This was just one moment on a road trip across miles of prairie. How could anyone find it aimless or repetitive. On this long-ago trip I watched two or three thunderheads and lightning storms take over the humongous sky across the miles. I veered off on gravel roads with signs that pointed to the homes of Lawrence Welk and Willa Cather’s Antonia and Laura Ingalls Wilder. With no one to direct my way or force me to race ahead, I stopped at will. A raw and unsettled feeling breathed new life in me. Maybe this was the moment that changed me forever. After this, I longed for more like this one. To feel the sky reaching out to me, lifting me off the ground. Like riding a roller coaster and falling into the sky.
I took this photo on a highway in North Dakota, when I was driving alone from Fargo, ND, to Pierre, SD. It was a long ride, and I must have gone through at least three rainstorms, complete with strong winds. Finally, the sky cleared as the sun went down. I still remember how it felt like I wasn’t attached to the earth out there — especially later, when I visited Saskatchewan and Alberta. It was as if I could have fallen right into the sky.
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This photo was taken by my Dad in the Badlands of South Dakota in the late 1960s. I was standing near the edge of the platform, looking down into the abyss, and he was above us. We went camping with our cousins who lived in South Dakota on this trip. I remember that it was pretty cold, and we were freezing in the tent. I wish I could remember more about it, but I’m sure it was fun. I’m sure it wasn’t as much fun for my mother, who still had to cook for six kids and a husband on a little camp stove.
I don’t have many photos that work for this week’s photo challenge. It will be interesting to see what others have selected.
On the Edge of the Plains
June 27, 2004, Fargo, N.D.
The highway peters out
to washboard gravel
on the edge of the plains,
where we are invited
to eat bison kabobs
and gooseberry cobbler
and slap mosquitoes
and swap stories.
In soft twilight we listen
to cottonwoods rustle
beyond the rhubarb
and Tom’s voice and guitar
roam through cowboy
tunes as this late June day
on the edge of the plains.
Let this journey take us
where it will.
Tonight I read through the poems I wrote on my trip to North Dakota and Saskatchewan during the summer of 2004. The poem below pays respect to William Stafford, a poet whose writings that I ate, breathed and fell asleep with during those six weeks. The 49th parallel is the border between the U.S. and Canada. My words echo his poem, “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.” It has been almost nine years since I visited this overwhelming space, and it is far away from my home on the Atlantic Ocean, but I can return by walking down these lines of words.
Reading Stafford at the 49th Parallel
This is the voice I carry, lines to wrap round me,
when I float too close to borders of despair.
This is the voice whose hope carves days,
where no hatred ever strays,
and green breath fills my mouth with prayer.
Birds still pilot blue skies unbound
above yellow fields that heave, swell, rise.
Led by you – I bless anew – this pass-through ground
charted by pursuit, desire, waste and greed.
Left behind for young dreamers to seed.
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.
Common Ground Review, Spring/Summer 2008
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.
published in Prairie Winds, Spring 2007