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Spring 2002

Vol. 02 No. 2


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A Letter from Western Norh Dakota

Rural Burt, ND
March 7, 2002.

Dear *******, Thank you for asking me why I live in North Dakota. It's a question I ponder, if you can believe this, more, I suspect, than you. Sometimes it occurs to me dozens of times over a single day, and I hope it hasn't hit you quite that way yet. Some of the answers I've tried on myself now have the blessing of release through your inquiry, so I'll take the opportunity to set a few of the multitude in flight down the right course, if I can, by the writer's trick of grabbing for sparrows to produce from them these words you read.

I'm a writer, teacher, farmer, churchman, and I've sat here too long trying to set their order right. Whatever I decide, no matter what weight I ascribe to each, the order will, I know, offend some. People here are that touchy about what's important. Some offense, however, a writer must be willing to give, or sit paralyzed.

What you can't fool even the foolish about in writing is what you believe. It's difficult enough to move language toward sense under the governance of belief, which causes it to cohere, and without belief (in the most elemental sense) all pages are blank. So every word squeezed into ink and then any strings of them that make sense are pure self-revelation, awkward, embarrassing exposure, as with intimacies under the quilt in speech.

I and my wife (a Dakota locution), Carole, who is a writer and photographer, have four children. We have been married thirty-five years and presently are twenty. Well, some days we believe that. Our first daughter was a child of the sixties, our only for nine years, and had not just the benefits and privileges of an only child but accumulated a sorrow no actual only child has to bear, having that status knocked out from under her. Then a convenient nursemaid for the wild and sometimes mean bunch beneath her.

Why are we here? If I had thought ahead of how to sort this, I doubt if I would say what has occurred to me, because it isn't a conscious thought, I mean, one I recognize as clearly as a Dakotan does a grudge, and so a surprise to me too to say, now, that if there is an overarching characteristic to start sorting my thought-scraps down through as through the sieve of it, it would be: North Dakotans know how to suffer.

So thanks for the question. It has caused some sort of swift reassessment, in order to know where to begin, and the answer, as I say, surprises me. Dakotans know they will suffer if any of the earth's daily attendance on us and the maintenance we give back to it is going to get any better, ever; or else suffer through a stretch of time until it does, as all do with the weather. Most suffer simply from the weight of work put in on the maintenance. Many are farmers, and that's the answer. A farmer is like a poet in the way he wants to see the perfect page, every detail and nuance and fly speck of foreign matter pertaining to the ink and print, even, set down in such unshakable lines Shakespeare would pale: flawless fields facing a cloudless sky.

A farmer is like a poet in the way he wants to see the perfect page, every detail and nuance and fly speck of foreign matter pertaining to the ink and print, even, set down in such unshakable lines Shakespeare would pale: flawless fields facing a cloudless sky.

The problem is you find a dozen details branching from a detail newly discovered (the dilemma of committed gardeners worldwide) and over every season, year after year, no matter how you attend to those details or fix or prop another up yet again, you still have to produce from the earth at just the right time a bumper crop; bumper, yes, or the vision of perfection loses its edge and the farmer his shirt. And by farmer, in a reach of mechanized distance from the gardener, I don't mean only those farmers who raise the truckloads of stuff that go running everywhere in the fall and spring, so that even the natives get restless behind a chugging drudge of a truck of 1950s vintage, with ancient green canvas wallowing over its side-racks as it bleeds a red-gold trail of the pumice of wheat like a dangling afterthought onto the road under your tires.

By "farmer" I mean an inner sense in most Dakotans. This takes on a curious, affirming shape: a hibernating perspicacity that operates three floors below language and allows for rather complicated tasks to be completed at nearly every level across the state without any of the participants speaking a word until the task is done. Dakotans know the multiple mechanics relevant to the physical world that well. And, oh, impatient as a magpie with a claw between a coyote's teeth if you don't!

Do not submit to any farmer's request to help him by assuming the seat in a lead vehicle, truck or tractor, to pull his stuck one out.

Most of us have farmed at least a half section (320 acres) of land for X or more years, and, if family fortunes or fate or government non-interference allowed, most would be back at it right now. Half the people forty and older I know have been waiting twenty years for the chance. They suffer that. And all the women who tend to like to nest spring up in embattled desperation at the thought of losing a family homestead-not in my generation!-and put in full-field-hour days beside their husbands, then return home to do the chores others have the leisure of (if not a day) an evening to resume again near the top of the stack, not to mention the children always cranky lately at your absence.

Women support every venue of daily work in the state with the heroic power of a pine board under a piano caster, and so suffer. You may find places in the U.S. where a woman is appreciated more for being a woman, while at the same time serving as stalwart compadre, but I'm not sure, and I've traveled through all but Alabama and Arkansas in the lower forty-eight. When Dakota men and I mean men allow a woman to have her head to step forward and scout out every emerging development, if not initiating a few, with her generally down-to-earth, intuitive and refracting mind (instead of this encapsulating one), he should be prepared for a doubling of new outlooks on his horizon. Some men turn away in the ageless gesture of too much, yet hope this keeps up. And when it does, they admire her more in that magnetic combination attraction triggers-a way of saying a notable number of women here feel well attended to, thank you.

What we care about is people. That's a rarity you don't find in many areas of the lower forty-eight, except for a few crusty Maine old lobstermen and others of their type commonly seen to be at the fringes of life.

If a husband turns away in anger, hoping to get this under control, just exactly who's doing what, well, here we also have the pattern of self-pity to alcohol to divorce or abuse. All suffer then. Husband, wife, children, all carry midnight slivers like nail clippings from their household dark nights into the community at large. I have been in the halfway house here, if not the doghouse, no joke; a reluctant admission from yet another Dakotan who has sworn off. My wife helped. The equal unattractive side to this stained coin is a statistic I read in a rural magazine two decades ago: an estimated forty percent of farm wives are secret (meaning bottle-hiding or hoarding) alcoholics. The percentage of husbands is probably worse. Villages of five hundred support three bars, and we have our beery brayers, as anywhere, but few fights.

The usual annual rate of homicide is one per year.

From what I've seen over the last dozen years, I would have to retreat from those statistics and say I see a change, including a number of bars closing down. But tied to the top of this positive trend a worse pall perhaps rests-fewer and fewer farms exist for outside interests to wrest from the grieving families who have known no other life for three generations.

Dakotans suffer also the distancing effect of astonishment when they hear, after working like serfs to put part of each meal on most every table in the U.S., that young people from all points of the compass (the more distant, the truer) believe that the source of food is the corner market or deli or the big store in the mall or some such local dispenser of manna-or, in the farthest stretch of their minds, their most stalwart effort to comprehend the concept, warehouses. Dakotans suffer this but do not (as the poet Theodore Roethke says about his grief over the death of animals as a child) suffer excessively. Few adopt the martyr trend. We understand that the source and center of matters is defined differently elsewhere than here. We do watch TV. It merely refracts a sense of our own defining of selfhood, simply defining who we are, with no television shows or films based on us (Fargo is about Minnesota), and no other information about us or our state than the weather. We may carry our defining process into sleepless nights in bed, a craving as for the sweetest of sweets, grinding our teeth on further refined definitions like Eskimo Pies vying after a mellower morsel yet.

Since September all have suffered the capsized Twin Towers, America's Confidence and Security down in a crash; the agonized separation underway in the chalky dawn of that catastrophic dislocation, worse than dreams of the ashy Arctic of the H-bomb; and if we haven't responded other than monetarily, or with our few volunteer firemen, it's because we haven't recovered, either, from the wound that day left across every part of our back road pastureland, even, as we pause in winter stillness, cattle or horses ambling in at the scent of us. We suffer the effects on your families and children, the thousands altogether, appalling, ghastly as we picture ourselves in its midst with our families and children. Here we are in such scattered settlements we take most matters personally.

The jump is you can't form affectionate bonds with multitudes, and when you rub shoulders with thousands in a city of millions day after day, it's difficult to get serious about more than six or seven. Generally we have less than six within one square mile in this quadrant of the state, so our minds range wide among any with whom we have bonds. We care for the fellow in the next county in financial trouble, just as we feel a familial pride when we meet Dakotans elsewhere, in another state or city, New York or Chicago or Phoenix, or even England, Norway, or France. We wave to one another from vehicles in state and, outside its borders, wave at the familiar license plate. North Dakotans still wave.

All this preface to my point; what we care about is people. That's a rarity in most areas of the lower forty-eight, except for a few crusty Maine lobstermen and others of their type commonly seen as at the fringes of life.

Americans seem blinded to others by categorizing conceptualizations; Money, Education, My Cause, Personal Advancement, Church, Body, TV, the laundry list long as a railroad flat. For most of the rest of America, North Dakota, if it exists, is less than fringe: that cold square way high.

I notice (after a break to see what I've said) that I have strayed, but I hope to pick up here tomorrow, as the weather and other demands permit. I've decided to narrow my range of reference further by dividing this into the natural divisions of life here, the seasons.


The season we've entered, finally, in our first week of March, surprising us. Let me say now, Yes, I've driven out the last two days for a look at the worst storm of the winter, just returned from my recent tour and, No, not looking for trouble or material for a book. I have more than enough of both to purge me a dozen times through eternity or drop me with the sizzle of used lard into the other place.

Which is to say that often when we think we know others so well we are able to talk about what they think (as we do here) we don't, and before I continue I feel I should say, as you might hear from the heavy matronly or the adolescent-looking young secretary (it seems there is no in between) at one of our many local church meetings, "It is with a sense of sadness and joy that I give my report."

I mentioned my two excursions, so first let me try to give a sense of the look of things, as if you were in the passenger seat of my Bronco II (the pint-sized Bronco) of early vintage, 1988, which has adopted a kind of rocking wallow from the thousand natural shocks that such are heir to on our gravel roads, and even though you must see it through scrims and streamers coming at you, you can make out the lay of the landscape, as if its sinking rest is so deep the planet has sunk in this spot to absorb it, leaving long planes of space with plates and plateaus raised in regularities, bearer of the weight of the ages; these grainy imperfections seen out your window, up close, furrowed and seamed, red-rock edges giving in gravelly lesions; eroded buttes assuming a primitive harmony with the spread and angularity of the land itself-like the last raised edge of consciousness in one otherwise submerged in sleep. Then color, what we miss in winter! Pastures and open grassland the hue of beef, tan and pale orange, the upper half of every stem so far evading this snowy invasion. Field-wide rows of subtle yellow furze, stubble, its shifting parallelisms pinwheeling away when your eye strikes the lines of planting runs head on, streaks of snow between their furze like comb-tooth partings across a healthy scalp-the white-lavender color snow assumes in tree shadow.

When I'm away from this, though it's in a computer, I see each page in a tight U between the platen and roller of a mechanical typewriter of last century, and the only explanation I can give is my sense that I'm writing out of a distant past, one that most Americans don't get a glimpse of, much less experience.

I've been catching mice, here where I work, one after the other in their winter incursion, and carrying each miniature corpse out in the snow for disposal, dust to dust, thinking no more of it, there are so many. But Native Americans (Indians! as they prefer to be called here) brooded over any death with solemn import, asking forgiveness if they caused it. They, our longest-known residents, were taken note of by French and British trappers, largely, from the 1600s on, moving from Quebec into this region (The Metis of the Red River Valley), recorded in prose by Alexander Henry, visited by Lewis and Clark, painted by the New York lawyer turned portraitist, Catlin, who depicted members of Dakotan tribes as blond and fair-skinned-our Natives admit they have trouble keeping track of all those states down below, in their sovereign view.

The makeup of the state, as presented in the sweeping intuitive way of its most successful businessman and non-expatriate, Harold Schafer, is, "There's a few Icelanders and Dutch and Dane, and some Scotch and Irish, but mostly it's Norwegians and Swedes and Germans and Germans and Germans!" He of course was German. Or half. As my wife is half Norwegian with Brit and other mixes on what used to be called the distaff side, as I'm half German, one quarter mix of Norwegian and Finn, then Brit and other blends on the, well, staff side. The thought of this Nordic strain might cause you, as in the manner of many of our residents, to gulp a gasp of air from slightly parted lips in a downward stream into a Kah deep into the lungs, an O! at the pit of its course, forever kept there, no release of a vocalized Oh except perhaps in an unexpected sneeze.

Seventy percent of our inhabitants are Scandinavian (thus the Kah!) and we seem to have inherited the introspective Nordic spooky look, especially in winter, or it's from watching our display of Northern Lights from fall to spring, even when plowing. We plow or cultivate or plant or harvest all night, or often do. Most here have the Norwegian grip on dimes (pinching pennies, we've calculated, isn't worth the time, and were the first to empty heavy pockets into a plate beside a cash register), so we are often better off than we pretend, or even dress, or are silent about how broke and badly in debt we are, when we are, pride rampant above anger at our nemesis, those who took it all: the bankers.


Planting season. A Dakotan need hear no more. When a natural force such as the wind strikes hard, the Dakotan moves into and against it, when not with it (which can end up knocking you six ways into next Sunday, if afoot), with the emotive motion a few might clinically classify as "crazy," in our frenzied tracking after half the tasks a farmer has to take care of without breaking down (we pray), not only from spring planting to the time of harvest but the many mini modulations of every season of the four on every day times three.

We are possessive of the weather, the IT of our existence, any farmer's only non-defecting ally, plus worst foe. Oh, now that word farmer is going to cause me, or so I feel in the queasy second predating exposure, a confession: only months ago I was reading about a writer and ran through a sentence that mentioned he was a farmer (not Wendell Berry) and the dazed and sneaking thought that crawled into my consciousness was: Bumpkin!

I've worked farms forty years, farmed here for twenty. When you feel the prejudice against yourself and others that American society holds, as certain minorities must, prejudice has doubly hit home. Now I understand, I think-or for the first time thoroughly take in my lesson; I see that (and what could be worse?) I agree! I am proof that prejudice works so well it converts its victims, those discriminated against. That is what is at the root of all the worse in educated humanity, and must be stamped out, along with money-love.

The scroll has been unfolded, seems my tone. Perhaps the reply should be, The Shroud is Intact, but I don't keep up with that kind of theological controversy any more.

Our hundred and sixty acres, or pip-squeak quarter (of a section, 640 acres) is more than enough for a family of six to deal with as we do, and in our twenty-some years here I still see dozens of projects I have yet to undertake, besides being able to do the jobs we know must be done to accomplish what we want, a part of the Dakota syndrome: "Two weeks and seven years behind!" That as we do is the relevant qualifier; our farm is entirely organic, all those acres. Besides, a wood-burning outdoor furnace; and we've installed solar panels and wind generators-enough wind here to run the U.S. into eternity- disgusted we can't get these practical contraptions to work as well as the power industry gets natural resources to do.

The new generation begins where the height of our knowledge left off and all of our daughters, all lovers and trainers of horses, one a rodeo participant and queen three times over, often seem so far in the distance of their sensibilities they have trouble finding words for it.

Organic. Twenty years ago it roused catcalls and beer cans in the mailbox, unheard of, but since then some have seen to the other side. Organic instead of spraying or injecting so much "chemical," as they say here, that some of the state's best soil has been shocked sterile, approximately as productive as white sand, with herbicides and pesticides and chemical fertilizers and hormones flowing around roots to provide growth, as in hydroponics. Some also irrigate. But in our western sector the ground water, arriving in its roll off one half of the Rockies, is too hard or too soft, meaning mineral bound or alkaline, too tea-colored or laced with too much hydrogen sulfide (that sickly sweetish tang of raccoon delight, going-rotten eggs), and can't be used to irrigate.

Our yard is three acres, the garden an acre, and over our first few springs we mowed the whole lawn and planted the garden from edge to edge, then took stock and focus now only on restricted patches, heaping them with compost. I've added lettuce beds near the house for Carole and attached a greenhouse to this building. All of the disenfranchised, demortgagized farmers who have moved to town and taken three jobs, as their wives also do, to pay whatever else they owe to the bank, raise paradisiacal gardens, often in a wordless glance-out-of-the-eye competition with other farmers in town.

We've planted thousands of trees and about half, suffering several droughts, have survived. That look that every elderly farmer knows-the earth replenishing itself in rich new colors across a stretch of healthy landscape-is seldom seen now. Some of Carole's recent photos from our farm catch it. I will include a few, as in a family album, one of those older ones interleaved with cards and notes and letters and pressed flowers. She sees deeper into aspects of the landscape than I do, something coastal or oceanic, which is surely what drew Scandinavians, as I understand in a way I never did before: glimpses of lakes in snow with coastal sunlight gripping surfaces with transforming Western Gold.

Once you work at organic farming, a kind of vision starts rising from the ground within your particular place, and you don't mind so much the tiring labor and tillage-seeing a small patch of the resilient but much-abused planet being helped toward the ultimate green of its re-creation. And once you see that, you can transfer it as comparison or state of perfect repair to other landscapes.

What we are deprived of in winter, color, colour, colors in the suggestive shades of a French impressionist, not the hues of house paint, appear everywhere in spring, and the festive taste of our unpolluted air sends all the senses, especially the sovereign one, smell, into an ecstatic search for every form of life and a graded sorting of the diversity of the actual unexpurgated spectrum. Life of this kind in the U.S. is going out in the fast lane.

Harvest (summer a secret season I decline to examine), and the work of gathering in one's labor. The sharp scent of fall air sometimes tastes richer than in spring, especially as it bends toward freezing. I picture myself a puffing and puttering, chubby, diminutive, mangy and aged version of The Deerslayer, Matty Bumpkin, bustling through this season, the one in which I most like to work-and winter on its way again, snow in October! I don't hunt with the thousands from out of state for pheasant, although occasionally I will walk beside my son carrying a shotgun because he once said with an unguarded look how much it meant to walk with me like this one fall after a harvest, so I do. I've not shot a deer, like many of our neighbors, but have clipped four from inside a car or pickup, a daily hazard in the fall due to the overpopulation (and our speeds), two of them fatally. We made use of both in the four years apart; one for us, one for the dogs.

Herds of antelope roam over this part of the state, one pair familiar in its fall return to our distant alfalfa strip, now seldom seen either, migrating to the county-wide ranges of South Dakota.

Our animals are mostly domestic, horses and dogs, with the companionable presence of horse, like warm shadow, always hovering close. We presently have eight on the place, three or four elsewhere.

I confess I can't keep track as our daughters do, knowing every one in its bloodlines and at every stage of development, forward and back, along with a sense of the milieu the absent ones experience in distant pastures (mostly South Dakota) and barns and stalls and rings and pens and exercise yards. The new generation begins where the height of our knowledge left off and all of our daughters, all lovers and trainers of horses, one a rodeo participant and queen three times over, often seem so far in the distance of their sensibilities they have trouble finding words for it. So it's sometimes difficult for them to be patient with me when I talk about horses. But my vision is complete; my span reaches back to a grandfather who farmed with horses, and all I wanted from the time I was twelve was a few horses on my own place. That wish, at the height of my priorities for many years, has been granted. Perhaps that's why I more and more see in Carole's recent photographs miniature inscapes of those delectable mountains to the most insignificant pilgrim in progress, lit as if in their interiors with the glory of paradise.

I have much more to say but portions of our stories others have no reason to hear. That's where others enter and move the message of Dakota forward with stories of their own, seeming at times (to me, as with your question) like the angelic presences we can almost imagine, when our imaginations aren't self-seeking or jaded, who might be walking beside us in everyday duds like this dude here-to badly imitate my younger daughters.

I see the lacy leaflets of one of the many Russian olives you and I planted, Carole, the cheery shining faces at our small oak table, the first steps we took to reach this place, imagining the leafy green abundance of another state, yet fearing the onward course of one of us or the other. So it happens that the turnabout we still speak of, as we have today, arrived and carried us to North Dakota. As for my affection for you and all of them in this state and what that state is and why it is that we live in it, Shhh.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.