The Sea Beneath Our Feet
There are landscapes inside us, memories made of dust, fog, water, grit, and haze. We are shaped by our landscape and it is shaped by us. Our memories live in the soil, some buried so deeply we forgot we planted them.
The Sea Beneath Our Feet is a project commissioned by the Des Moines Metro Opera, a photographic interpretation of their 2022 world-premiere opera A Thousand Acres, based on Jane Smiley’s novel. These photographs reflect on the women of the story and the Iowa farm where they grow up, live, and move away from. Three sisters are set to inherit their father’s land, a family legacy acquired over time by perseverance and opportunity. This thousand acres is a place where you look out for your neighbors, but also take advantage of their misfortune. This inheritance comes with expectations, dark truths, and regret. My photographs consider the sisters through the Iowa landscape and ask the viewer to contemplate its past, present, and future.
Great forces from glacial drifts created Iowa’s landscape of flat plains, rolling hills, big rivers, and numerous bogs and marshes. Over the course of millennia, a thick spongey mat of deep roots, mycorrhizae, and nutrient-dense earth was formed. Through the heavy labor of early settlers aided by the steel plow, this land was quickly transformed, the prairie tilled and the marshes drained, to allow for rows of cropland and pasture for livestock. The push and pull between what this land was, is, and could be has endured since the first plow busted through the sod. What kind of stewards do we choose to be? What are the consequences of our exploitations?
The Cook farm is a place of order, hard work, and unromantic notions. Farm roles are delineated by gender, and daughters are expected to mind their father, regardless of their adulthood. Ownership of the family farm provides the sisters with control and the potential for choices they did not previously have. Each of these women must reckon with the consequences of her own choices and the choices made for her by others. The shift in each woman’s mindset evolves with the seasons. Spring’s sowing of hope and doubt advances into the fast growth and wild storms of summer. Autumn’s harvest warrants the time to assess and reflect, to put up and put away for winter. What can we learn from the past? What can we become?
Water and ancient seeds remain deep in the soil. The land remembers what it was and what it could be, if given the chance. When things fall apart, the land knows how to become what it desires to be. Ginny, the eldest daughter and narrator of Jane Smiley’s novel reflects: “I was always aware, I think, of the water in the soil, ...endlessly working and flowing, a river sometimes, a lake sometimes.... Prairie settlers always saw a sea or an ocean of grass, could never think of any other metaphor, since most of them had lately seen the Atlantic.... The grass is gone, now, and the marshes, ‘the big wet prairie,’ but the sea is still beneath our feet, and we walk on it.”