Four Hundred Columns and So Very Little Wisdom

Well, folks, this is my 400th column if my calculations are correct. Not that I have a neat stack of printed columns in carefully marked file folders that I could count. If Donald Trump called to say he would give me $500,000 if by midnight tonight I could make an accurate list of every column I have written since 2005 and its title, I'd have to forfeit the prize. It would be a day of considerable shoveling. Fortunately, one of the best internet tools is a site called It enables you to enter two dates and then it instantly calculates how many years, months, weeks, hours, and seconds have passed. Watch. I was born on February 4, 1955. That comes to 58 years, four months, and one day. It merely feels like 93! I call that the "lifechill" effect.

I was not one of those young North Dakotans who couldn’t wait to leave.

I have now been on earth for 511,344 hours. Only 78% of them wasted! 1,840,838,400 seconds. Etc. The site has a range of other fascinating tools—calendars, solar and lunar eclipses, countdown clocks, solstices and equinoxes, distance calculators.

If Thomas Jefferson had had access to he would have regarded himself as the happiest man who ever lived. He had a genuine mania for this sort of information. It made him feel that life on earth could be negotiated rationally. (This is surely the triumph of hope over human experience). More to the point, it made him believe that he could control life rather than be controlled by its vast subterranean forces, the percolating chaos just below the surface of consciousness.

So 400 columns. Here's another way to look at it. I won't tell you what I'm paid, because I love writing this column more than anything else I have ever done and money is not the issue, but I believe "lightly compensated" would be the correct technical phrase. In 400 columns I have written approximately 484,000 words. By my reckoning, that comes to about 4.2 cents per word. So it really is true that talk is cheap. Given the nature of my professional career, I'm in the paradoxical position of being better paid for the words that come out of my mouth than the ones that come out of my pen.

But I don't mind a bit.

I'm a little perplexed by life right now, uncertain of how to negotiate the future. I came back to North Dakota because it is the place I love most of all the places in the world. It is the place I have never been able to get out of my system. No matter where I have traveled or where I have lived I have thought of myself as a child of the Great Plains, and it has never once been an embarrassment to me. But I would not change my birthright to be a Kansan or a Nebraskan for all the world. Sometimes people I meet blanch when I say I'm from North Dakota, as if I were revealing a thing that would have to be overcome. But that which I value in me, that which I value in life, comes alive when I see East and West Rainy Butte south of Dickinson or Sentinel Butte west of Medora. My deepest joys in life have been hiking in improbable places that are ignored by those who need Aspen or Glacier National Park to feel the sublime. I'd rather watch a cluster of pronghorn antelope race over the ridge than have perfect seats for Hamlet in London or spend an evening listening to Yo Yo Ma with half a dozen of my closest friends, and believe me I would rather do those things than almost anything I can imagine. For me the sublime is in the caress of the wind in the cottonwoods as dusk approaches, and I would run all the rivers of the world into a concrete cistern before I would fall out of love with the Little Missouri River. If God said, "Tonight is the last night of your life, spend it where your heart lives," I would lie out under a patch of rangy cottonwoods north of Marmarth next to the sacred river trying to fathom the stars; and later in the evening God would deliver up the best thunderstorm of my life for my curtain call."

Sometimes people I meet blanch when I say I’m from North Dakota, as if I were revealing a thing that would have to be overcome.

I was not one of those young North Dakotans who couldn't wait to leave. When I have lived elsewhere I have felt uprooted and lost. One of my favorite Greek myths is about Antaeus, the half-giant who was invincible as long as he had his feet firmly planted on the ground. Hercules was able to defeat him only when he figured out how to lift Antaeus off of his feet. I find it impossible to contemplate the idea of "home" anywhere but in North Dakota.

There are plenty of places with better restaurants than North Dakota, with more cultural amenities, better bookstores, museums, galleries, boutiques. There are plenty of places with more diversity, a wider spectrum of political and social engagement and possibility, more lifestyle opportunities for young people, more tolerance for that which is eccentric. There are plenty of places with more distinguished architecture—with fountains, statues, memorials, parks, historic sites. All those things matter greatly to me, but they are not enough to balance the joy of driving on a gravel road into a place where the prairie grasses carpet the earth and the sky is so vast that you feel like an ant or a Lilliputian swallowed up by the boundless face of the earth—and far off in the distance is a muted blue box butte beckoning you to return to the romance of life. It is here, Roosevelt said, "that the romance of my life began."

And now that North Dakota that I love with everything that I have in me—the Endless Empty left alone by the main traffic lanes of life—is shattered. I know there is no compelling reason to say no to the economic miracle that has been visited upon us like a spaceship from a far galaxy, and even if we wanted to say no it is no longer clear that we have the capacity to stop it. So I find myself asking, what is the meaning of my life?

If God said, “You have to vote yes or no on the carbon boom, there can be no middle ground,” I would swallow hard and vote yes.

Every time I express even muted anxiety in the face of the tsunami of change that is redefining what I thought was North Dakota—undisciplined growth, social strain, the industrialization of our sacred landscape, the monetization of an agrarian civilization—the blowback is overwhelming. Yet if God said, "You have to vote yes or no on the carbon boom, there can be no middle ground," I would swallow hard and vote yes. But my heart has been breaking in a kind of silent slow motion for several years.

And I do think there is a middle ground.

I want to thank you for reading my words. You have no idea how much that matters to me. If I am given the honor and privilege of writing 400 more columns, I am going to tell the truth as my limited capacities and perspective allow me to see it, as carefully and respectfully and playfully as I can. But I'd rather write about rhubarb and Rhame than wastewater management.

Now I'm up to 511,347 hours.