Sometimes in North Dakota when we get through winter, there is a puny little mini-spring that lasts a few days or a week, and suddenly—seemingly overnight—it is summer. As we all know, summer doesn’t mean quite the same thing here that it means in other places. There are very few hot or even lovely Memorial Days in North Dakota, and it can be windy, chilly, and grey right up to the end of June. This year we are getting a genuine spring with variable weather and lots of blowsy wind. That makes me happy.
I’ve been recording my observations.
Thursday, March 12—First shirtsleeve day of the year. In mid-March! I walked six miles at 5 p.m. and did not take even a jacket with me. That’s an act of trust this time of year but it worked out. Precisely one week ago, same time, same walk, it was below zero. The low on March 5th was minus 8. The high today plus 72. That’s an 80-degree difference in one week. When I walked the same trail a week ago I wore a parka, mittens, a stocking cap, and a scarf, and seriously thought of turning back after the first mile. My legs were numb.
Friday, March 13—I walked my long walk reading a book. I do this because I love to read and walk, walk and read, but there are vehicles that go by that seem to regard this as either a physical impossibility or a parlor trick. A car bursting with teenage testosterone (six young men celebrating spring) flashed by and a boy shouted “@#XX% freak!” I waved in good humor. But at some point, no matter how absorbing the book, I close it firmly so that I can walk twenty minutes and just drink in the magnificence of the plains. Endless blue skies in every direction.
Monday, March 23—My first meadowlark of the year. I’ve been waiting impatiently. It was five miles south of Bismarck, east of the Missouri River. Ten days ago someone posted on Facebook a meadowlark siting (hearing) in southwestern North Dakota. That evening, I broke an engagement to take my walk in hopes of hearing my first of the year. But no. Normally one sits on the power lines across the road from the trail singing the pure liquid song of the meadowlark--to celebrate life or seek a mate or protect territory, I’m not quite sure. But lustily. I was really disappointed that evening to come home empty-handed. The great meadowlark Chanticleer that used to live in my back yard, and return each year, has decided my neighborhood is a little too domesticated now (I think so too), and sought leaner pastures. I loved that yellow bird, and called back to it with a variety of meadowlark imitations, hoping to start a dialogue. I’ve been able in my life to talk with coyotes, in more or less their language, but never with a meadowlark.
Meadowlark numbers are down throughout the Great Plains. I know it sounds odd, maybe stupid, but my life would be seriously diminished without meadowlarks in it. They bring a kind of grace to our lives. They are a signature species of the Great Plains. They remind us that no matter how civilized we get, how mediated by screens and devices and in-doorsness, we share the planet with a range of wild creatures who are indifferent to our little sad dramas, and live their lives with as little contact with us as possible. There is hope in that.
The same evening I heard my first meadowlark I watched two vees of geese circle over a fallow field east of the Missouri. They were honking to beat the band. The two separate migration teams seemed to be barking at each other in anger. I don’t know if they were competing for the field (it was near dusk), or just somehow Trojan geese versus Greek geese, but it was hard to believe they could need to compete for airspace in one of the planet’s most open skies. Geese seldom fly in perfect vee formation. There are always stragglers madly flapping to catch up to the group, honking a kind of “wait up!” plea. I suppose there are whiners and malingerers among animals just as there are among humans (bipedal animals). I wonder if, once they land for the night, the alpha goose seeks out the losers and pecks them into compliance.
Thursday, March 26—I drove from Bismarck to Bemidji, Minn. Very little snow in central and eastern North Dakota. Unless there are freak soaking rains, the Red River won’t flood this year. I always try to remember to observe the Continental Divide sign between Jamestown and Valley City (1,490 feet), but I usually miss it in my daydreaming. I’ve bestridden many spectacular continental divides in the United States, but for some reason this one really delights me, because it is so improbable. It’s near mile marker 275. On the west side, the James, Missouri, Gulf of Mexico basin—2 feet to the east, the Sheyenne, Red, Hudson’s Bay basin. Sometimes I stop to take a photograph of it, I’m not sure why, because it is always the same photograph—green sign, fence, long green shoulder grass undulating in the wind.
You descend into the Red River Valley (the bed of ancient Lake Agassiz) without thinking about it, and then at some point you marvel at how perfectly flat the terrain has become. If you know what you are looking for you can see a series of beach edge remnants on the west side. But when you push through into Minnesota, the coming out of the Red River Valley is more dramatic than the coming in. Somewhere near Hawley, the land climbs up into wonderful roller coaster undulations. Minnesota’s rolling hill country between Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Fergus Falls, Minn., is among the most picturesque farm country in America. Barns with traditional silos in every direction. Here is true prairie—the meadow lands “between the trees.” And suddenly, somewhere near Park Rapids, birch trees begin to dominate the landscape. It’s all astonishingly beautiful. It’s amazing that the Red River divides two such dramatically different landscapes in such tight proximity. I love North Dakota with all of my heart, but there is no doubt why Minnesotans look down on us as occupants of a treeless, empty, and windswept landscape. Which is what I love most about it.
“Plains” is such an inadequate word. It has hurt our image in the national consciousness. For most people the word evokes emptiness and comparative flatness and a kind of homogeneous dreariness. Even “desert” has better associations in the national consciousness than Great Plains. But, as we say, there ain’t nothing to do about it.
So here comes April. Lewis and Clark experienced their first mosquito of the year on April 9, 1805, just west of Fort Mandan. I haven’t seen a crocus (pasqueflower) yet this year. It’s always a tight window of opportunity to kneel down in the grasslands to revere the most delicate, and I think most beautiful, of Great Plains flowers. If I miss seeing them I always feel that I have lost control of my life, and the glory of the North Dakota year is diminished.
But what I am waiting for most is the first thunderstorm of the year. That magnificent moment is what tells us that summer is not far off.