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.
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.
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
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.
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.