If you drive across Iowa on Highway 20 from east to west the gentle hills of the Mississippi River Valley give way to the open prairie -- hundreds of miles of land ground flat by the ancient march of glaciers an epoch ago. As the glaciers receded they left some of the blackest, most fertile soil in the world. Seen from above a plowed field is so black as to look burnt. Depending on the time of year you'll see miles of corn and soy beans, the first tall and rustling in an omni-present west wind, the second low to the ground and seemingly unmoving except in the strongest wind. An ocean of green in spring and summer; from the yellow green of spring to the deep emerald green of early summer and finally to the grocery bag brown of fall as far as you can see.
There are no trees to speak of, all the trees were taken out to make way for the tide of green and can only be found now surrounding farm houses every few miles as wind breaks and along rivers or creeks. All that breaks the monotony are cell phone towers and small towns. At night the glow of the towns on the horizon looks oddly out of place. From the seat of a car the town are almost always completely hidden by the tall corn. The only clues a town is out there are the exit signs and the sodium lamp glow cast up into the night sky.
A town has a personality. A feeling. A sense of who it is that people feel when they get there. Some towns, train towns, where the depots are closed or gone and the tracks just overgrown projects awaiting the attention of Rails to Trails, seem to slumber. Big, old, tired sleeping things like an old man after Thanksgiving dinner with the football game going in the background.
Some towns seem alive and boisterous. New strip malls spring up where once fields lay empty. Businesses opening that only two years ago no one knew they needed. Another year later ad there are three nail salons in a town that previously had none. Adolescent towns bursting at the seams, out growing themselves like gawky tweens, all elbows and exposed ankles poking out from pants that had fit when summer started.
Dying towns, different from sleepy towns in that there are no replacements for what kept it going before. People leave. Houses all go to rental properties and the businesses are either bulldozed under or change names as owner's dreams whither and die and new ones, small ones, flow in to fill the hole left. Tentative efforts and dreams pour into the wounds, but they're not enough to staunch the flow of life from the town. Big dreams come from big dreamers and somehow big dreamers realize that they will only see their dream grow in more fertile soil, elsewhere and so they leave.
All these towns are made of the dreams of the people in the town. New and old people and dreams. The town is, in macrocosm the sum of the thousands of microcosms of the individual dreams of the people who live there. The town isn't each dream, it's the average of their dreams. Do the people in the town look down or do they look up? Do they look at what's around them or longingly at the horizons? What do they believe is possible? What do they want to believe is possible?
A lot can be told about a town by the dreams of the people in the town. Are the dreams of staying or leaving Are there dreams at all or just the resignation that this is the way it has always been?
Change is possible. Towns can wake up. Dying towns can be revitalized. Thriving, growing towns can be struck down like weeds. Change isn't easy in either case. It isn't easy on the town or the people of the town. It's a leap into the unknown and most leaps into the unknown aren't leaps of faith at all. Most are the result of someone being pushed.