The Other America

American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland BY Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 416 pages. $28.

The cover of American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland

IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION, a significant influence on Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s new memoir American Harvest, the first-century prophet John is beset by visions while in exile. He sees locusts with human faces, a slaughtered lamb, a dragon with seven heads. An angel promises to condemn those who refuse God’s teachings to a fiery abyss and guarantees the return of Jesus after his people have endured a series of trials. In time, the messenger says, the old world of strife will be destroyed, and a new world will replace it. There, God will dwell with his people in peace. “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem,” John writes.

The inheritance of territory gifted by God is an animating myth in US history, a way of soft-selling its imperial ambitions. John Winthrop promised the Massachusetts Bay settlers that if they followed God’s will, their colony would be a success, “a city upon a hill.” In his second inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson justified the acquisition of Louisiana in similarly lofty language: “Is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?” Soon, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 evicted the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations, along with their black slaves, from their homelands, forcing them to settle in unorganized territory west of the Mississippi. Years later, Congress subdivided these landholdings, offering up to one hundred sixty acres of virtually free land to anyone who agreed to “improve” it. (Freedmen were eligible but in practice faced discrimination and numerous bureaucratic obstacles.) In 1873, the Timber Culture Act granted free territory to settlers who agreed to set aside forty acres for the cultivation of trees. That’s how, in 1895, Mockett’s paternal great-grandfather Melvin became a homesteader in Kimball, Nebraska. At one point, the Mockett farm exceeded seven thousand acres.

In American Harvest—by turns a woman’s travelogue of the Great Plains, a sweeping history of the American West, and a cross-sectional study of contemporary Christian theology—Mockett attempts to mend the political and social divisions that have made American life feel increasingly hostile over the past few decades. Marie, in her mid-forties during her travels, grew up near San Francisco and attended Columbia University. She spent childhood summers with her father’s family in Nebraska for the harvest. Her mother’s family is Japanese; a cousin runs a Zen Buddhist temple in Iwaki. Her insight into both cultures (and, perhaps, the Du Boisian “second sight” of the outsider) enlivens her questions about identity, community, and religion, and adds depth to her approach.

Cowboy Country Church, 2018. RAYMONDCLARKEIMAGES/flickr
Cowboy Country Church, 2018. RAYMONDCLARKEIMAGES/flickr

Unlike most nineteenth-century homesteaders, the Mocketts kept their farm through generations, even as the family moved away. “We farmed,” Marie writes, “and my father went and served in the military, and on to college, and his siblings, too, became educated and traveled citizens of the world.” During a rare visit to the farm in the mid-2000s, Marie notices an apparent contradiction. Her city-dwelling friends, mostly atheists who believe in science and evolution, insist on eating food that is “organic.” Meanwhile, the farmers she knows, nearly all conservative Christians, rely heavily on herbicides and do not shy from genetically modified crops. She asks Eric Wolgemuth, a freelance harvester who has worked for the family for years, about this, and he tells her she isn’t asking about “organics and evolution,” but about “the divide” between “city and country.” This divide has since become the organizing theme of much social commentary. Mockett’s memoir mostly takes the city vs. country narrative as a given, but also reveals the unnoticed qualities the two places share.

Eric is a thoughtful Pennsylvania-born farmer who leads a crew of hired contractors. He is an evangelical, part of a trans-denominational group of Christians who believe the “good news” that Jesus died to save mankind. Mockett is careful to paint Eric, “a bulwark of calm, permanence, and stillness,” with subtle gradations, giving him roots, a robust family life, and a keen intellect to go along with his sturdy demeanor. When Marie’s father dies, the Mocketts and the Wolgemuths become more interdependent. Eric invites Marie to join his harvesting route, “to see the Tetons and the wheat in Idaho . . . to know this America.” Mockett accepts, with a sincere desire to know this “other” nation—which, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, means reconsidering her own perceptions of it.

Mockett is a genuinely curious, meticulous narrator, open to experience and confident enough to acknowledge her own biases. She travels to Oklahoma City to meet the crew: Eric; his wife, Emily, and their college-age son Juston; extended family members Bradford and Bethany; and a few other young men. From there, they drive to Crowell, Texas, near the Panhandle, “the wild hog capital of the world,” where America’s wheat first ripens. They will trace a route cutting farmers’ wheat through north Texas, western Oklahoma and Kansas, up to Nebraska’s border with Colorado, into the south of Wyoming and Idaho. Every day, Emily prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the crew, an example of the group’s “Old World habits,” Mockett writes. They begin their days with a Bible verse and a prayer, abstain from alcohol and premarital sex, and, at night, sleep in gender-separated trailers.

Mockett immediately takes to Juston, an English major at a Christian university. Relieved and perhaps a little surprised to stumble upon someone as bookish as she is, she views him as “a bridge between worlds.” He shares his probing school papers on religion with Marie and suggests she read contemporary theologians like Rob Bell, the former pastor and author of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which was controversial among evangelicals for arguing against the idea of hell as eternal damnation for nonbelievers. A former youth preacher himself, Juston is candid and thoughtful about the places his faith wavers.

Marie initially thinks Juston will be a “terrarium,” allowing her to watch “God waddle around inside of him.” Instead, she finds she is moved by the teachings of Jesus and goes “into the terrarium” to “waddle around too.” Along the route, she attends Sunday service at a cowboy church decorated with a crown of thorns and Stetson hats in Texas, a megachurch in Oklahoma City, and a house church in Nebraska. She notices how a toned, muscular pastor at the megachurch “utilizes the tricks of the infomercial trade.” The glitz and polished persuasiveness remind her of the constant onslaught of marketing messages in the city. “Everyone else on harvest knows the Bible,” Marie writes, so she begins to read it for herself. She finds the book of Revelation particularly interesting, with its description of the end of days, and wonders what it means that it concludes with a promising vision of a heavenly city on earth. The fundamentalist and literalist Bible interpreters of the group tell her it is a metaphor, that God’s promised land would not literally be a densely populated space with multitudes of people sharing resources.

The harvesting crew is as curious about city life as Mockett is about their Christianity. “Do they think we are arrogant?” Eric wonders. “Is everyone in the city promiscuous?” Though she patiently answers their questions, many on the trip remain suspicious of her motives and protective of their way of life. At first, Marie is smug about the comparative diversity of the city—on harvest, she’s usually the only person of color around for miles. When the harvesters’ conversation turns to race explicitly, Marie has a startling realization about white supremacy. In both the city and the country, there can be denial, a refusal to face history. But while the harvest crew members ask Mockett how long they should “feel responsible” for the racial injustices of the past, her urban white friends would never admit that, deep down, they likely have the same question. “It’s pretty easy in the city to hide out in a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt,” she thinks, “and no one will know that you are wondering, How long am I supposed to feel responsible?” Because she is mixed race, denial isn’t an option for Mockett. “In my skin, I cannot pass through unnoticed.” She sees that this is true in both worlds.

Mockett doesn’t resolve the conflicting ideas and discomfiting contradictions she observes on her travels. Chief among them is the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of its history. She’s taken with “the way the mesquite stands silhouetted starkly against the sky” and stunned by a painted bunting, “iridescent green, with an indigo head and a scarlet chest.” In Texas, where she enjoys her first ranch rodeo, she also remembers the Comanche and the Kiowa, vanquished by the Anglos. While harvesting the plentiful wheat in Oklahoma, she recalls the Trail of Tears. She visits a group of potato farmers in Idaho and meets a mixed-race American Indian woman who has bought into the idea that her family deserved to lose their land to the Mormons. Mockett is “unprepared for the level of emotion and thought that has gone into the architecture of a world that enabled the taking of the land.” It is as if, to go on breathing, the woman had to pick a side. In a way, don’t we all?

In the essay “Speaking in Tongues,” Zadie Smith describes what she calls Dream City, “a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion.” Barack Obama, William Shakespeare, and other masterfully empathetic communicators of the human condition, she says, were born there. In Dream City, “you have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues.” Dream City is a fiction, like the city in Revelation, a utopia that does not yet exist. Returning home to San Francisco, Mockett realizes that she cannot delude herself into thinking “everything that disturbed me in the country is not in the city.” Perhaps hell is not the great, fiery abyss, but the suffering we make for one another in the cities and the countrysides here on earth.

Danielle A. Jackson is the managing editor of Oxford American.