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PAPERWORK: Roots can grow deep, but how deep?

Lonny Cain
Lonny Cain

There’s talk of moving someday.

I’ve moved a lot in my life. A lot. But this is different.

And maybe difficult.

All the moving I’ve done so far has been within Northern Illinois.

None of the monotonous packing and heavy hauling involved a quest for a more scenic view. It was mostly about a new job.

I never escaped the cornfields and was never far from the back roads, the blacktops.

Now … I wonder if I can.

We talk now and then about moving to another state. A drastic change in scenery, no doubt. Some would say more beautiful scenery.

It’s still some years away, but the question already makes me frown a bit.

We’d both be retired by then. The boys would be more settled. We hope. Maybe grandkids.

But this would be like no other move. Likely long distance, several states away.

I suppose there’s logic in all this. Makes sense to be closer to family. They have to follow careers. We no longer would.

If there are health issues, with any of us, then closer is better. 

Still … I look around and feel grounded. Like my feet are anchored … with some kind of natural connection.

Roots. After nearly 70 years they’ve grown deep.

They’ve clawed and gripped. There’s a twisted tangle and knitting below.

Would it keep me from moving? Not sure, but I doubt it.

But I do feel a tug, like a leash, reminding me where I came from. Perhaps where I belong.


Thoughts of moving make me look at the things I’d leave behind.

I always stop at the pine tree in the backyard. Planted, a few inches high, by the youngest son when he was in grade school.

Now it’s huge, of course. This is its home. Dug in against wind and winter.

More roots.

I’m not an Illinois patriot. Sorry. My bond is not with a governmental border.

But I have a kinship with this territory.

Does it need a label? Maybe. Something to describe what would be left behind.

The Midwest. Or better, the prairie … but that stretches over many states.

Maybe it’s not just one word.

It’s hard to look around and whisper prairie.

There’s so much concrete now. And congestion. And noise.

Yet, I don’t have to travel far to find evidence of the prairie that some try so hard to preserve.

The dirt (rich soil) and the tall grasses and oaks and pines.

The arrowheads my dad and I found in cornfields and the hundreds still abandoned by others who live with this land ... not on it.

It’s easy to find cattle and horses fenced in but their numbers cannot compare to the green waves of corn and soybeans.

Everywhere. Corn and soybeans everywhere.

Some say the landscape is boring. And I get that.

But I still find comfort and a little less tension when I am surrounded by fields that produce the annual miracle.


I cruise the sloping and curvy roads through the country and find myself transfixed by leaning barns.

I still admire the royalty of a hawk on the wire and spend too much time studying the fields for deer or coyotes.

I think I would miss that.

We attach ourselves to a place through memories. The ground soaks up our blood, sweat and tears.

We pound it, rip it, mow it and expect it to give back. And it does, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it deserves more respect. Sort of a thank-you.

That’s what environmentalist Aldo Leopold thought — and taught — in his book of essays, “A Sand County Almanac.”

He preached a “land ethic” or more caring relationship between people and nature.

He shared thoughts during a bus ride through Illinois, feeling a sense of sorrow as most on board missed the history rushing by.

“The highway stretches like a taut tape across the corn, oats and clover fields; the bus ticks off the opulent miles; the passengers talk and talk and talk.

“About what? About baseball, taxes, sons-in-law, movies, motors, and funerals, but never about the heaving groundswell of Illinois that washes the windows of the speeding bus.

“Illinois has no genesis, no history, no shoals or deeps, no tides of life and death. To them Illinois is only the sea on which they sail to ports unknown.”

I’m like most, I guess, by seeing more weeds than prairie plants.

We plant some of that natural history, when we can. 

But I still pull thistles. Lots of thistles from my yard.

My wife reminds me, more than once, that you have to pull it all … get the roots.

Roots. Tear out the roots and it dies.

Now I’m thinking ... maybe there is one word for this land I grew up in.

Where the roots hold me steady. Connected to a place.

And jerking them out — all the way out — could be painful.

Because maybe that one word is ... home.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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