A Beauty That is Plain
The Midwestern landscape is abstract, and our response to the geology of the region might be similar to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in museums. We are forced to live in our eye... .- Michael Martone ONCE, when I was describing to a friend from Syracuse, N.Y., a place on the plains that I love, a ridge above a glacial moraine with a 40-mile view, she said, "But what is there to see?" The answer, of course, is nothing. Land, sky, and the ever-changing light. Except for a few signs of human presence - power and telephone lines, an occasional farm building, the glint of a paved road in the distance - it's like looking at the ocean. The landscape of western Dakota is not as abstract as the flats of Kansas, but it presents a similar challenge to the eye that appreciates the vertical definition of mountains or skyscrapers, that defines beauty in terms of the spectacular or the busy - hills, trees, buildings, highways, people. The Dakotas can seem empty by comparison. Here in Perkins County, S.D., the eye learns to appreciate slight variations, the possibilities inherent in emptiness. It sees that the emptiness is full of small things: grasshoppers in their samurai armor clicking and jumping as you pass. This empty land is full of fields that are full of wheat, rye, oats, barley, flax, and alfalfa. Acres of sunflowers brighten the land in early summer, the heads looking up expectantly. By fall they are as droopy as sad children, waiting patiently for the first frost and harvest. There is variety in the emptiness; the most prosaic pasture might contain hundreds of different grasses and wildflowers, along with sage, yucca, chokecherry, buffalo berry, and juniper. The empty land is busy with inhabitants, many of whom may be seen only by getting up close: bullsnakes, rattlers, mice, gophers, moles, prairie dogs, weasels, foxes, badgers, beavers, jack rabbits, cottontails, coyote, antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, grouse, prairie chickens, pheasant, meadowlarks, killdeer, blackbirds, lark buntings, crows, seagulls, owls, hawks, and eagles. This is not a human busyness, however, and along with the largeness of the visible - too much horizon, too much sky - this essential indifference to the human can be unnerving. We had a visitor, a friend from back East who flew into Bismarck, N.D., and started a two-week visit by photographing the highway on the way to Lemmon. "Look how far you can see," he kept exclaiming, trying to capture the whole of it in his camera lens. He seemed relieved to find a few trees in town, in our backyard, and did not relish going back out into open country. One night he called a woman friend from a phone booth on Main Street and asked her to marry him. After less than a week, he decided to get off the plains. He said he liked us, but was never coming back. He and his fiancee broke off the engagement, mutually and amicably, not long after he got home to Boston. The proposal had evidently been a symptom of "plains fever." There is a way in which a person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky. The beauty of the plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance. What seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and exhalted state. The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant that rises and falls beyond melody, beyond reason or human expectation, but perfectly. Not long ago, at a difficult time in my life, I attended a drum ceremony with a native American friend. Men and boys gathered around the sacred drum, and sang a song to bless it. Their singing was high-pitched, repetitive, solemn, and loud. As they approached the song's end, drumming louder and louder, I realized that the music was also restorative; my troubles no longer seemed so burdensome. I wondered how this loud, shrill, and holy music, the indigenous song of those who have truly seen the plains, could be so restful, while the Gregorian chant that I am just learning to sing can be so quiet, and yet as stirring as any drum.
A wedding in the West Sunday morning, 5 a.m. The first gold light touches the tops of trees, and in the muddy parking lot of the bar west of town a bride leans into the window of a car, talking to a couple inside. She holds her veil in her hands. A late-model pickup, louder than it has to be, roars into the lot. Three young men get out, one still in his rented tux. And cowboy hat, of course. A wedding in the West. I've been asked to preach this morning and am thinking about my sermon. Two mule deer, a male and a female, cross the highway just a hundred feet in front of me and run off into a hayfield. The wideness of God's mercy, as the hymn says; the sudden way that grace makes all things good.
Watching the antelope play There are an estimated 5,000 antelope in Perkins County and about 3,900 people. Antelope are like grace notes on the land: small, quick, and fast. When I see a herd jump a fence and run down into a coulee, under cover of chokecherry bushes and cottonwood trees, something stirs in me; I long to go with them. It's like the feeling I used to have when I was a kid playing outside, that I never wanted to go in. I would stay outside and somehow become part of that world; grass, wind, trees, day and night itself. I get that feeling now when I'm in the open, walking in the country around my prairie town. The 360 degrees of unobstructed horizon invites you to keep on walking. The light is continually changing: shadows of cloud move fast on the land, coloring it gunmetal blue; a sudden break in the cloud cover turns a butte chalk-white; a cloudburst in the distance unleashes sheets of rain, and you study it carefully for the telltale white sheen that means hail. A person could stand and watch this changing land and sky forever. Even on very cold days, coming back into a house feels all wrong. It is hard to turn back to the human world of ceiling, walls, and forced-air heating. I know the shock of hitting paved road after riding grass-track roads and walking in the country all day. The rhythm of the tires on the two-lane blacktop says to me: civilization, town, other people, and I don't want that. As when I was a child, I want to remain in the open, becoming something other than human under the sky. Maybe it's our sky that makes us crazy. We can see the weather coming, and we like it that way. Being truly acclimated to the plains, however, means something more. It's the old North Dakota farmer asked by a sociologist why he hasn't planted trees around his farmhouse. No shelterbelt, not even a single shade tree with a swing for his children. "Don't like trees," the farmer said. "They hem you in."