Discoveries About God and Race in the Heartland
A self-described product of the East and West Coasts, Marie Mutsuki Mockett was raised by her Japanese-born mother and her White father, an intellectual descended from generations of farmers. She still owns a portion of the family’s 7,000 acres in the Nebraska panhandle, where dryland-farmed wheat is the crop best suited to the soil. Selling the farm would be practical, but it’s a connection to her past and departed loved ones.
Mockett has deep ties to diametrically opposed worlds: city/country, secular liberal/conservative Christian, White/non-White, book smart/farm smart, organics-loving/Roundup-embracing. So she’s well placed to investigate those conflicting worldviews as she travels across the Wheat Belt in American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland (Graywolf, 2020).
Her journey is precipitated by Eric Wolgemuth, the salt-of-the-earth custom harvester who has cut her family’s wheat for years. Descended from Old Order German Anabaptists, he tries to live according to what Jesus would do in any given situation. When Mockett poses the question, “Why are our farmers and harvesters, who are conservative Christians, okay with GMOs, while people in the city, who believe in evolution, are obsessed with organic food?” Wolgemuth understands, on a fundamental level, what is troubling her. “It’s really a question about … the divide,” he says. “It’s not just about God and science. Not really.” And then he invites her to join him on his annual harvesting route, because it’s “the best way to understand the country.”
Mockett joins Wolgemuth and his team near the Oklahoma-Texas border, along with four semitrucks loaded with 30,000-pound combines, grain cutters, and a tractor. The harvesters are latter-day cowboys, the closest thing we have now to those icons of the West who once drove massive herds of cattle to Midwestern railheads. Their annual route from farm to farm follows the ripening wheat from the earliest- to latest-maturing fields, beginning in Texas and wrapping up in Idaho.
While many people find the Great Plains flat and boring, Mockett loves the “subtle gradation in topography that suits a ruminating mind,” and the “labyrinth of grasses and animals” that reward the patient observer. To understand the agricultural aspect of “the divide,” she traces the gradual loss of microbe-rich prairie topsoil through decades of tilling and wind erosion: the dust storms and mass migration of the 1930s, the widespread use of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers of the 1960s and the polluting of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The no-till revolution introduced in the 1940s was a way to begin building up soil again, but short, modern hybrid wheat did not provide the canopy of shade that once acted as a natural weed killer. In stepped Monsanto, with its chemical herbicide glyphosate. To protect crops from being wiped out along with weeds, it created genetically modified seeds that produce plants that resist the herbicide Roundup, which is increasingly suspected of being carcinogenic.
As she gets to know the farm crew, Mockett begins to understand the economic imperatives that have led them to GMOs, and gains respect for their love of the land and continual quest to improve their practices. Crop-breeding advances have allowed farmers to rotate more lucrative corn and soy crops with wheat, which naturally suppresses the symbiotic weeds associated with each crop and builds healthy soil. This in turn allows farmers to reduce herbicide use. They are increasingly embracing cover crops, a favorite technique of small-scale organic farmers. And they are aware that their reliance on Roundup has given rise to Roundup-resistant superweeds—that technology is a double-edged sword.
Mockett is also confronted with the harvest team’s unshakable faith: These are young people who have “the Bible on speed dial,” consulting their smartphones to confirm their memory of scripture. But she sees complexity and contradictions in the people she meets: White people who grew up near or on reservations, for whom a pow-wow is a sort of homecoming, the Mennonite farmer who believes corporations are ruining the family farm. As Mockett struggles to fit in, her questions instigate a separation of the group into two camps, one that is willing to engage in discussion and debate about religion and farming, and the other that fears she will misrepresent their views in her writing.
Mockett is stunned to suddenly see “the level of emotion and thought that has gone into the architecture of a world that enabled the taking of the land.”
She finds refuge in museums and churches she visits along the way. In a Texas museum, she relates most to Quanah, the mixed-race Comanche chief whose mother was a kidnapped White woman who grew so attached to her Native family that she died, seemingly of heartbreak, when forcibly taken back to her White family. Mockett thinks of her own Japanese grandfather, who disowned her mother when she married a White man. In Oklahoma, she finds a “richness and a generosity to this land that are almost palpable,” yet this was Indian Territory, where tens of thousands of Native people were pushed after they were forced off their land and marched along the Trail of Tears, where many perished from starvation, exposure, and illness.
That actions like these were sanctioned by Christianity is one of the many contradictions Mockett confronts. At a megachurch in Oklahoma City, where the wide-screen service plays out like an infomercial, the music, lights, and ambiance move her to tears. She is baffled by another church where congregants speak in tongues and handle snakes, and disturbed by a conversation with a mixed Native-White woman in Idaho who has overcome her bitterness over her people’s loss of land by accepting the Mormon teaching that “God allowed the land to be taken because we were no longer a righteous people.”
Mockett is stunned to suddenly see “the level of emotion and thought that has gone into the architecture of a world that enabled the taking of the land.” This world “feels to me like a psychological prison,” she writes. “I have no idea how to begin to dismantle it. And in my skin, I cannot pass through unnoticed.” At this point, tensions among the harvest crew reach a boiling point, and she is politely asked to leave before they complete the season.
A sort of resolution arrives in the epilogue, when Mockett returns to the family home in Nebraska a year later for the harvest and visits with Eric and his son Juston. She tells them that their travels together gave her a new understanding of the cruelty that went into the formation of our nation, yet also provided her with a “meaningful experience of the gospels and of Jesus.”
The book ends, as it began, with a lyrical description of the natural world, this time a double rainbow that appears after a rainstorm. Mockett has written before about the concept in Japanese fairytales of “the aesthetic solution,” where good does not inevitably triumph over evil, but where the hero is left to contemplate their own existence against the backdrop of a beautiful image. On this harvest journey, she writes that the awesome beauty she sees on the Great Plains “will make you believe in either God or science.” Or in her case, maybe both.