[Written as a gift to my good friends Dani and Eric for their wedding.]
photo of R. Walker & Sons Barn by Brittani Renee Photography
The route between Chicago and the small farm town of Waterloo, Indiana is an awkward courtship with America. Chicago’s lakeside architecture gives way to the last remnants of 20th century American industry, which erode into unbroken midwestern countryside, an unkempt flatness of wavy grasses and gangly trees pockmarked with warehouses and barns that look besieged by the wild flora.
What you don’t see much from the highway, strangely, are corn fields. And what my friends and I didn’t see as we merged from highway 90 onto highway 69 in our Chrysler 300, imported from Detroit and rented in Chicago, were the brown remnants of cornfields left by one of the worst growing season droughts in the history of American industrial agriculture, a drought that many scientists will not yet say unequivocally was caused by people driving and flying and eating meat too much because there’s still like a one-in-a-billion chance that it isn’t our fault, that it’s just mother nature with a fever.
Nearing Waterloo the countryside is tamed by small, neat towns with Main Streets and shade trees, insulated from the highway by Walmarts and fast food chains, and all looking out over countless square miles of farmland veined with straight-shot county roads. Idyllic as it is, I never had any ambition to come to Waterloo until two great friends decided to marry each other there. Like me they are both Americans living in Uganda, the small East African country made famous this year by a viral video about a warlord named Kony. Eric, the groom, was raised in Uganda. Dani, his bride, was raised on a farm outside Waterloo.
I contributed more than my share of climate-changing greenhouse emissions when I flew from Uganda to Chicago a few days earlier, a fact not lost on me during our second day in Waterloo when Dani’s father, a whip smart agribusiness veteran who with his son farms 5,000 acres of prime Indiana soil, lamented the ongoing loss of as much as one-third of his corn crop because of the drought. His crop insurance will ensure that his business survives, but food prices in the US are likely to spike over the next year as grain shortages lead to meat and dairy shortages. Climate change will finally find its way into the heart of American politics: our checking accounts and credit card balances.
It is more than a coincidence that similar problems have plagued Uganda, a hemisphere away, for the last few years: droughts, floods, erratic growing seasons, and consequently bad harvests and rising food prices. Many of the elders in farming villages say they have never before seen anything like it. The two nations, distant as they are, share a common challenge: the world’s climate, after about 10,000 years of stability, is entering a state of constant change, and no one can predict what it will do next.
My four days in Waterloo were some of my first in the American heartland, the part of America that has come to be known as Real America: the America of farms and trucks and rodeos, of country music and Christian radio stations, of camouflage hats and sleeveless shirts, of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and a bruised but immortal belief in the goodness, rightness, and divine destiny of the Red, White and Blue.
The bright summer evening before the wedding the two families and the wedding party gathered for the rehearsal dinner around a U of tables in a picturesque, corn-walled backyard. Eric’s family, who had lived in Uganda for decades, and his groomsmen, who had all spent years in East Africa, mingled with Dani’s family and bridesmaids, who were mostly Indiana natives and still lived there. It was clear from the first furtive glances and cautious conversational questions that we were exotic to each other, known mostly by hearsay and stereotype.
After the rehearsal dinner we went to a rodeo where the stands were packed with guys in heinous sleeveless shirts and the announcer filled dead time with dumb jokes about Obama. All those Real America stereotypes, it turned out, are true. But like all stereotypes they’re also useless. They failed to define even one actual person that I met in Indiana. To a person the Real Americans I talked with were thoughtful, interesting, and, like my friends in California, Uganda, and everywhere else I’ve been, they were doing their best to understand the world and their place in it and live well in accordance with what they learned. I can only hope they thought so well of me.
Dani had chosen to stage the wedding outdoors in front of her great grandfather’s barn, which still stands only a couple miles from her parents’ house. Its wooden panels are gray with age behind chipped, peeled, and faded white paint, and high across its front her family name hangs in big, rusted letters. Her dad had recently talked of tearing it down but Dani, seeing the beauty in both the history and the textured background, convinced him to keep it up, at least until after she could be married beside it.
On the day of the wedding dark clouds conspired on the horizon and rows of straw bales covered in white cloth faced the old barn, seating an about even mix of locals and people from hundreds and thousands of miles away. A door of burlap curtains framed with rough branches stood at the entrance to the aisle, and Eric stood at the aisle’s end, awaiting his bride, his father behind him to officiate the ceremony.
Dani arrived in a Ford Model A and the music changed. When her father escorted her through that burlap doorway and down the aisle in her beautiful white dress towards Eric and his father, I started to sense that there was something else happening here, just under the surface, some grand second significance to this beautiful union.
With each step that Dani and her father took towards Eric and his father, they closed the distance not just between two friends and two families. They closed the distance between two worlds, the American Heartland approaching the African Mystery. Two grand stereotypes come to join hands and know each other as real. And I couldn’t help but think: on this big, divided planet, isn’t this what we need? I’m not trying to oversell it – this wedding won’t solve global warming or eradicate malaria. But in one very small, very specific way Dani and Eric were reconciling a hurting world with itself.
As Eric’s father spoke the words of union I could see the roots of Eric’s life, already so deep and plentiful in Uganda, sinking also into the rich Indiana soil. And I could see Dani’s roots, so strong through generations of Indiana farmers, stretching to join Eric’s in East Africa. Together they will hold our world, the hurting villages in Uganda and the worried farmers of Waterloo, a little more closely together.
Near the middle of the service the clouds thickened and a few raindrops began to fall. Rain is rarely welcome on a wedding day, but in Uganda it’s considered a blessing and those who bring it blessed. And on the drought-scorched fields of Indiana this July a greater blessing would have been hard to conjure. It was a quick, respectful rain, just enough so that everyone got two or three drops, as if the heavens wanted, without interrupting, to nourish the roots being planted there in the straw, in front of that beautiful old barn.