The melt and muck of spring is upon us and it’s the same every year, as it has been for thousands of years, and the air smells of the land, a heady mixture of new growth, winter’s decay, and animal droppings. It’s a musky smell fraught with melancholy and hope, a smell we all know, coming off land not yet punished by a farmer’s plow. ‘If we can just get through winter everything will be fine’ runs deep in most of us. For many of our friends and neighbors things will not be fine, not this spring, not next spring, not ever.
Newspaper headlines are chilling, quietly telling us that thousands continue to die in Yemen, warning us of more and more severe flooding and drought, depending upon where you live, or informing us about three historically black churches torched in a 10-day period in Louisiana, and oh my gosh on some days it feels like we’ve walked this earth until we’re exhausted, learning absolutely nothing on our journey.
On a recent afternoon I joined a thousand other good folks in a city on the Mississippi River to catch the act of a Democratic presidential candidate who promises to make the future better. Before he took the stage we were serenaded by a warm-up act, a bluegrass quartet consisting of banjo, upright bass, acoustic guitar, and mandolin. They had the nasally Ralph Stanley voices down pretty well and it felt right, that strange, satisfying combination of European and African music that came out of Appalachia.
So in the half-light of a sterile commercial hall this old guy with weed-whacker hair walked out to a lectern, leaned over and grabbed each side as if he needed stabilization, like so many folks you see in the grocery store using their cart as a giant walker. He looked spookily like my brother-in-law, except my brother-in-law doesn’t want to be president; he simply wants to retire.
This was, of course, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, born three months before the outbreak of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he was in Iowa to make sure his diverse disciples from a few years ago were still here, because the Iowa caucuses will come around in about 10 months. If this gathering was any indication his flock is intact, and thrilled to see him again.
One old guy was schlepping around the outside edges of the crowd, carrying a hand-painted sign: “In 2020 we will clearly see, a Bernie Sanders victory.” Pretty straightforward, reminding me of winters years ago when the local drive-in theater marquee read “Closed for the season. The reason? It’s freezin!”
Sanders spoke of the usual stuff, which was expected and semi-interesting but then a different speechwriter took over and things began to look up. Quite poetically he invoked four justices: economic justice, racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice. It was a very nice apocalyptical invention with a rhythm all its own and it deserved a Telecaster high-crying blues lick after each justice. For a brief moment life became literature but, like everything else, it was gone too soon.
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Out here there is also a rhythm that moves along smartly and unsurprisingly and most of the time it makes sense but on a recent wet morning I saw something new. A red-tailed hawk was perched high in a still-bare tree, facing north, her wings spread wide, a magnificent sight, probably drying her feathers after the previous night’s storm, or maybe it was just a time for her to be buoyed by life, having a beautiful spring, staring straight ahead, past tomorrow, her own ‘Titanic’ moment.
• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.