james calvin schaap
sioux center, iowa | interviewed 3-5-2002
"That Morning, on the Prairie" essay
On some beautiful early fall days out here on the emerald cusp of the Great Plains, it's not hard to believe that we are not where we are. Warm southern breezes swing up from Texas, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.
Early on exactly that kind of fall morning, I like to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, ten miles west and two south, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a town that was, but is no more. Likely as not, Highland fell victim to a century-old phenomenon in the Upper Midwest, the simple fact that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do so today, when the portions are ten times bigger.
What's left of Highland is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was home for some peoplea couple of Protestant churches, a couple of horse barns, and a blacksmith shop, little else. The town of Highland once sat gloriously atop a swell of land at the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over undulating prairie. But mostly, today, it's gone.
I like to bring my students to Highland because what's not there never fails to silence them. Maybe it's the emaciated cemetery; maybe it's the south wind's low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don't hear often on the Plains; maybe it's some variant of culture shockthey stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and wake up suddenly in a place with no walls.
I'm lying. I know why they fall into psychic shock. It's the sheer immensity of the land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly there where earth weaves effortlessly into sky; it's the vastness of rolling landscape William Cullen Bryant once claimed looked like an ocean stopped in time. It seems as if there's nothing here, and everything, and that's what stuns them into silence. That morning, on those gravel roads, no cars passed. We were alone20 of us, all alone and vulnerable on a high ground swatch of prairie once called Highland, surrounded by nothing but startling openness.
That's where I wasand that's where they wereon September 11. We left for Highland at just about the moment Mohamed Atta and his friends were commandeering American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, so we knew absolutely nothing about what had happened until we returned. While the rest of the world stood and watched in horror, my students, notebooks and pens in hand, looked over a landscape so immense only God could live thereand were silent.
They found it hard to leave, but then no one can stay on retreat forever, of course, so when we returned we heard the horrible news. All over campus and all over town, TVs blared.
I like to think that maybe on our campus that morning my students were best prepared for the horror everyone feltprepared, not by having been warned, but by having been awed.
Every year it's a joy to sit out there with them and try to define and describe the beauty of what seems characterless prairie, but this year our being there on the morning of September 11, I'm convinced, was a kind of blessing.
copyright © 2001 James Calvin Schaap | All Rights Reserved
My view of writing is very deeply charged by my faith. I think my writing is illustrative of the fact that ultimately my world view says there is hope in this world. There's not despair. I tend to write about values and worlds that are Christian, but I'm not heavy about it. You know, I don't try to convert people; that isn't the idea. I'm not writing Sunday School material. I tend to see the great values of my life are values of meaningthey tend to be Christian, but they're values of meaning.
I had an American Lit. class afterwards, and it was Hawthorne, it was Scarlet Letter. And I said, "I don't have any idea, but my guess is that you feel as out of it as I do with respect to what we're supposed to be doing. But there are some things I've just got to get out of the way, and then we'll quit." And we ended up talking about Hawthorne the whole time. But they were surprised, and so was I, that we actually kept going, and enjoyed it, and laughed about things about Hawthorne and things about Dimsdale and whatever. And when it was over, we said, Oh, that wasn't so bad to have done that.
And that class was a wonderful little indicator of what I thought was the way in which life can work. It's very easy to just immerse yourself totally in the trauma of the situation, but you have to go on; you simply have to go on. And life's story is that. Losing loved ones, you can't sit in it, you've got to go on.
Vietnam is the matrix of my narrative, of my story. It's my movement from innocence to experience, ultimately. So, it'll always be back there for meeven though it remains a conundrum in my mind. But, even the sort of comparative horror that that many people were killed on American soil by a foreign aggressor, so to speak, makes it completely different than Vietnam.
It's one thing had they gone to the Metrodome and just picked out 50,000 people where they could get them, but the artistry was in fact to take down this symbol of American capitalist enterprise. All those things are immensely shocking. But the most prevalent emotion is that I don't think it's going to affect culture like I would like it to. I don't know what's going to happen, but the ability of the American public to be serious about its role, about its world, about its own vision of thingsfor that to happen, mass culture has to changemedia culture, popular culture. And those engines running that are so huge that you just wonder whether it's possible.
Standing out there and looking at a tremendous and sometimes almost overpoweringly beautiful world that we havethat's wealth, that's joy. And my students sort of know it. They may not be able to explain it, but they know it. They've been there for an hour, and just stopping and looking is the beginning of artistic endeavor, isn't it? To look and to see and to value is the beginning. What do I want my readers to get out of that essayIowa readers, especially: To value the natural world in which they live. That's the point of that essayvalue this world.
We didn't put up a flag or anything like that. I was too late-sixties-ish to do that. But deliberate Islamic nationalism does seek to obliterate those values which are peculiarly and, I think, wonderfully American. Our ability to sit here and talk critically is not something that's going to grow in an Islamic culture. I felt a kind of patriotism, which is not easy for a late-sixties guy to do, and also this sense of an affirmation of basic cultural values of freedom that are, in fact, in jeopardy.
James Calvin Schaap was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1948. He grew up in the nearby small town of Oosburg. He has two older sisters, and is proudly Dutch American and is part of the Dutch Reformed community.
He received a B.A. in English from Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, his M.A. in English from Arizona State University, and his Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has been a teacher and professor of English throughout his professional life, and has been an English professor at Dordt College since 1982.
He has published several books, including novels, historical short fiction, meditations, essays and stories, biography. His latest endeavor is a serialized novel, Things Hoped For, Things Not Seen, in The Banner from January 2002 until December 2004, available online at www.thebanner.org. He has also had numerous short stories and essays published in a variety of magazines, literary journals, and newspapers.
He has two children and he lives with his wife in Sioux Center, Iowa.