Ullrich secondary art

RURAL AMERICA – A few days back I was sitting high on a bank on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, enjoying a breeze out of the northeast, watching all the happy, tanned, white people cruising past in their powerboats and I found myself wondering who these people are. It’s a workday and the channel is busy. Shouldn’t these folks be working?

Growing up I spent a lot of time on the Mississippi, always on weekends, usually Sunday afternoons, after church. I come from a family that preached the absolute value of work, so I did, from about age 10 on. Work first, pleasure later. So why do I wonder who these people are today on the world’s mightiest river? I don’t know. Jealousy maybe.

Why I can’t feel empathy and joy for today’s boaters is beyond me. Out in the channel a fancy black fiberglass fishing boat moved past, a 200 horsepower Honda outboard on back. The fishing boats of my youth had 10 horsepower Buccaneer motors. We foolishly believed it was about fishing.

So I returned to what is now a giant sewer line rolling fast toward the Gulf of Mexico, wondering what happened to the Native Americans who plied these waters ten thousand years before European settlers showed up. They should be all over this land but, alas, they are all gone. What we’ve done to indigenous people over the centuries is unforgivable. Unfortunately white supremacy existed long before ‘he who must not be named’ arrived on the scene, so we are left with ancient ghosts walking the shorelines, shoulders bent, not understanding what happened, slouching toward something they couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

Driving home from my short river tour I marveled at the emerald green landscape, corn and soybeans working toward autumn. Sweet corn season is coming to an end and, surprisingly, most think what they are seeing out their auto window is sweet corn. Sorry to report that sweet corn is not a part of the Iowa landscape. And, thanks to a wet spring and dry summer, some of the fields sprouting corn for livestock likely won’t be harvested until Thanksgiving.

A few weeks ago I discovered that two bull snakes were living quiet lives under the step I use every time I go in and out of the house. It made me uncomfortable, even though I’m sure it’s why I’ve not had mice in the house for a while. I don’t know any snake wranglers but I knew a carpenter who could remedy the situation, which he did, without any loss of life.

Every once in a while I inadvertently encounter bull snakes in the yard. Pushing my lawn mower causes the ground to vibrate and they slither across the grass, headed for the woods to get away from me. They are really quite beautiful, but I’m pretty sure my next heart attack will be thanks to their presence. I never want snakes dead, just gone.

Passing through a small town on the way home from the river I noted a sign on an old concession stand. It was quite faint, but there it was: “Smile.” It’s not an order, it’s not profound, it’s not Hallmark-cardish and it’s not graffiti. It’s simply some gentle person’s way of reaching out to travelers as they pass. The conciseness and brevity of it was hard to ignore. So I smiled.

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Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book "The Iowa State Fair" is available from the University of Iowa Press.