The Soybeans

The Soybeans 

By Natalie Helberg

There is a sight in nature that only comes once per year. It exists in the season of fall and it doesn’t last for but a few days. I search for this sight every year and yet I haven’t found it as I did so easily one October in the year 1999.

October, 1999, a country road between DeKalb and Shabbona, Illinois….

I was a student at Northern Illinois University, however I was an extremely poor student and I couldn’t afford to live anywhere near the campus. I found a tiny house for rent in the town of Shabbona, Illinois. The population was 601. The rent was cheap, the house was clean and it was a 23 minute drive to NIU.

I traveled to NIU via a two lane road, every day, sometimes several times a day. I enjoyed school but I was having a hard time settling in and figuring out my path. The 23 minute commute that I thought  would be so easy became difficult during the winter and spring storms and the heat in the summer caused me to sweat so profusely during my drive to campus (my car didn’t have A/C) that I was a wet, slimy mess by the time I sat down in class.

In October of 1999 I realized there was no way I could continue my education, my financial aid package couldn’t cover tuition and living expenses. It was with a heavy heart that I drove home from school one afternoon…

The sun was starting to dip beyond the horizon and had that late fall glow that causes it to seem fuzzy around the edges. It wasn’t the bright yellow it is in summer but rather a warm, hazy, gold color that you could practically look at.  As I drove down the same road I took I every day I realized that the soybean fields had changed colors. They were no longer the dark, vibrant green they had been all summer. They now sat in golden clusters along miles of a single Midwestern farm…

The soybeans glowed with this yellow hue, gold in color as the sun moved across the fields. Their leaves were mixed with flecks of yellow that deepened in color as the sun grazed the afternoon sky, my eyes stared, mesmerized by their stunning simplicity. I pulled over and stopped the car and as I sat on the hood of my little green Nissan, I just stared. I had never seen a sight like this before. I tried to place the image in my head. The combination of the yellow, gold and late afternoon sun filled me with hope. The soybeans burned with answers. It was as if they were begging me to listen. They wanted me to see their majesty so I wouldn’t feel so rejected. I was extremely devastated to leave college. The sun bouncing off the gilt and gold yellow of those small, shriveled plants ready for harvest calmed my inner beast. I was angry that I was leaving school, that I didn’t have the money or the gumption to keep fighting it out. I felt like a failure. Those soybeans soothed me that day though, their simple beauty and golden grace kept me going… Their words spoke through their color and tried to tell me that it would somehow work out. I would find another path and make my future successful…but I didn’t… and I would spend the coming years searching for those soybeans…

It has been fifteen years since I set foot in Shabbona, Illinois and I still find myself searching for those soybeans. I see soybeans everywhere. I live in the Midwest; they exist even in the urban landscape I drive to work every day. I can’t find them though. I cannot recreate that golden spell that caught me that day. I’ve tried painting it; I’ve tried photographing other soybean fields. I’ve tried going to fields near me at the right time of year…. Every single October I attempt to feel that glow again and I cannot…

In an amazing accurate and visceral statement, in his essay titled “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau says “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” My mind looks around my neighborhood and I don’t feel anything but the today, the right now. Yet as soon as I travel beyond the lawns and streets, as soon as I come upon an area with nothing but trees, mountains, valleys or open lands and blue sky straight up to nowhere, I feel as if tomorrow exists; as if I have a future to go out and discover.

The soybeans represent my future. I saw them at a crossroads in life, they tamed me from the wild train ride of thoughts that was overwhelming me and they helped ground me. I felt that those soybeans would follow me. I never thought that I would continue to search for them. It never occurred to me that I’d never see them again…

In talking sunsets Thoreau claims: “When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure… it was more glorious still.” This is exactly how I felt upon seeing my soybeans…that I would witness the phenomenon again and again. While it may only happen in the fall it would still happen again and again. This made it truly spectacular in my twenty six year old mind. Soybeans and a golden sunset weren’t impervious to nature, they weren’t like the Aurora borealis, that exists because of a serious of atoms, oxygen, polar winds and in which no two are alike. Soybeans were just soybeans, a food source that grew in the millions through almost every field in mid America. I could drive twenty minutes past Chicago suburbs and see soybeans. 

However, I haven’t seen my soybeans again. I cannot get the right combination of daylight, weather patterns, soybean gold and setting sun to capture that beauty. Is it because of my state of mind? Is it as Ralph Waldo Emerson claims: “In the woods is perpetual youth…There I feel nothing can befall me…which nature cannot repair.” Can I not see the soybeans anymore because the more I need to feel that perpetual youth, that calm of that one October day in nature, the less I actually do?

Or is it possible that my mind refuses to see them? Is my mind blocking the beauty and essences from my soybean fields in 1999 because it is now 2015 and I am no longer an idealistic, youth embarking on a new adventure? I am now an unemployed, mother of one, wife to a husband who is semi-disabled, my own health is mediocre and my prognosis is grim? Youth and hope are long gone and all that is left is my simple will to exist day by day? Do I perpetually block out the golden fields of soybeans that filled me with wonder and hope because I am long past the days when they promised youth, hope and new beginnings?

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