Of Tawny Grass and the Medora Musical and a Perfect Summer Night

July 14, 2013

The solstice has come and gone. That always trips a little anxiety deep below the surface of my summer joy. We have reached peak light and now we are heading back into the darkness at the rate of three minutes per day. I spent that evening outside. It would be a crime against the light to be inside on 21 June. I don't know what your top five things about North Dakota are, but for me the lingering summer dusk is one of them. Sunset plus two hours of speechless serenity. Yellow followed by gold followed by pink followed by Bloody Mary red followed by charcoal and gray. Each color phase longer and subtler than the last. The pink sometimes wraps itself all the way around the horizon. Now station a thundercloud way, way off on the far western horizon intermittently pulsing with firefly light and you have paradise on earth.

When you sit out on a night like that, it is like a moment out of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

To which I reply, Oh let the summer linger and the light.

On the Fourth of July I went to Medora with my daughter and my mother. My daughter is home in western Kansas for the summer. She is involved in 4-H for the last time as a competitor and she already feels the loss. Ask what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America and you will get a range of answers--from the exquisite Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress to the perfect cubic dining room at his retreat home Poplar Forest in Bedford County, VA. As far as I'm concerned, 4-H may be the epitome of Jefferson's vision of life rural kids learning principles of stewardship, humane care of livestock, household economics, craft, nutrition, rural teamwork, and responsible record-keeping, at the hands of enlightened community volunteers.

We sat through the Medora Fourth of July parade in mid-afternoon smirking, had supper in the hotel, and then went to the Medora Musical with Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 49th consecutive summer in the badlands. Her health issues keep creeping up towards the tipping point, and she just keeps swatting them away with her perpetual youthfulness and lust for life. Her refrain seems to be, I'll let you know when I'm ready! I just want my daughter to be in the presence of such a woman, the most life-affirming person I have ever met. So there I was in the Burning Hills Amphitheater on a fabulous early July evening, with my three favorite women in the world my 18-year-old daughter, my 81-year-old mother, and the ageless Queen.

There were about 1,800 people in the crowd. The singing and the dancing are especially splendid this year. The prestidigitator Bill Sorensen (co-hosting) tells jokes so lame that we guffawed in spite of ourselves. My daughter laughed until she had tears in her eyes. And the principal co-host Emily Walter has such beauty, talent, and stage presence that in my opinion she deserves a much fuller portfolio, in Medora and beyond. Off in the distance Bullion Butte, and the sinuous thread of the sacred Little Missouri River.

The show was moving towards its close. The Burning Hills Singers had danced themselves out. The two North Dakota songs—Come Home to North Dakota, and Always North Dakota-- choked me up, as always, and sent a surge of raw North Dakota pride right into my heart. The finale this year is a beautifully understated patriotic medley. As it began, the most wonderful thing happened. Spontaneously, without cue cards or a barker or an MC, the large crowd just stood up to honor America, born 237 years ago in the pen of our most gifted dreamer Thomas Jefferson. It was everything you could want on the Fourth of July—just retro enough to clear out all the noise of modern life and make you believe again.

Afterwards, Sheila handed out hundreds of ice cream bars out behind her cabin tucked under the bluff at the edge of town, while one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen cascaded down just over our outstretched heads. God Bless America.

On the way home the next day, near Almont, I noticed that the prairie grasses have begun to turn. After a late wet spring, the northern plains are beginning to take on their proper tan and russet look. The moment when the grass turns, mostly green and partly tawny, mostly tawny but still partly green, is my favorite moment of the summer in North Dakota. It's the paling and the graying of the green. That's when I think Ah, I live on the Great Plains of America.

This last Tuesday night I found myself at home alone with no pressing deadline. There had been a quick soaking thunderstorm about four p.m. so I could not work in my much-neglected garden without becoming a human mud ball. I made myself a little dinner of little leftovers and ate it in silence as I read the famous steeplechase scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All my electronics were in the off position, as they say on commercial aircraft. The house was perfectly quiet. I took my book and a glass of cold white wine out onto the deck.

The temperature was perfect, precisely what I would have dialed up if I had a hotline to the great god of meteorology. It was not hot. It was warm and, depending on how the breeze stirred, sometimes a little cool and sometimes a little toasty, but toasty in just the right way. No wind, just a gentle breeze that came and went without any drama, like the steady even breathing of the continent. If it had been ten degrees hotter or the breeze three miles per hour stronger, it would have been just one of those North Dakota summer evenings with a summer wind. That would be just fine, but I would not have lingered outside. But this was an evening so perfect in every way that it made me forget that there is winter on the northern plains. About an hour into my reverie, I remember thinking, If I died at dusk tonight (rather than go in to fetch a jacket), I'd be wholly content. The Oglala warrior Crazy Horse used to ride off to battle saying, Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo, it is a good day to die. That's how I felt Tuesday night, though I am quite happy to be alive and (reverie or no reverie) there are, fortunately, dozens of projects that must be completed before I let myself croak. Still, that feeling that this is what human happiness is, there is nothing that is missing, was exquisite. I miss my daughter sorely, but if she had been with me we'd be chattering and laughing, not drinking in the gentle breeze in a silence so powerful that you hear it, if that makes any sense.

I just lay there just taking in the evening like a human zucchini, letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind the way you see those motes in your eye drift around slowly and disappear. Somewhere in the distance a mother called out lovingly for her children to come in now for the night.

Happiness at its core is such a simple thing.