It’s never a good idea to head out for a 30 mile drive at the tail end of a blizzard with 40-below windchill. But I did it anyway. I grew up with the saying, “When winter closes everything down, all the farmers drive to town.” I guess I couldn’t help it; I was on my way to Minnesota to visit my friend and to bring her brother a piece of equipment that I had picked up for him at the tool & die shop. The snow quit this morning; it would be daylight for four more hours. Snowplows weren’t keeping up with the wind; snow filled in after the plow soldiered through.
Highway Fifty-two in Winneshiek County is a beauty; wide lanes and wider shoulders. Growing up in the Heartland, I’d become attached to roadways of all kinds. The roadbed for this 2-lane piece of concrete was dynamited from limestone bluffs and then elevated above the drained wetlands of Northern Iowa sometime in the early-1900’s; it made for a fast drive from Calmar to the Minnesota state line. Fifty-two is also the dividing line between the hills above the Mississippi River Basin and what used to be massive wetlands and prairie region. Reaching Westward for hundreds of miles, this continental heartland was ceded to the United States by Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Yanktonai, and Cheyenne people. The land was a sanctuary for millions of migratory birds, waterfowl, and pollinators. Now it’s drained by 20th-century tiles buried underneath roots of corn and soybeans. It’s as vacant as a parking lot; nothing else but wind and sky above.
Today, Fifty-two is drifted with hillocks of snow beneath a flat, white sky. The wind is punishing. My Chrysler bounds over the powder like a toboggan; I hear snow curl into my wheel wells like blankets and skim the car’s underside. I figure I should turn off my cassette deck – yes, my car still has a cassette player – so that I can concentrate on my driving. Besides, you need to be alert when the snow pulls you into a ditch.
Two horses shelter by the barn, out of the wind; they raise their heads to see who has ventured up their lane. It’s midday and they’re ready to get back inside. There are children napping at the house and so my friend meets me on the porch of her weaving “factory”. This is why I’m here: weaving.
The “factory” is a little, wooden building – 20 yards from the farmhouse. When we go inside, bundles of yarn filament scatter across a particle-board floor painted bright blue. My friend quickly crosses the room to a black stove centered between looms; she stirs embers and adds sliver kindling. I step out of my boots but keep my felt liners on. We move carefully around the looms; I ask a question and she gives an answer. I lean over a warp and then dip underneath to see how the tension is held. I examine spools, heddles, reeds, and tie-ups. I show her the weaving books I brought with me; we stand side by side and look at patterns. We talk about production, time, quantity, and costs.
I learned to weave on a floor loom when I turned 40-years-old. I was taught complex patterns with fine threads. Now, I am interested in tabby-weave and “production”. My friend is Amish and she does everything without electricity. She designed a warping system that allows her to weave several rugs on a single warp. High-volume, “off-grid” weaving is physically demanding.
I’m not used to spending time with Amish people but I’ve felt their influence since childhood. To the Amish, I am “English”; anyone who lives with electricity and a car. Amish people began buying farms in the Midwest in the late 1970’s. As the population grew, their farmsteads introduced a new economy for cottage-goods: leather, furniture, baskets, eggs, honey, vegetables, baked goods, and cotton fabric. In 1983, I got a cookbook from an Amish roadside stand; it’s how I learned to cook and to bake. The book also contained indispensable cures for things like bee stings, pneumonia, and infected horse hooves.
My time in the weaving “factory” is short. Daylight is fast during the Northern hemisphere wintertime. The stove is growing cold and the windowpanes have dimmed. Driving in a blizzard at night is worse than in daylight so my friend and I agree to visit again sometime when the weather is better. Her children will be looking for her in the house anyway.
It’s windier than it was before. Now the snow hillocks have become dense, packed, and wide so that most of the roadway is invisible. I’ll keep the speedometer at 35. I’m thinking about weaving and new ideas for production. I know that, in an hour, nightfall will cover the countryside like a lid. The moon is above the clouds. Wind will hurtle across darkened, empty fields and through branches of wan trees. Coyotes will remain in their dens. I won’t be here either because I’ll be back in my cold house looking through weaving patterns by lamplight.
Be well, country… and be in touch.