“As when I was a child, I want to remain in the open, becoming something other than human under the sky. (178)”–Kathleen Norris, Dakota
Returning to Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography almost three decades after it was written, I tried to decide what made it so powerful for me when I was a young clergy person in a rural place and why it remains so powerful for me now as an older clergy person in a rural place. It could have not worked at all—this hodgepodge collection of, mostly, previously published pieces about Norris’s life on the western Dakota Plains. She visits monasteries, mulls over small town life and small town churches, reflects on teaching poetry on the prairie, and submits a year’s worth of weather reports on the state of the sky and land.
What she’s really doing throughout, however, is marveling at how a place can form us, at how time can be experienced as holy. “Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon,” she says, “what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.” (157)
Norris seems prescient in noting the potential for Dakota life to turn sour. She is attuned as much to the harshness of the land and the people as to their beauty. While it may seem that the solitude of the Plains would be ideal for a poet and her writer spouse, it takes a special kind of patience and vision to appreciate its virtues. “Like those monks, I made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste. Like them, I had to stay in this place, like a scarecrow in a field, and hope for the brains to see its beauty.” (3)
But all around her there is the narrative of despair—failing farms, failing towns, failing churches, failing. And while the depopulation is evident, some of the scarring comes from far beyond. “We’re addicted to growth in America, and those figures [statistics] look like failure.” (36) Especially for a pioneering people who breathed deeply of the myth of self-sufficiency.
Now the outside world, and the change it threatens, can curdle the story Dakotans tell. Long before Q Anon, Norris was seeing “conspiracy theories as the refuge of those who have lost their natural curiosity and ability to cope with change.” (53) The lines between insiders and outsiders become clearly drawn.
When even local families can be turned into outsiders and enemies, ministers and other professionals make easy targets. They set themselves up for attack simply by doing their jobs, organizing stress and suicide prevention workshops and support groups for bankrupt farmers. When this happened in Lemmon, some townspeople complained that the ministers were only making things worse with their negative talk. (55)
Norris is covering some of the same ground that Kansas-born sociologist Robert Wuthnow would cover in his studies of rural America in the 2010s. Agency is leaving the Plains and someone has to pay. “Outsiders who leave such a town do so under a cloud: it’s been true of teachers, doctors, and clergy in Lemmon for many years,” Norris says. “Often they are turned into scapegoats by a group that can’t face its own internal differences.” (59)
Norris is not immune to the sense of being neglected or dismissed by the outside world, despite her East Coast education and sojourn in New York. She wonders if she and all her fellow Dakotans might one day lose the land just like the Native Americans who were displaced by the pioneers. “And if it happens, I fear we will meet with the same massive national indifference.” (37)
The demographic challenges are real, but Norris knows that beneath the shallow roots that its inhabitants plant in its soil, Dakota retains ancient wisdom. Norris notes its origins in a great prehistoric sea. She lingers by the clothesline because “hanging up wet clothes gives me time alone under the sky to think, to grieve, and gathering the clean clothes in, smelling the sunlight on them, is victory.” (89) She looks upon the land as an American desert and lives there “without much company, without television, because I am trying to know where on earth I am.” (23)
This is the enduring power of place. It’s why I am drawn to marginal places like the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Great Plains. They are landscapes where you are put in proper perspective. Where silence and wind provide an alternating soundtrack to the wild holiness of the sunset.
Norris’s work holds up well, I think because of her attentiveness to what is elemental in the Plains. What endures is tentative, vulnerable, and dying. But even that is a gift.
Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are…For one who has chosen the desert and truly embraced the forsaken ground it is not despair or fear or limitation that dictates how one lives. One finds instead an openness and hope that verges on the wild. (121-2)
That’s what I hunger for.