Through the American side of her family, Marie Mutsuki Mockett owns farmland in Nebraska, but it was largely as an outsider — a city dweller — that she joined a custom combining crew on its long journey from Texas to Idaho in 2016, following the ripening wheat. Throw in her rejection of conventional religion, her gender and her ethnicity — her mother is Japanese — Mockett stood out from these white, mostly male, evangelical harvest regulars.
As the political divide in the country became clear, Mockett wondered about the city-country divide. A family friend invited her to join his custom combining crew. She accepted, and the result is “American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming,” a rich blend of science, philosophy and spirituality.
The land fascinates her: the soil and the plants that grow in it, the animals that share it and the people who work it. “The smallest elements are in perpetual motion,” she writes, “always creating or decaying, directed by some invisible force. Perhaps this is why it is easy here to feel that God exists, and that he inspires awe.”
Mockett seeks to understand the foundations of conservative politics and religion among the farm families of the Great Plains. “I want to portray this part of the country as human,” she tells one of the harvesters, and she asks probing questions: “Why are our farmers and harvesters, who are conservative Christians, okay with GMOs [genetically modified organisms], while people in the city, who believe in evolution, are obsessed with organic food?”
Mockett takes the reader through fields of hard red or spring wheat, cover crops and no-till acres, to “house church,” a sprawling megachurch and a “fire and brimstone church.”
Rain or hail force a halt to farm work and we mull white settler relationships with American Indians. We pass dying towns, pioneer cemeteries and nuclear missile fields, and we learn to see wild pigs as pests, like city subway rats, running through fields and damaging the wheat. We contemplate the parched bones of long-discarded farm equipment as we ride in computer-driven tractors working satellite-monitored fields.
Mockett writes poetically about the shifting colors of the sky and how they morph from dawn to noon to midnight. She marvels at the strength, patience and joy the harvesters take in their work. Sometimes when she shares her more lyrical thoughts, “people raise their eyebrows,” she says, because “there is work to do.”
But then there are moments like when the men have parked their combines, the sun has set and they stand in the gathering dark, knowing there will be good cutting tomorrow because it’s hot and the crops will be dry.
“Did you see the sunset?” the man who invited her along asks, and she says yes. He nods. “I see that,” he says, “and I think that can’t be by accident.”
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune columnist and reporter, lives, writes and teaches in North Dakota.
By: Marie Mutsuki Mockett.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 408 pages, $28.