Marc Nieson at the Iowa City Book Festival
Sense of Place I panel: City Hall Council Chambers — Saturday, Oct. 8 at 10 a.m.
Reading: Prairie Lights Books — Saturday, Oct. 8 at 4 p.m.
In the fall of 1993, while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Marc Nieson moved into a one-room schoolhouse on Redbird Farm, a 20-minute ride from Iowa City. He spent a year living there, walking the fields and woods surrounding Old Man’s Creek, detailing what he saw and what he thought in carefully written journals.
The results are evident in Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love and Landscape, an account of that year. The book offers life lessons as the author tries to shed a broken romance, three years in Venice and growing up in a family where communication was difficult and often painful.
Readers who venture on Nieson’s journey will be rewarded. The prose is muscular, with the clarity and elegance of a natural stylist. When I first met Nieson in 1994, I read one of his worksheets in a non-fiction writing seminar. The subject was the schoolhouse and the land around it. I was reminded of one of Hemingway’s best works, “Big Two-Hearted River.”
For Nieson, his river is a creek — Old Man’s Creek, just a short walk from his one-room schoolhouse. I’d been to Redbird Farm before and taken up the beauty of that part of our rural landscape. It has rolling lands that contain pastures and woods, and is better suited as a sanctuary, an homage to what this land once was, than as a working farm turning out corn or beans for corporate agribusiness.
Nieson’s observations of the plants and animals that live on those lands are full of sharp observation, measured reflection and an attention to detail that amazed me. During my 45 years living in Iowa, I’ve lived in the country and walked in the woods, and now Nieson tells me what I saw.
The story in Schoolhouse begins in fall, as Nieson moves into the empty building — trying to escape his past and the relationship he’d had with an older woman, and trying to make sense of his three years in Venice when his closest friend, Alessandro — who by that time was resettled in San Francisco — was dying of AIDS.
He shows us fall’s splendor as plants, grasses and trees prepare for the cold months. He takes part in a hunt, not as a hunter but as an observer of those who hunt each fall as part of their rural tradition. Without judgment, he witnesses the deaths of two deer, and the aftermath of those deaths. On one level, his description of this ritualized killing has a clinical precision. Underneath the surface of his words are the deeper elements of what it is to be alive.
Nieson visits the State Historical Society and researches the history of the schoolhouse. He talks to one woman in the late stages of her life who tells him what it was like to be taught in such a setting. A second interview is with a man, maybe two decades older than him, who was among the last batch of students in the school house. In these moments, the book becomes a primer on how early Iowans received their basic education.
As fall turns to winter, Nieson is taught how to use a chainsaw by the son of the land’s owner. He then borrows the saw and cuts what he hopes will be enough wood to get him through what turns out to be a bitterly cold and snowy winter season.
He mentions his classes at the Writers’ Workshop, at one point taking offense when a fellow student criticizes his fiction story, saying he was absent from the narrative. A perceptive reader might wonder, after reading his book, if perhaps he was absent, and that his time throughout this narrative is a form of flight from issues he cannot control.
One of the most compelling chapters describes how one night, returning from a local bistro, he discovers a Great Horned Owl dead alongside the road. He puts the night hunter in the trunk of his car, and keeps it on ice until he finds time to study the bird.
He survives the winter holidays and then visits family in New York. He talks to his sister and his mother, he spends time with the sister’s children and, when he leaves, instead of flying back to Iowa immediately, he returns to the places he lived during his childhood, and visits many of the more sophisticated places where he and his former lover spent their time.
Confronted by wintry isolation, he determines to open up and invite people to the schoolhouse come spring. He becomes friends with a writer known for his love of the outdoors. He meets a dancer named Beth, and begins a relationship with her. And he completes his degree requirements, knowing that come late summer, the farm will be sold to the State’s Department of Natural Resources.
This is where I come in. I was one of the friends to visit him at his schoolhouse. I have been back since — the insides of the schoolhouse have been made into a natural museum of Iowa’s natural beauty: nests, branches, feathers and so many artifacts I can’t mention them all.
Nieson’s relationship with Beth develops, and she challenges him to come out of his shell. Still, he must find some kind of closure, and that comes in Venice, where Alessandro has returned to die.
The intensity of focus on the land and its people are documented in journals that provide the source material for Nieson’s book. He wants to live completely on the land, as part of the land, but that doesn’t allow him to escape the past. It lives in his head and on the pages of his journals, serving as a counterpoint to the celebration of nature that makes this book so compelling. Without that tension, the work could be serialized in National Geographic.
During the last 22 years, Nieson and I have remained friends, and when he returns each year to teach at the Iowa’s Summer Writing Program, we spend time together, filling in the other on how our lives have gone so far.
Nieson dedicates Schoolhouse to one of his writing professors, James Alan McPherson, who died this past summer. I became close to McPherson over the last two decades, and Nieson and I would visit him at his home on Rundell Street.
When Nieson realized Schoolhouse would be published, he came with me to see McPherson, and had the opportunity to read to him the passage where they visited at the schoolhouse, and McPherson encouraged him to turn his experiences into writing. I felt honored to be there, with two men whose friendship I hold dear.