American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the HeartlandNonfiction
Reviewed By Greg Walklin
- Graywolf Press (2020)
- 408 pages
In American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, Marie Mutsuki Mockett travels to Oklahoma to meet Eric Wolgemuth, an old friend of her father’s and an itinerant wheat harvester. Wolgemuth has caravanned from Pennsylvania with his entire harvesting operation—“three combines, four headers, a tractor, three grain hoppers and a grain cart”—and invited Mockett to join his company as it heads north to harvest wheat across the American heartland. A deeply religious man inspired by God to seek Mockett’s company, Wolgemuth tells her that she will meet farmers, hunters, “some racists,” “closeted Democrats,” and “lots of Christians.” Although her father respected Wolgemuth and her family always held him out to be intelligent, part of Mockett remains skeptical of what she can learn: “If he believed in creationism,” she asks herself, “how bright could he be?”
The resulting chronicle of this harvest forms her latest book. Mockett is also the author of a novel, Picking Bones from Ash, and a memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. This time, in American Harvest, Mockett combines memoir and journalism to explore questions of religion, ethics, and psychology. Along the way, the author questions a part of herself, too.
Although it could have been sharper in its conclusions, the book offers portraits and insights into Americans who are often flown over but not as often understood. Opening with a short, lapidary chapter, nearly a prose poem—reminiscent of the paean to Illinois in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King—American Harvest is more impressionistic than argumentative. This opening section indicates that the book is taking its subject (the “land of primary colors”) seriously and acknowledging its beauty from the place of someone who is both an insider and an outsider. American Harvest is nothing like a book that seems superficially similar—J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy—or other books that approach rural America anthropologically. It’s poetic and personal. It’s perhaps a book Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard could have written.
Farmers, Mockett reports, constitute less than 2% of the United States population, so “of course they aren’t well understood.” Popular media tends to divide the rural and urban in a Manichean manner: everyone not living in a city is a farmer, living a simple agrarian existence. As this book—as well as Ted Genoways’s This Blessed Earth—demonstrate, such a view is silly. Farmers are few, and their work is extremely intricate, risky, and arduous. Because Mockett focuses on harvesters, American Harvest does not contain the detailed agricultural précis of Genoways’s book, but it does provide a short history of the astonishing innovations in wheat farming as well as the basics of Wolgemuth’s day-to-day operations. “We are forever seeing about a new part,” Mockett writes.
Wolgemuth’s business requires considerable independence, resourcefulness, and patience. Combines are complex (“about as close to a Transformer as you will find in the real world”); wheat can only be harvested when it’s dry; and the group encounters rain, the old Demiurge of agriculture, often. During the wait, Mockett often attempts to engage the crew—who include Wolgemuth’s wife and his college-aged son Juston—on religious and ethical concerns. Naturally, Christianity, in its practical application, comes up most often. Mockett and Juston discuss the psychology of heartland Christians, trying to reconcile various issues. (“College talk,” some of the other crew members call it.) Her primary entrée into the topic is this question: Why do many rural people, often religious and portrayed as wary of scientific theory, staunchly support the science behind genetically modified organisms, whereas otherwise pro-science urbanites shop “organic” and abhor the very idea of genetically modified foods? The answer has something to do with confirmation bias and the vagaries of human psychology, though Mockett doesn’t ultimately drill very far into the foundations of these prejudices.
To that end, Mockett’s goal is not to discover what made great swaths of people in this part of the country vote for Donald Trump nor to serve as a polemic against putative rural provincialism. Instead, she approaches the harvesters like a journalist trying to ascertain how they work and what makes them tick. She has a personal stake in this topic—which means she is not entirely objective. Although living in San Francisco, she is no stranger to farming, as she is co-owner of a farm that stretches over the border between the Nebraska panhandle and eastern Colorado, land that has been in her father’s family for generations. Before her father’s death, she would return with him for the annual harvest. She has good Nebraskan friends, and the farm and the state are clearly an inextricable part of her identity. But her mother is Japanese (her family owns a Buddhist temple), and she did not grow up Christian. She married a Scottish man, had children, and now—after her father’s death—is reconsidering this pastoral part of herself. “I could sell the farm,” she writes, “but if I sell the farm, I will lose my connection to this place completely.”
Because of her biracial identity, Mockett has considered herself a “bridge” between two worlds. But as her trip progresses, she wonders if she has taken this notion too far:
Have I, in trying so hard to build a bridge, simply erased myself? I need to be angrier to speak to the people in the heartland. There is no being righteous without being angry. I think about this, and I think of the last few days on harvest, and I set both of these experiences inside my head, as if my brain is a little scale, and the scales swing wildly back and forth.
Throughout, Mockett cannot avoid the implications of being a person of color in a white-dominated part of the country. Her race grounds her perspective, and it’s a perspective that many of the harvesters she meets lack, even the ones—such as Eric and Juston—who are more open-minded and thoughtful. With the current state of electoral politics, this is a pressing question: How righteous should one be toward the enablers of a previous presidential administration who—among other sins—separated border children from their parents?
America contains multitudes, from San Francisco technophiles to Kansas snake handlers. Yet science is not the province of red or blue states and neither is religion—even Mennonites may have strong convictions about the importance of science, and even littoral atheists may believe in unfounded claims. Eric is indeed intelligent, and yet he—and others—hold unscientific views that do not pass basic scrutiny. Neither, of course, is righteousness constrained to a single side of the aisle or a single part of the United States. Perhaps that is what makes Mockett so empathic: she spends much of this book asking questions instead of trying to give answers, such as, “When we go back to the farm, what is it that we have been trying to hold on to?”
Maybe she is trying to hold on to something not easily understood and is enjoying the beauty of the unknown. Toward the end of the book, Mockett is driving with Wolgemuth when they encounter a “new road in the middle of nowhere . . . Eric starts down it immediately, despite not knowing what it is for,” she writes. “It is like this in the country: new structures and apparatuses suddenly emerge, with no signage, no warning, and no people.”
Greg Walklin is a lawyer and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, two daughters, and Yorkshire terrier. His fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications.