Essay by Stephen Lyons
Modern Life – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine
Just before the neighbors’ air conditioning kicked on, I was dreaming about snow-covered mountains in Idaho. Not the verticality, the pine scent, or alpenglow, but the dry coolness of elevated spaces. Instead, I awoke in my soggy underwear in a hot bed near sea level, my eyebrows and scalp sweating for the first time in my life.
Outside, cicadas buzzed incessantly, like background music to a Japanese horror film. Mothra! Ants — big muscular ants that should be wearing Oakland Raiders’ hats backwards — brazenly marched into the room, the floorboards creaking under their weight. I can smell the soybean processing plant in nearby Decatur, and possibly fish, the result of an all-you-can-eat walleye special in town. Or is it catfish? Or Muskie, whatever that is. The magical corn — hyped-up hybrid field corn — was so tall it disappeared into the sky.
It’s now autumn and I haven’t slept under even a sheet since I arrived in the Land of Lincoln from Washington state in May. Stubborn Northwest environmentalists that we are, my wife and I have made a pledge to hold out for no air conditioning as long as possible. With bravado I boasted that one could get used to the humidity gradually. Besides, I reasoned to my wife, we humans used to live without AC (of course, we didn’t live as long). But that’s when the humidity was only 60 percent and we were still speaking to each other. It was so hot and muggy the other day my wife in a fit of rage told me to “go to my room.” And I did.
I feel as if I’ve fallen to the bottom of America, a tropical Death Valley. Landscape is flat and fertile. The highest point in the state is 1,235 feet, something called “Charles Mound.” I’ve gone from mountains to mounds.
But what really defines this state is its neatness. And folks here intend to keep it that way. A permanent war against lawn and limb is fought daily in the Midwest. Every minute of every day punctuates with the mind-shattering roar of lawnmowers, which sound like helicopters landing in Saigon. These are jumbo-blenders disguised as mini-tractors that can mow, chop, mince, dice, mulch, harvest, shred, bag, and harvest any object in its path including small oaks, Big Wheels, and raccoons. Included in most Illinoians’ arsenals are weed whackers, leaf blowers, and electric hedge trimmers.
To conserve our precious oil reserves, or the Saudis’, I have opted for a reel push mower. It’s a beauty — sleek and silver with the word “American” stamped in patriotic blue across the front. Our neighbors, thinking that we were poor, or worse, perhaps from Kentucky, hustled right over and offered up their gas-powered John Deere, then looked at us as if we were aliens when my wife politely declined and proudly said that we intentionally were using a non-motorized lawn mower.
I am a native of this prairie state, but up in Chicago — evil, diverse, corrupted, Democratic Chicago — as it’s known outside the city. Downstate Illinois was a region as unknown as Mars. Many years ago, with Illinois’ own Dan Fogelberg leading the pack to peaks, John Denver singing about getting high in Colorado, and Kerouac writing about getting high on the road, I gave up on my roots to head west, part of a massive collegiate Midwest migration to Colorado. I wore beads and fringed jackets for awhile, and a porkpie leather hat trying for a Neil Young look. Twenty-seven years later, the veteran of six western states and severe frostbite, I was comfortable with too dry skin and split ends, and single-digit humidity. I did not expect to ever come back.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD. Because we are situated between Memphis and Chicago, the radio stations play blues day and night. Truckers call in and request Albert Collins. Peaches and tomatoes are tastier than they are in the inland West. People are friendlier, a welcome relief after the West’s general militant grumpiness. Hot button issues such as wilderness preservation simply don’t exist in the Heartland. All the trees were cut long ago and now the happy work of restoration has begun.
The state isn’t trying to reinvent itself every six months. After all, Illinois had more than four million residents by 1899. And with the hardwood forests (Illinois is 10 percent forested), the big skies and prairie remnants, Abe Lincoln’s stomping grounds are, yes, rather beautiful.
So come and join us in this little corner of calmness. We’ve got perked coffee, blueberry coffee cake, and stacked cords of succulent sweet corn. We’ll talk grain prices, hog futures (they have none, by the way), and how it either rains too much or too little. I’ll even lend you a feed cap, and my wife will cook you the best pork chops you’ve ever eaten. Most of all, I promise a neat, weed-free lawn.
Stephen Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He recently moved to Monticello, Illinois, from Pullman, Washington.