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.
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
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.