As it turns out, the Plains have been essential not only for my own growth as a writer, they have formed me spiritually. I would even say they have made me a human being.—Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (11)
Kathleen Norris’s now-classic Dakota became a touchstone for me when I read it 25 years ago. She managed to capture something I had felt without knowing it—a sense of the way landscape writes itself into our souls, or, as the quote above suggests, the way that it forms us into human beings.
That’s a theologically-loaded assertion. For Christians, (and Norris is one), becoming human is a matter of finding ourselves within Christ, the one true human. We become incarnate in this world by discovering the meaning of the Incarnation. So if Norris holds to this, she is saying that Christ is found even, and powerfully, in the wilderness of western Dakota, and that paying attention to the place has drawn her closer to who God made her to be.
Many of us don’t give a second thought to the Plains or the Dakotas, or if we do we denigrate the whole region as flyover country. We see its continuing depopulation and wonder why anyone would linger there. But my own soul has been sung to on the prairies, a place sometimes called our vast inland sea, which it once was. Norris hears the song, too, and approvingly quotes the 4th-century bishop Hilary who wrote, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.”
David Anderson doesn’t take a theological lens to the Plains in his 2014 memoir, An Urn of Native Soil, but he does know the power of a place. The retired University of Texas law professor looks back on his childhood in western Nebraska and wonders at its lingering hold on him, long after he has decamped to places like Harvard and Austin. The son of a cattleman who worked his way up from a hired hand, Anderson is grateful for what he carries from the small towns of Union and Maywood where he grew up. He quotes a 1920s poem by Malcolm Cowley that gives the book its name: “Cowley was right: we carry each of us an urn of native soil, ‘cool and sweet enough to sink the nostrils in, and find the smell of home…’” (200)
As permanent as those memories remain within him, Anderson has enough of a long view to know that the 1940s and 50s landscape he knew as a child was never going to last. ‘Settlement’ was always going to be a tenuous thing, built unsteadily on the foundation of homesteading, price supports, and a quickly-depleting underground aquifer. Anglo farmers who once populated these small towns would eventually move to larger places, recognizing a wisdom the original inhabitants of the land had:
They harvested bounty, but they made their permanent settlements in more hospitable locales. Living in town off the proceeds of the land isn’t life on the land. If settlement means physical occupation by people who live on the land and settled communities, that has pretty much ended. It lasted less than a hundred years. (209)
But before observing its passing, Anderson captures his childhood home with vivid stories and images. There are migrating birds and ferocious winds. “In winter everything on the plains tries to move south,” he says. “Paintings and photographs of the plains are always vaguely unsatisfying because they can’t capture this ceaseless motion.” (8)
There is the one room school house which fostered “the interscholastic horse-turd fight, pristine love in the alfalfa, and adapting the elegant geometry of Bud Wilkinson’s split-T formation to a three-boy, three-girl football team.” (13) And along with the happy memories there are uncomfortable realities like the ever-present flies and manure of a working farm. “I first learned to distrust Hollywood because of its inability to deal with these truths,” Anderson says. (26)
Anderson is at his best capturing the world through his 10-year-old eyes, relating the wonder of horses and cowboy life. He is taken by the nomadic life of Norm and Rufus, two itinerant farm hands who came around each harvest time to help pick corn, taking up residence in a makeshift trailer house. “It was crowded, cozy, and always too warm; men who work in the cold all day never get too much heat. It smelled of propane heat, sweat, leather, wet clothes drying, Woolfat, flatulence, and lots of tobacco — stale tobacco, chewing tobacco, and fresh tobacco smoke.” (93) Anderson calls the men his first adult friends.
In the end it all goes away, just like Anderson himself. When the adult author returns with his adult daughter, he has a hard time finding the landmarks of his previous life.
The land I remembered had been a peopled place, farmsteads surrounded by groves of trees, a mailbox and a driveway along the roads every half-mile or so…The land my daughter and I found ourselves in was an empty place. It wasn’t abandoned — far from it. It was intensely farmed, but as if by an unseen race of giants. (198)
He admits to an “intensity of reaction” but doesn’t sink into maudlin lament. He simply recognizes that the late 20th century world had taken the people of the land, himself included, to places that they perhaps never intended to go. And now the place he has preserved so lovingly in his words is “as rich as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex—and as extinct as Atlantis.” (7) “A vanished community exists only in the hearts of those it nurtured or wounded, and is remembered accordingly.” (214)
I’m always going to be a sucker for stories of the places that form us because I believe Kathleen Norris is right. We learn to be human by putting ourselves in the proper perspective to our environment. And that ecology contains a richness that is Divine, something always at the tip of our fingers and on the tip of our tongue, which we capture in such brief moments of lucidity.