Marie Mutsuki Mockett joins a crew of itinerant custom harvesters in the summer of 2016 as they begin their journey to southern Texas to harvest the ripened wheat and then slowly crawl northward to Idaho as the crops mature.
Mockett embeds herself with the reaping team of men and a few women as they load four semi-trucks with their massive half million dollar combines. This memoir is an expansive story of her spiritual, personal, and cultural pilgrimage during a months-long adventure in the heartland. Her recollections of the outing also include reporting what she learned in several captivating, serious discussions of the religion, culture, history and geology of the Great Plains.
The author’s father’s family owned 7000 acres of farmland that spanned the state line between western Nebraska and eastern Colorado. She spent many summers in the country with her grandparents. But her High Plains father and Japanese mother raised her in Carmel, California, and she was educated at Columbia University on the East Coast.
Mockett spent “seventeen years in California, four years of college in New York City, more years of ping-ponging between the East and West coasts.” She grew up with a predisposed attitude that the territory in between the oceans was just flyover country. As a bicoastal resident she had little interest in the farm until she inherited part of it. Then she began a deeper probe into her ancestral roots.
Mockett visits the farm each year during the harvest since she has become a landowner. Eric Wolgemuth, who has rented and farmed her land for 15 years, has become a trusted friend. The two often engage in serious discussions not only about farming issues, but also about critical socio-political-cultural issues facing the U.S.
During one of these dialogs, Eric invites Marie to travel with his harvest crew to learn about “the divide,” as he calls it, between farm and city folks. Marie jumps at the opportunity. Eric, a devout Christian, “told me he wanted to share his America because he feared how little we have come to understand each other,” Marie writes.” “The divide between city and country, once just a crack in the dirt, was now a chasm in which objects, people, grace, and love all fell and disappeared.”
Mockett, “a nonbeliever,” adopts a posture of respectful participation with her crew mates. She attends church with them, buys her first Bible, attempts to operate a combine and shoots a rifle. Her stated reason for tagging along on this annual pilgrimage is that she wants to understand the foundations of conservative politics and religion in middle America. “I want to portray this part of the country as human,” she tells one of the harvesters.
She asks probing questions such as: “Why are our farmers and harvesters, who are conservative Christians, okay with GMO’s [genetically modified organisms], while people in the city, who believe in evolution, are obsessed with organic food?”
The land itself fascinates Mockett. She appreciates the soil and the plants growing together, the animals that roam the land 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 easier here to feel that God exists, and that he inspires awe.” The reader is led through fields of spring wheat, cover crops and no-till acres, to a “house church,” a mega-church and a “fire and brimstone church.” Mockett thoroughly reports details about the middle America she observes.
This talented author brings a unique perspective to her subject as both an insider-landowner and an outsider-observer. She examines her own stereotypes as well as the stereotypes of the farmers. She eventually realizes that aspects of the plains-culture which she thought were out of date—like tractors, fields, and God—are essential.
Wolgemuth very openly answers her questions without becoming defensive. They discuss a wide variety of topics: free will, no-till farming, coyotes, the book of Revelation, among others. By reaching across “the divide” Mockett and Wolgemuth increase their appreciation for each other’s lifestyle. However, Mockett remains a suspect stranger to many of the crewmembers. Their early uneasiness about her presence grows as the summer progresses forcing Mockett to make a choice about staying or leaving.
“American Harvest” is a beautifully written book about the complicated and nuanced history of the United States. It takes on big social, economic and cultural issues in fresh, original, and surprising ways. It is a forbearing and caring book which can help the reader understand the wide gaps in understanding of science, philosophy and spirituality which are the foundation of the intolerance and tension so prevalent in the U.S. today.
Mockett’s insights are especially helpful in explaining the outcome of our last presidential election and can be a resource for both political parties as they prepare for the next one.