When I was a boy on a northwest Iowa farm,
I was sure of only one thing: I wanted to get out
of there. Whatever my vision for the future, I knew
it wasn’t cow manure on my shoes and that
telltale white forehead where the hatband leaves
off above a sunburned face. I didn’t want
to smell like, I didn’t want to look like,
I didn’t want act like, a country hick.
alas, my model of manhood was my farmer father.
In his striped overalls and ankle-high buckle-up
work shoes, he was the alpha male in our neighborhood.
Young and old men alike tried to mimic his strength
and endurance as he stacked bales until sunset,
then hurried off to the evening chores of shoveling
feed to the steers and pigs. In his prime, his working
hands were so hard that when he grabbed a barbed-wire
fence the barbs put little dents into his palm but
didn’t puncture his flesh. As a boy, I’d
hear neighbors respectfully seek his advice about
seed corn and feeder pigs. When their animals were
sick, they’d call my father before they called
the veterinarian. Castrating bulls, vaccinating
pigs, treating steers for hoof rot—he was
ready for any task. Smart, decisive, and strong:
he had it all. It’s no wonder the others followed
his example. Or attempted to.
How could I not admire this man whom all the neighbors
envied? If anything, I resented him for being so
good at something that didn’t interest me.
Even though he was highly accomplished at what he
did, he represented everything I didn’t want
to be. I didn’t want his striped overalls
to be my overalls. I didn’t want his sweat
to be my sweat. I didn’t want his callused
hands to be my hands. I didn’t want his people
to be my people, nor his house my house. I wanted
no part of any of it.
I wanted was to break free from farm life, to soar
like an eagle, not wallow like a pig. I wanted a
life that started in my brain, not my biceps. I
wanted freedom to explore the unknown, especially
art, literature, and music. Far from identifying
with my father, I identified with the young calves
butting against the fence, trying to get out. I
knew how they felt: Give me freedom! Give me the
wide-open spaces of worldly adventures!
special inspiration was a Hereford bull-calf that
felt trapped in the barn. His nervous twitches were
my twitches. His wild eyes were my eyes. One morning
the bull-calf’s imagination took over. He
flung his four-legged body at a small barn window
that was five feet off the ground. He got his forelegs
and head through the window but fell back into the
barn with his hairy white forehead sparkling with
shattered window glass.
loved that animal’s spirit, but he made two
mistakes: he should have found a bigger window,
and he should have taken a few practice runs in
a safer venue. I would avoid his mistakes, but leap
I would! Of that I was certain.
It has been a long leap indeed. I took my practice
runs at freedom by learning to play piano, to act,
to sing, and, especially, to read widely. My windows
of opportunity were not in the barn: they were the
college-prep classes in high school, the double-major
in college, and two rounds of graduate school—one
in literary scholarship and one in creative writing.
Finally my leap was complete: I’m not a farmer;
I’m a writer and college professor. My hands
are not the callused hands of my father: my fingertips
are so soft that I can feel the letters on this
keyboard as I type. I do not read cattle and grain
price reports after dinner; I read novels and poetry.
I couldn’t be farther from my father’s
Or could I? When I was a boy on the farm, I not
only disliked the drudgery of the work; I disliked
the nonchalant violence of it all: the dehorning
of steers, the castrating of pigs, the beheading
of chickens. I always imagined myself as the animal,
and I saw my father as a key player in the disturbing
treatment of animals.
on a visit home shortly after I graduated from college,
a single event shook the foundations of my little
house of negativity.
I went out with my father to check on a sow that
had farrowed ten pigs the week before. Most farmers
had by this time converted their pig house birthing
areas into metal cage-like structures that were
not much larger than the sow and kept her from lying
down on, or stepping on, her young. Like someone
who’d rather write sonnets than free verse,
my father had chosen to stick with the old ways:
a rigidly-shaped eight-by-eight-foot pen where the
sow could walk about as she got ready to deliver.
A sow’s natural instincts tell her to take
the time and space to prepare an appropriate nursery.
She actually makes a birthing nest, taking mouthfuls
of straw to construct an oval-shaped dam of straw
the size of her own body. She’s her own nursemaid.
When the oval-shaped nest is ready, she flops down
inside it and waits for those bristly waves of contractions
Those old-fashioned farrowing pens had a lot of
romance to them, but not much safety. All too often
the sow would stand up and step on her young or
lie down and smother them.
is exactly what had happened the morning of my visit.
As we walked into the hog house, the sow stood up.
Nine little pigs scurried away, but one Chester
White pig lay lifeless in the straw. I remember
my father’s disgust at the sight of another
dead pig. He grabbed the limp animal and threw it
across the hog house onto the manure pile. But when
it landed like a little sand bag, it emitted a grunt.
And then a tiny gasp. My father ran and retrieved
the pig. With his big hands he gave the rib cage
a gentle squeeze. The small throat opened and gasped
for air. For the next tense minute, I watched his
large hands tap on the rib cage while he blew little
bursts of air into the pig’s mouth and squeezed
rhythmically with his other hand. I can still hear
the “tap tap tap” on that little pig’s
rib cage. I can almost feel it.
It’s hard to witness a miraculous little resurrection
like that one without experiencing a few heart thwangs.
Wendell Berry once wrote that we tend to romanticize
what we first despise. Seeing my father’s
gentleness at that moment of the successful resuscitation
may have been the very moment when I started to
romanticize what I first despised.
certainly was a key event in my re-envisioning both
my father and farm life. I came to see that there
may have been economic practicality in the way he
treated animals all the years I remember from my
youth, but there was more to it than that. There
was an underlying affection for his work and for
the creatures who were part of that work.
I started to write, I tried to disguise my rural
roots. In my poems I used grand, pipe-organ sounds
that tried to out-resonate the resonant voice of
the poet Dylan Thomas. My short stories had sentences
so long and complicated they might have been written
by a young Henry James or have been English translations
of a young Immanuel Kant trying to write fiction.
I tried to deny who I was. I was ashamed of it.
But like a person who fakes good posture, I inevitably
slumped into my natural farm-boy self. And, surprise:
the subjects I was best prepared to write about
were farm subjects, and the story-telling voice
that readers found most interesting sounded strangely
like the voice of my farmer father.
There’s a Grant Wood painting titled “Study
for Breaking the Prairie” that hangs in New
York’s Whitney Museum. A prominent part of
the rural, mural-like scene is a quotation from
Daniel Webster that practically dictates how viewers
Tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers
Therefore are the founders of human civilization.
had never thought of my father as an artist while
I was growing up. At that moment of his saving the
small pig’s life, I realized that some part
of him always harbored the sensibility that I aspired
to reach through education. His alpha-male behavior
may simply have been his way of making sure he could
provide me with the means to develop that sensibility.
Fortunately, I am realizing now, I never really
got much farther than that bolting Hereford. I got
my head through the window and into the blue skies
of education and artistic adventures, but the bulk
of me is still on the farm. The longer I have had
to live and evaluate my life, the more I realize
the real model for my grand adventure was not that
stupid animal, it was my father. It is no wonder
that today I tell my aspiring writing students,
“Everything in your life that you’ve
been ashamed of is a gift to you as a writer.”
Heynen is a poet and author of fiction and non-fiction
and best known for his short-short stories about
“the boys,” which have been heard often
on National Public Radio’s “All Things
Considered” and featured in several collections.
The most recent, The Boys’ House, earned the
Editor’s Choice for Best Books of 2001 from
Newsday, Booklist, and The Bloomsbury Review.
Heynen lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife,
the journalist Sarah T. Williams, and is writer-in-residence
at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
Learn more about his work at: www.jimheynen.com