A few summers ago I spent six weeks in North Dakota and Saskatchewan studying the literature of the Great Plains, including the work of Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather. It was a wonderful experience to have so much time to devote to these writers who put their love of the land into their writing. Here is just one poem that came out of that summer.
“That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Willa Cather, gravestone inscription, Jaffrey Center,NH
Her chiseled words gouge readers who edge too close.
But she didn’t linger long among white mountain pines.
Her ink still rents rooms in a scrabbling prairie town.
But she doesn’t haunt lanes humming dance tunes
Her desire scatters in grass, sky, wind, earth, tongues.
But she doesn’t watch pious suns kneel down in canyons.
Today a back door wandered open in a barren farmhouse.
Inside, she fingered cobwebs like strings on a foreign fiddle.
Looking down on a valley scooped out by big sky near Eastend, Saskatchewan.
This photo was taken near Eastend, a tiny town in Saskatchewan, where (on first glance) you might think absolutely nothing of any importance has happened. Here, it feels as if the sky could pick you right up off the land if it felt like it — if it even noticed you were down there.
As small and as off the beaten track Eastend is, it is famous for a few things. Here, the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, known as “Scotty,” was discovered in 1991, and even more bones were unearthed in 2001. While here with a group of teachers, we visited the T. Rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, that’s carved into the side of a hill. Visitors can actually tour the excavation site, participate in fossil digs and see the complete skeleton of a prehistoric mammal called a brontothere.
Of course, the real reason we were in Eastend was to visit the home of Wallace Stegner, an amazing writer who founded Stanford’s creative writing program, and who wrote some of my all-time favorite books, including Angle of Repose. Stegner wrote about his life in Eastend in one of his memoirs, called Wolf Willow. It was interesting to visit the places that Stegner talked about in his book and to consider how a writer like Stegner discovered a love of reading and then of writing in spite of such a sparse and hard-scrabble world. Or did he become a writer because of this experience?
Here is a quote from the book that sticks with me:
“The plain spreads southward, an ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain. It has its remembered textures: winter wheat heavily headed, scoured and shadowed as if schools of fish move in it; spring wheat with its young seed-rows as precise as combings in a boy’s wet hair; gray-brown summer fallow with the weeds disked under; and grass, the marvelous curly prairie wool, tight to the earth’s skin, straining the wind as the wheat does, but in its own way, secretly.”
If you’ve read anything by Stegner, please consider responding to this post below. Thanks!
Another difficult photo topic this week. So I thought of tiny from a different perspective. Last year when I visited Chicago with a group of friends, we took photos at the top of the Hancock Tower. When I looked at the photos tonight, I was surprised to see our reflections in this photo. Thought it offered an interesting comment on “tiny.”
The poem below is tiny, too. It’s about an evening a few years ago, when I went to a concert in Fargo, ND. I had never heard of Ralph Stanley, but I went anyway. He sang the song called “O Death,” which is on the soundtrack of the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
I still remember how haunting the lyrics were as this very old and frail man sang to death, asking for one more year of life. So this is my “tiny” poem dedicated to Ralph Stanley.
Song for the Devil for Ralph Stanley at the Fargo Theater
Your ancient keen
rattles the rafters
as you wind your way
through a plea to Death
for one more year.
You stand alone
on a stage of yellow wood
with fiddle hands folded,
while one beam of light
traps you in white fire.
We hold our breath
in a shadowed balcony
until Death stomps
downstairs and slams
an exit door behind us.
These bison may only be a few years old. But when surrounded by a herd, you feel as if they know what human beings did to their kind just a few generations ago. It’s as if the knowledge of the blood baths is ingrained in their heavy hides.
“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…” — Willa Cather
In a Field of Bison
The small herd of domestic bison
plods away from us, heads swinging,
at the pasture’s far end.
We step carefully, snapping photos,
whispering, hoping for more than this.
Soon one is spooked, and the whole herd,
along with a dozen calves, swings around
to our flank and parades by, snorting,
chuffing and chewing. We pile
in a red pick-up that bumps slowly up
green pasture swells, and idles
at the crest as prairie rises and falls
on all sides of our tight circle
under a cumulus shimmer of blue sky.
I know so little about you,
but our kind has been imprinted
in your blood-soaked soul. You know
who we are, what we have done to you.
The heavy, humped bull, head to the side,
never, ever takes his eyes off us.
New Englanders may think their weather changes by the minute, but I think the Midwest has them beat by a mile. Memories of my childhood include lots of moments just watching the sky change before my eyes. With nothing getting in the way like trees or suburbia, you could see what was ahead of you or what was racing up behind you. Clouds could take so many shapes and colors: green golf-ball shapes that bubbled and black banks of night that inked out the day and white cotton that blanketed the sky. Maybe that’s why the sky still captures me. I always feel its presence when I return for visits because it fills up the spaces so much more there.
This photo was taken in Fargo, ND, in 2004. The city’s tornado sirens had just stopped and I went outside and saw this sky. I found out that a tornado had touched down not far from the university housing where I was staying. I was in North Dakota and Saskatchewan for six weeks that summer and the tornado sirens went off at least four times during my stay. On those wide plains where wind was the only constant, it felt like you had to hold onto the earth with both hands.
Heading Home in a Storm
Jagged rage flicks overhead, grumbles in primeval throat. Maddened cloaks of sea green shroud tunnels of tall corn. Truck headlights skitter over splintered cottonwood sentries.
You look back at rosy sunset,
then grind clutch,
Overlooking a valley where dinosaurs once lived in western Saskatchewan
In the summer of 2004 I spent six weeks in the upper Midwest and Canada studying the literature and history of the Great Plains with 20 other teachers in a National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship program. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. All I knew: I wanted to immerse myself into something I loved — and at the time it was the writing of Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather, Wendell Barry and William Stafford (and still is).
I came away with a renewed appreciation for the stark beauty of the upper Midwest. I learned to respect the immigrants who walked off the edge of their bordered lives into a new nation and a boundless prairie.