From the Archives: Driving Through Iowa

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from October, 2017:


The state of Iowa offers the road-tripper princely rest stops, complete with grand historical markers. For instance, the rest stop near Iowa City--home to the University of Iowa , the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the legendary Prairies Lights bookstore--is dedicated to the history of education in Iowa. I was delighted with the bookish decorations, which included giant alphabet blocks set along the wall. (S is for soybeans.)

Even a rest stop of modest scale and amenities had a long marker telling the history of the Amana Colonies.

At yet another stop, I was reminded of the quintessentially Iowan story of Henry A. Wallace, Roswell Garst, and the agricultural revolution they launched.

Wallace and Garst met in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, where Wallace edited his family's newspapers and Garst sold real estate. In his free time, Wallace experimented with creating corn hybrids.* At the time, farmers saved the best-looking ears of corn from each crop for seed, selecting them based on uniformity and size. By the time he was fifteen, Wallace had already proved these factors did not necessarily predict which ears would produce the best crop the next year. Now, in his late thirties, he was trying to crossbreed plants to produce higher yields.*

Wallace invented hybrid corn and the concept of hybrid vigor. Garst, an Iowa farmer turned salesman, recognized their importance and demonstrated their value in practical ways that small farmers could understand.

Garst was so fascinated by the possibilities of hybrid corn that he bought several bushels of the seed from Wallace to use on his home farm. After several years of watching the performanceof Wallace's high-yield, strong-stalked hybrid in his own fields, Garst asked Wallace for a franchise to sell the virtually unknown product in northeastern Iowa.

It was a literal case of betting the farm. Even in good times it would have been hard to convince farmers to buy expensive, genetically modified seeds** instead of using the open-pollinated kernels from their own fields. During the Depression it was virtually impossible. Garst had to come up with ways to prove that his advertising slogan, "An Astonishing Product--Produces Astonishing Results," was the simple truth. His most successful tactic was the "half the increase" trial, in which a farmer planted both types of seeds. If the farmers' seeds produced a typical yield (usually 25 bushels to the acre) and Garst's seeds produced 45 bushels, Garst would get half the increase. Growing both Pioneer hybrid corn and their own seed corn gave farmers a graphic demonstration of the new corn's value. In the worst drought in America's history, Wallace and Garst's hybrid corn not only grew, it flourished. In fewer than ten years, more than half the fields in America's Corn Belt were planted with the new high-yield corn.

The green revolution that began with Pioneer hybrid corn had a dark side, including the effects of farm chemicals on the environment and loss of biodiversity. But for a country coming out of the lean years of the Depression, it was a miracle.

*Wallace came by his interest in scientific agriculture naturally. His grandfather and father, both also named Henry Wallace (a potential source of confusion for the careless reader), founded the influential farm journal that they imaginatively named Wallace's Farmer. His grandfather was a former Presbyterian minister who who went on to teach the gospel of scientific farming. His father was Secretary of Agriculture under Warren Harding. Our Wallace, having spent some time as a boy with agronomist George Washington Carver, was experimenting with plant breeding in a small garden plot by the time he was ten. He later studied agriculture at Iowa State. Wallace went on to become Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture from 1933-1940 and his vice-president from 1941-1945.
**Not necessarily a dirty word. Humans have been fiddling with plant genetics to make bigger/tastier/more digestible/higher yielding plants since the first unknown innovator discovered the power of planting a seed in the earth in ancient Palestine. Says the woman who loves her heirloom tomatoes and apples.

From the Archives: Moscow Nights

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from September and October in years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from October, 2016:

In 1958 the Cold War was at its height--or perhaps its depths. Think Sputnik, Krushchev's overthrow of Stalin, backyard bomb shelters, and bomb drills in schools.* Not to mention Elvis Presley's induction into the army--a Cold War weapon of a different kind.

Culture was as much of a battlefield as space. In April, Soviet Russia hosted the first Tchaikovsky Competition: an international music competition designed to demonstrate Russia's cultural preeminence to the West. The competition was rigged. The Soviets had identified the Russian winners of the violin and piano competitions before the foreign contestants arrived. To everyone's amazement, a twenty-three year old pianist from Texas named Van Cliburn won over Russian audiences and Soviet judges with a lush playing style and a love of classical Russian music that rivaled their own. Popular pressure from Russian audiences in favor of Van Cliburn forced the Soviet judges—with Nikita Khrushchev's blessing—to award first prize to the Texas prodigy.

moscow-nightsIn Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, historian Nigel Cliff brings to life Van Cliburn's unexpected triumph and its continuing implications for Soviet-American relations through the end of the Cold War.** Cliff sets the story of the competition firmly in its historical context of political paranoia on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and both Russian and American use of culture as a diplomatic weapon. At the same time, he never loses sight of the musician and the music at its heart: Cliff's Van Cliburn is eccentric, driven, politically innocent, big-hearted, and and wholly charming.

Moscow Nights is an engaging account of an extraordinary historical moment, best read with Van Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 playing in the background.

*By the time I reached grade school, we were carrying our chairs to the all purpose room to watch rocket launches and enduring occasional tornado drills based on the same principles as bomb drills. Good times.

**A scene in the Reagan White House brought me close to tears.

The guts of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


From the Archives: Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from September and October in years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from October, 2016:

One of the first things My Own True Love and I did in Florence was visit Brunelleschi’s dome.* I suspect we are not alone in making that choice.

The first thing you need to know about visiting the Duomo is that it is part of a complex of impressive buildings, made up of the cathedral, of which the dome is a part, the baptistry,** a bell tower designed by Giotto, and a museum on the site of the original works of the cathedral (think construction office and artist workshops.) Depending on what you decide to do, you could spend the better part of two days on the complex—there’s a reason the ticket is good for two days. We decided to climb into the dome, tour the museum, and see the dome from inside the cathedral. Here are the highlights:

  • If you know me in real life, you know that climbing up into the dome is a Big Deal. I have a bum knee and a bum lung and don’t much like heights. I have refused to climb many many staircases over the years, including fire towers, lookout points,and the Washington Monument. My Own True Love asked several times to be sure I understood what line we were in and what we were planning to do. The hour and a half wait** and the 463 steps were worth it. The stairs are narrow, some of them are spiraled, and the last bit was more like a ladder than a staircase. But it was very cool to see the structure between the inner and outer dome and breathtaking to see Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment up close.
  • The cathedral interior is awe inspiring, even though we didn’t get a good view of the dome from below. (The central aisle was blocked off. ) The simplicity of the space surprised us. We had Gothic cathedrals and Baroque churches in our heads.
  • The museum was a mixed bag. In my nerdy way, I had expected a museum named after the works of the Duomo to have exhibits on 14th and 15th century construction techniques. The entrance to the museum reinforced that impression: a long marble wall with the names of some of the thousands of men who worked on the Duomo over the years, masons and carpenters as well as architects and painters. Once inside, the focus shifted from “humble tradesmen”**** to architects and from construction to design. Much of the exhibition was illuminating. But by the end, I was too brain dead to appreciate the artistry behind embroidered Renaissance vestments and silver and gold altar pieces. I’m not sure I would ever have cared about 19th century arguments over restoring the facade to its original Gothic style. On the other hand, seeing Ghiberti’s original bronze doors to the baptistry was thrilling.
  • I got a giggle over the fact that Donatello’s sculpture of the Prophet Habakkuk—considered one of the most important sculptures of the period— is popularly known as Zuccone (Pumpkin Head). Evidently the impulse that led Chicago’s citizens to call Anish Kapoor’s beautiful sculpture The Bean (instead of its official title Cloud Gate) is not new.


*Several weeks ago, I mentioned in passing that I planned to re-read Ross King’s book about the dome on our trip to Florence in anticipation of seeing the Duomo in real life. The book traveled with me to Florence, but I haven’t opened it. Instead I’ve been reading Sarah Gristwood’s newest book about sixteenth century European queens, coming soon to a blog post near you.
**One of the oldest buildings in Florence and predating the Duomo by hundreds of years/
***There are ways to skip the line, none of which worked for us. The steps are not avoidable. Think twice is you have heart trouble, claustrophobia or other ailments.
****Their phrase, not mine.