Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Map of My Kingdom" comes to Chariton

I've met Mary Swander, author, playwright and Iowa poet laureate, only through her books --- starting with "Out of This World: A Journey of Healing," grounded in her life in the midst of Kalona's Amish community. "Parsnips in the Snow" (co-authored with Jane Anne Staw) is around here somewhere, too. Then there's "Land of the Fragile Giants," a collaborative project focused on western Iowa's Loess Hills.

The exciting news is that Swander, also distinguished professor of English at Iowa State University, will bring her new play --- "Map of My Kingdom" --- to Chariton tonight. The performance begins at 7 p.m. at the historic C.B.&Q. Freight House as the first event in this season's Vredenburg Performing Arts Series, sponsored by the Vredenburg Foundation and administered by the Lucas County Arts Council. Tickets at the door will be priced at $15, but season tickets to the Vredenburg series also will be available for $40. The play premiered during July in Hickory Grove Meeting House at Scattergood Friends School.

The performance has been moved from the usual Vredenburg venue --- Johnson Auditorium --- to the Freight House because of its more intimate setting, and also to facilitate the group discussion that will follow. The play will be performed by Madeleine Russell and is directed by Matt Foss.

Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned the play to support the arts in Iowa, of course, but principally to draw attention to the looming and inevitable transfer in ownership of a huge percentage of Iowa farmland that will occur within the next decade or so.

Practical Farmers, organized in 1985 and headquartered in Ames, describes its mission as, "strengthening farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing." In this case, the organization has focused on the information that roughly 56 percent of Iowa's farmland currently is owned by people over 65 years of age; 30 percent by people over 75.

Because of that concentrated ownership, death is poised perhaps more than ever before in Iowa history to trigger enormous changes in the state's economic, cultural and social fabric. The situation is complicated by land values that have multiplied many times during owners' lives, doubling on average between 2007 and 2012.

The cash incentive to liquidate assets and divide the proceeds will mean farmers who have rented land for decades may lose access to it, farmers who share ownership of family land may not be able to afford to buy other heirs out and continue, and beginning farmers will face even more challenges in finding affordable land to purchase or rent. One result is likely to be a considerable decline in the percentage of owner-operated land, now estimated at only 40 percent.

The story is told from the perspective of a fictional lawyer who mediates land disputes --- and I'm guessing that most of us who are products of Iowa farm culture have had some experience with the family conflicts that can develop --- and continue in some cases for lifetimes --- when the time comes to decide what to do with the family farm.

In case you're wondering, the title, "Map of My Kingdom," is an allusion to Shakespeare's King Lear, who descends into madness after dividing his estate between his daughters. One goal of the play is to convince landowners to confront their mortality now and plan wisely for disposition of their land, perhaps avoiding less dramatic but still painful Lear-like situations in their own families.

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