the food was absolutely delicious, the staff was very friendly, and the conversation with the locals (mostly farmers) was informative and enjoyable. 

When traveling, I love chatting with locals. It gives true scope to the journey because they’re sharing a slice of their life with you. And by God, you learn. 

What did I learn? I learned Confucius is among the wisest of men, for he said: 

Of neighborhoods, benevolence is the most beautiful. How can the man be considered wise who when he had the choice does not settle in benevolence.

According to the OED, benevolence is the disposition to do good, desire to promote the happiness of others, kindness, generosity, charitable feeling (as a general state or disposition towards mankind at large).

The farmers seated at the counter in the restaurant told us about what happened in their neighborhood- the Iowa side of Nebraska City during the Missouri River Flood of 2011. (The Iowa side of Nebraska City fared a great deal worse than the Nebraska side as it is a lower lying region.) Due to record high snowfall in Montana and Wyoming earlier that year, dams along the Missouri River reached their maximum capacity and had to be let out at intervals so they would not break. However, the releasing of water from these dams in Montana and Wyoming happened to coincide with the heaviest rainfall the Missouri River Basin (a region that encompasses over 500,000 square miles, ten US states, and a portion of Canada) had seen in decades. This joint accumulation of water was a recipe for utter destruction and devastation on a level rarely seen. And, unfortunately, because of the nature of the flooding, the waters did not recede within days. Neither did they recede within weeks. Rather, the flood levels sustained lasted for over two months, impacting whole regions of the Breadbasket and displacing thousands of people. Farmlands were overcome. Small businesses and homes were lost. Livelihoods were destroyed. 

 A thank you to the volunteers who built the levee that saved these homes during the 2011 Missouri River Flood. 

A thank you to the volunteers who built the levee that saved these homes during the 2011 Missouri River Flood. 

Yet, in the midst of utter hopelessness, when the urge to give up doesn’t seem so much like an urge as much as common sense, the rugged, stout-hearted spirit of ordinary Americans rose up. Neighbors linked arms with neighbors. Farmers got together and built levees around businesses, barns, and homes to protect them from the waters, doing unto their neighbors as those neighbors, in turn, did unto them. Churches opened their doors to serve countless meals to those displaced by the flood waters. People opened their homes to house families that had nowhere to go. Thousands upon thousands of sandbags were filled and stacked to fortify levees. Volunteers sat up day and night, taking watch to make sure no holes breached the levees constructed for their neighbors’ protection. 

Rebecca Turner, Executive Director of Nebraska City’s Tourism and Commerce, said of the spirit she witnessed during those arduous months: 

I’ve lived in a lot of small communities all over the Midwest and I’ve never found a more tenacious bunch of people. People who were not afraid of what they were going to face and were willing to roll up their sleeves and dive in. It’s the hardest-working town I’ve ever been in.
 Aerial view of the levees built during the 2011 Missouri River Flood around the restaurant where my husband and I stopped for breakfast. 

Aerial view of the levees built during the 2011 Missouri River Flood around the restaurant where my husband and I stopped for breakfast. 

How often has this portion of the country been contemptuously called the fly-over zone? Yet it is this very region that embodies the heart of what we hope America stands for. In this region, men and women band together to weather the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, who, in the face of complete desolation, roll up their sleeves and rebuild their lives together, who look to their neighbors to lend a hand when it is needed, who rise above petty squabbles to achieve what is needed most for the beneficial outcome of all. 

When we returned to the road, where, for the next six-eight hours (I honestly lost count) all we saw was farmland for miles upon miles, I found myself thinking about the hardiness of the farmer. Paul Harvey’s speech from 1978- So God Made a Farmer- replayed itself over and over in my mind as these endless fields passed by my window. You might be familiar with it as RAM resurrected it for their 2013 Super Bowl ad. It begins:

And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

At the conclusion of RAM’s ad, there is one sentence on the screen: 

To the farmer in all of us.

The farmer is a caretaker, and while I may not plow a field or milk a cow or collect a pullet’s eggs, I can assume the role of a caretaker where I am planted. The word caretaker is a compound whose origins goes back to the Gothic kara (trouble, grief, care) and the Icelandic taka (to grasp, seize, catch, receive, accept, touch); to be a caretaker, you agree to bare the troubles and griefs and cares of your neighbors as your own. As a caretaker, you seek, through hardship and adversity, to watch over and keep your neighbor out of harm’s way. As a caretaker, you step outside yourself and generously offer whatever you can to aid your fellow man. As a caretaker, you embody the elements of the banner that is over us all (see post here). The creed of a caretaker is kindness, patience, peace, truth, justice, generosity, hope, endurance, and love. On the eighth day, God created a caretaker- that’s you and me. 

Paul Harvey's Narration of his So God Made a Farmer speech for RAM's 2013 Superbowl Ad.