Smell of the Heartland

Smell of the Heartland
Photo by Pete Nuij / Unsplash

Dear Literati,
Where I live is flanked on all sides by acres of corn and soy, and somewhere on the nearby plain are hog farms. When farmers spread the manure, or when the wind rushes from the plan, or when the snow melts and soups the ground to fine black goo, the air smells of shit. After a few years of living here, you still notice it and ask yourself how you've reached a new level in the game of life where the smell of shit out the door and blowing in from the windows is merely morning in the Heartland, not something to be pained through. I guess the smell of pig shit and chicken shit on the land here at least gives the sense that things are the way they should be when you know that that shit feeds the ground that feeds the corn and makes this whole farm thing work. Well, that and subsidies from the government. (Some would uncharitably describe them as government-supported handouts).

And unlike the smell of someone's piss and shit in a city alley, or the smell of a paper mill, or the smell of tires and car exhaust, I suppose the smell of farm shit isn't remarkable.

Today, though, I was walking by some dumpsters while scurrying through a clandestine side entrance of my school (I sometimes pretend to take alternative routes to my office since you never know what person you may encounter: a failing student, a person you owe paperwork or cash to), when I smelled the wretched smell of garbage from a pair of dumpsters. Blended with the reek of the land, it was purely revolting. Maybe someone threw some roadkill or rotting milk into the dumpster. But out of it, rusting up its green metal side, with what looked like half a melted stick of string cheese, was a large gray-backed squirrel. It eyed me, staying very still. I hoped it was shamed. But once it saw that I was merely appalled, it did one of those cute flicks of its tail and bounded to a tree to eat and maintain its sentry over the university lawn.

I've heard of people praising the squirrel's cuteness and how it's merely a rat with a furry tail. Once, when I was in college, the Squirrels placed third as a write-in candidate for student body president. Online, people film themselves feeding squirrels peanuts pinched between their fingers. I even remember when I read about how gray squirrels (maybe cousins of this very dumpster diver) had been eliminating Red Squirrels of the UK by eating up their habitat and squatting in their trees.

It's odd to think of multiple kinds of squirrels out dumpster diving each other. It's odder to consider that this squirrel, and for generations before it, only knows dumpsters and life among these smells. I can't help but wonder what the 'heartland' smelled like before we spent so much time throwing shit all over it to grow just a few types of plants. I couldn't help but think this wasn't normal.

But what do I do with that? There's some woods nearby my house that hug a creek. I'll go to it and hope that there it smells of something different, something healthy with a fragrance pretty.