EDITOR’S NOTE: Live performances of Mary Swander’s play “Map of My Kingdom” will occur in Iowa and Nebraska between February and May 2019. We’re republishing Richard Oswald’s 2017 review of a video version of the play. The current staging of the play features actor Erica Kuhn. A complete list of the current performance dates and locations appears at the bottom of this article.
When someone has a title like “poet laureate”, we tend to expect a little more of them.
Poet laureate of Iowa, playwright, and distinguished professor Mary Swander has delivered on that promise.
In Swander’s “Map of My Kingdom,” a play commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa, (a group founded in 1985, with the mission of strengthening farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing), tackles the critical issue of land transition.
Like farmers, playwrights rely on a number of people to help them succeed. Assisting Mary in capturing the stories and feelings of passing on the family farm is actress Cora Vander Broek and director Matt Foss, who pilots his pickup truck through a rural barnscape panorama of farm country. Foss opens the play by saying, “The play was created from the actual stories of farmers and families who were navigating the changing landscape of today’s American family farm.”
This is Iowa.
Stories for Map came from mediator and attorney Angela Martin who shared accumulated experiences with farmers of how they handled farm transition. “For most farmers I know, owning land means everything” she is quoted as saying. Swander’s hope is people will watch the video play, think about it, and reflect upon it in a way that will help them with their own transition.
Watching and listening to Cora portray Angela and other characters in “Map of My Kingdom” is entertaining in itself. But as her winsome performance moves ahead I began to recognize members of my family– and my community–not only in her, but in Mary’s words and Angela’s experience as transmitted through her. These are farmers. Not just in Iowa, but across the Midwest, who struggle not only to care for their land and themselves–and their families–but with the sometimes overwhelming burden of really caring ABOUT the land.
Throughout end of life, or end of career, they don’t manage an abrupt halt like a July thunderstorm hail stone hitting the ground. It has to be thought through, managed. It HAS to be, because it’s security, the farm. Parents’ farm. Grandparents’ farm. MY farm.
“Map of my Kingdom is a play about who’s gonna get the farm.” That’s Mary Swanders’ to-the-point description. Matt Foss describes the way the story takes shape: “The agricultural plays we create, we build them so that they could be played and people could either listen to these plays or have their stories heard…They’re performed for 45 minutes, but the majority of our work is sitting and listening.”
Plays like this one have been performed in individual communities for quite a while. But the idea of a video that could reach a larger audience took shape, and “Map of My Kingdom” was recorded for viewing either from a compact disc or digitally, online. (Visit their store for options.)
Scenery is sparse on a bare stage with only a few props, mostly bare light bulbs and banker boxes portraying all the records and papers Angela Martin had gathered over years of conducting her practice. The first story Cora tells is of a granddaughter who had been shocked to learn her grandmother had sold the farm. That’s when she learned how and why her grandmother had gone straight to a neighbor whom she’d known most of his life, Carl, and informed him he was buying her farm. Cora becomes the grandmother, driving a hard but fair bargain but insistent to a reluctant Carl. The deal would be done. The family, city dwellers, took the news hard. The farm had always been there. Of course they never went there much.
But now it was gone.
Next is the story of two brothers, each of whom covet an aging neighbor’s land. Both felt they were entitled to it, and neither wanted to share it with the other. Then one brother went missing. He was found with a bullet wound to his head, his body hidden in a culvert. The other brother was charged and convicted of first degree murder. Both brothers’ farms were sold when their wives were unable to pay their debts and hold the land together.
That leads Cora as Angela to tell another story of kids in a rural school reading King Lear, followed by the modern version, “1000 Acres.”
Angela studied psychology, got a law degree, and went to work doing something no one else had ever done. She debunks what she calls mythological concepts of farming versus the real reasons people farm, and want the farm. Owning land means building on what your parents did for you. It means security in a world of uncertainty. And yet she says “Experts debate this idea all the time” with theories of agrarian DNA.
“It’s all hocus-pocus.”
There are more stories. Stories of a family farm being landlocked by urban development with land prices up to $40,000. That creates more pressure between family members who wants to hold on and those who wants to sell out. In some, land brings out the best. For others, the worst.
For all of us it’s a struggle, beginning to end.
There is no hard rule about how farm families deal with generational transition, illness, financial distress, or failure. There is no solution that works all the time. But as with so many things it is the shared experiences of those who came before that can offer a hint of remedies for what ails us.
And if answers don’t come?
Then there’s at least the chance to be entertained and a little in awe of “Map of My Kingdom.”
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.