DECORAH - Aprons.
Robert Wolf laughs, but admits it's the one word that pops into his head when asked which stories stand out in his latest anthology, "Heartland Portrait: Stories from the Midwest."
"I can't help it," he says, smiling. "The apron just seems so emblematic of the Midwest , and it's such an evocative image for many people. It's a wonderful story about aprons and how important they once were."
In this second edition of "Heartland Portraits," Wolf offers stories of Midwesterners written in their own words, sharing their thoughts about hardships and hope, faith and fear, joy and sorrow, poverty and pride, causes and calluses and the trophies and albatrosses related to making a living from the land.
It also includes stories written by residents of rural villages and towns dotting the Driftless region of northeast Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. Food, farming, land stewardship, town life and river traditions along the Mississippi River are among the subjects.
For nearly 20 years, Wolf has conducted writing workshops through Free River Press, his nonprofit organization now based in Decorah. The collected stories have been published in several books. The first edition of "Heartland Portraits" was published 12 years ago.
In the new book's chapter titled "Icons and Emblems," workshop participant Barb Mitchell writes affectionately about her mother's aprons:
"They kept her dresses clean, covered up missing buttons or a dirty dress. There was always a clean one handy in case someone drove into the yard. At times she had several on. They brought garden stuff into the house, held eggs gathered from the chicken coop and more. ... She played peek-a-boo with many babies with her apron. If it was a bad day she threw it over her face to cry, and no one would know it. It wiped many tears from all of us."
Another favorite is Francis Cole's stark story of devastation and loss, "The Tornado." The sheep farmer recalled a May day in 1962 when a threatening evening storm forced everyone to run for the cellar. When they emerged later, their barn was flattened, livestock dead and injured and devastation all around the farm. "That one I didn't edit much. I wanted Francis' voice to be heard. It's not written in a conventional style. She wrote it the way she talks and it's a strong piece," said Wolf.
He points to other quietly powerful stories, such as retiree John Prestemon's description of taking over the family farm near Waukon in 1960 and its evolution over 20 years from a successful farming operation to agribusiness - "get big or get out. ... The farming I loved in my younger years gradually died, like a victim of some insidious cancer. Reluctance to adopt the newest technologies meant you were old-fashioned and hopelessly out of step."
Bill Welsh, owner of Welsh Family Organic Farm in Lansing, wrote about the catalyst that helped transform his traditional operation into an organic farm. He writes that May 10, 1981, is a day he will always remember, when he found many of his cows dead and others "crazy" as they thundered around the lot. "They are being poisoned by something," the vet said. It turned out to be hay bales contaminated by a decomposing Dyfonate bag (an insecticide used for rootworm control), and all told, Welsh lost 13 cows. He wrote:
"The vet and I sat on the fence that evening and talked for a long time. He told me that a tablespoon of the insecticide Dyfonate spread evenly enough throughout the bale could have killed all those cows and that if we used five pounds of it per acre for 20 years that we would have 100 pounds of it somewhere in our environment. ... It is not biodegradable. It was in this discussion that I first realized that the chemicals we were using in farming were the same ones used in chemical warfare that I had learned about years before as an instructor in atomic, biological and chemical warfare during my tour of duty in the Air Force. Frankly, that scared the hell out of me. I vowed that Sunday evening that never again would I use that product or anything like it on any land that I owned."
Welsh sometimes joins Wolf on speaking engagement, and Wolf says, "He still tears up when he speaks about the cattle. Those are memories that just don't go away. Confronting those memories can be cathartic. Midwesterners have a reputation as stoic and they aren't comfortable peeling back that many layers of themselves. These are stories that may even surprise their family members because they've never spoken or written about them before."
Wolf is a former Chicago Tribune columnist, playwright and author of 25 books, including the critically acclaimed "American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry by Everyday Folk." In 1990, Free River Press began publishing essays, poems, short stories and memoirs in a book series, drawn from workshops and seminars throughout the United States. He coaxes and convinces participants that "if they can speak, they can write."
Inspiration for his life's work is Thomas Hart Benton's famous mural, "America Today." Benton, who was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement, painted the panels in 1929. They are now displayed at Equitable Tower in New York City.
Wolf believes American is in real danger of losing its regionality, individuality and economic freedom in the headlong rush to globalism. His goal is to document American life and use his anthologies and other writings to celebrate American voices, as well as raise regional consciousness.
At 16, Wolf ran away from his home in New Canaan, Conn., and hit the open road in the tradition of Jack Kerouac, looking for adventure. He hitchhiked and hopped freight trains, slept in homeless shelters and worked for his supper wherever he could find a job. Finally, he found his direction and began teaching and writing. He also married Bonnie Koloc, singer/songwriter/artist and Waterloo native.
His work has been featured on shows like National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," and "CBS Sunday Morning."
"Heartland Portrait" is one of a four-part series that will feature anthologies on the Southwest, the Mississippi Delta and the cities of Chicago and New York. Wolf says the work is important because it gives a voice to people who have seldom been heard.
"It's a search for America. I want to know America and the American story. I stay connected to all the people I've met doing workshops. That's one of the joys of doing this kind of work. I knew when I was young what I wanted to do, but I never dreamed that I'd have these kinds of connections and relationships with people," Wolf adds.