A Decade of Renewal, and a Decade of Loss

Last week I wrote about all we have gained in the last ten years. For all of the dislocations, spills, social strains, and scars on our fabulous landscape, the Bakken oil boom has brought so many benefits to the people of North Dakota that we would be insane to decry it, or to wish it had never happened.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we couldn't have managed things better, paced the development more reasonably, enforced our regulatory protocols more responsibly, and agreed to fight hard to conserve some truly extraordinary public spaces in the badlands and butte country west of the Missouri River.

Today, as I look back over the ten years I have been home, I intend to focus on loss.

During this decade my friend Patti Perry of Marmarth died. She was one of the most extraordinary people I ever met. She was big, outspoken, derisively sarcastic, extremely intelligent, generous, resourceful, and hilarious. She was one of those people you call ornery as a term of highest praise. She had approximately 320 bad hair days per year, but you should have seen her slaughter a hog, milk 400 dairy goats twice a day, drive a gravel truck to Gillette or Durango, knock down a rude drunk in a bar, write a federal grant, testify before Congress, judge a rodeo, or shoot a coyote—all before breakfast. I adored her; she liked me well enough. Once, when I did something really nutty, Patti said, "There are two kinds of stupid: there's stupid, and then there's you!"

I thought she would live forever, in part because she had promised to steal my body at my funeral and then throw me up on a scaffold in a hidden coulee back of Pretty Butte. I did not see her often enough after I moved home, because I thought I was busy and I was certain she was immortal. That is one of the deepest regrets of my life. Whenever I said or did something that struck her as moronic or utterly lacking in common sense, she'd laugh hard, out loud, and say, "You make me craaazy," drawling out the word crazy until you just wanted to go craaawl into a hole. It was one of the most affirming refrains of my life. She was as authentic a person as I have ever met.

Art Link died on June 1, 2010. I cannot say he was my friend, because he was a great man and I am just a North Dakotan, much younger, much less rooted in the land. But I revered Art Link. The son of immigrants, born up in some of the most hardscrabble country on the Great Plains, Art Link went on to be the governor of North Dakota at a critical time in our history. In the early 1970s, when it was quite possible that we would become what he called "an energy sacrifice zone" for the benefit of people elsewhere, he uttered perhaps the wisest words in the history of North Dakota. He said he could not support any economic development that represented a "one time harvest." He said we must have the moral imagination to think beyond the economic possibilities of present moment to the later time "when the landscape is quiet again," and we must have the moral courage to always leave North Dakota better than we found it. Only if our grandchildren can honestly say we did this, "will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources." The ancient Greeks might have called him chthonic—his power and authority came from his profound relationship with the earth.

If leadership is getting people to do the thing they know they need to do, but wouldn't have had the strength to do on their own, then Art Link (1914-2010) was one of the greatest leaders in North Dakota history.

When I moved home ten years ago, my daughter was just 11 years old. She could still find something so funny that she snorted soda through her nose. She still needed to be tucked in then. She lived on macaroni and cheese. She still believed that adults know what they are talking about. She loved to laze about in her jammies. She collected Teddy Bears and she stood in line all night to buy the latest Harry Potter novel. She was—she is—my everything.

I wrote about her often in this column. In fact, one of my principal gratitudes to Ken Rogers, now retired, who invited me to write for the Tribune, is that he gave me the opportunity to chronicle the rituals of her childhood and adolescence, the rites of passage of a small town Great Plains girl: the county fair, the hog that went missing, the agony of Homecoming, the boy who drowned in a grain truck, the first date—all those little dramas of childhood that are so heartbreaking in their temporary intensity. In some sense, my daughter grew up right here on this page.

I don't write much about her anymore because she is not, for now at least, any longer a child of the Great Plains. She says she is going to return to Dakota one of these years, but I will believe it when I see it. We raise them for export. She is the central figure of my life. Thank you for letting me love her out loud on these pages. There are times when I so want to turn back the clock to the era when we could not drive by a miniature golf course without having to turn in, when she memorized her lines for hapless church Christmas pageants, when we swam in every motel swimming pool, when we built blanket forts in the living room. When she said "daddy" in a way that buckled my knees.

My neighborhood was open prairie when I moved in in 2005. Now it is just a nice subdivision. I do not believe in the principle of NIMBY—"not in my back yard." I should have known going in that Bismarck would grow dramatically. Still, I miss my meadowlark (Chanticleer), who returned every year to bring a note of pure beauty to my life, until we bulldozed his habitat and he departed for purer grassland. I hear coyotes only half a dozen times per year now. They were once an almost daily yip and howl of wildness in my life. And I am sorry cattle no longer try to eat my corn from the other side of their pasture fence.

Mostly, I grieve for loss of trust among the good people of North Dakota. I ran out of gas at I-94 milepost 108 (near Glen Ullin) last summer, the first time in forty years. It was 9:45 p.m. on an August evening. I called the nearest gas station, explained my predicament, agreed that it was a damn fool thing to do, and asked for help. The woman who was getting ready to close up flat out refused to help me. "You know," she said, "you sound like an honest enough person and I know you are in a jam, but I don't help nobody anymore, thanks to the changes the oil boom has brought to North Dakota."

There is a North Dakota that is disappearing—the old ethnicities are being washed into homogeneity, my mother locks her door now every time, and our heritage of rural stoicism and strength is becoming the stuff of nostalgia.

"Bird's-eye view of Bismarck, D.T." From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.