Great Plains

Summer at Last: Making Hay while the Sun Shines Hard

So the longest day of summer has now come and gone. It may seem a bit morbid, but I feel my annual wave of post-solstice melancholy setting in. The light lingered so long last evening that the western horizon was still aglow when I went to bed at 10:30. As I lay in bed, recounting to myself a very full day, I could almost visualize a gigantic "available light" water slide tied to the top of the summer solstice, with a long slippery slope down down down to the trough of darkness on December 21st. If you accept the analogy, sometime around October 20th the waterslide would start to feel slushy, cold, and ice strewn. And probably by December first, I would be found frozen in place halfway down the slide in some grotesque posture, with an icicle beard and stalactites cascading down towards the dead earth all around me.

I love North Dakota winter, the fiercer and grimmer the better. Bring it on. I will never flee. But I do not much like the dying of the light, the period between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day when I get up in the dark, go to work in the dark, and drive home in the dark.

Once again we have peaked. Each day now, until Christmas, we will lose two minutes of daylight. We must make hay while the sun shines.

The two big thunderstorms of last week were magnificent. I drove around Bismarck on Saturday morning to survey the carnage. It's always sad to see extensive tree damage from a storm, particularly in old Bismarck between Ward Road and 16th Street East. But there is something about the power of nature, when it really chooses to assert itself, that is thrilling and frightening and breathtaking all at the same time.

When the big storms come, I try to get as deep into them as is safe (opinions vary), and to open up every fiber of my body and soul to drink them in, to put myself in a position to feel their power right to the edge of terror. At least three times in my life I have been out in the American West in a gigantic thunderstorm and have been absolutely certain that I was going to die from a direct lightning strike within the next twenty minutes. It is just about the most exhilarating experience I know. I love to lie out on the prairie when one of the big thunderstorms starts to assemble far away on the western horizon. And then to watch it roll slowly in for an hour or more. And to speculate about whether it will build up or fizzle out, whether it will seek me out or veer off to the north or south, whether it will be mostly heat lightning or streak lightning.

At a certain point, I start counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the timpani of thunder. A thousand one, a thousand two… Sound travels a mile in five seconds. Some thunder seems to occur high in the sky, up towards the top of the thunderhead, and some seems to rumble around close to the surface of the earth. I have three favorite thunder sounds. One is the kind of continuous rolling low thunder that sounds like the drum roll at the circus as you wait for the acrobat to plunge down 100 feet into a tiny basin of water. Such thunder can last up to five minutes, with brief pauses. It's like thunder as background music.

The second (there was one the other night) is when the lightning strike is so close that there is no discernible pause between the flash and the repercussion. The sound is not like thunder at all, but a sudden intense explosion, like the violent clap of the hands of a Sci-Fi giant right over your head. That one can make you jump and scamper inside. And the third, by far my favorite, is when the lightning strike is a mile or so away and the roll of thunder builds slowly at first, and you almost wonder if there will be much, and then it builds to a shattering crescendo. At the top of the sound arc, there is a pause, followed by a kind of cosmic tearing sound, as if the very fabric of the sky is being torn apart, or a cosmic zipper were being thrust open. Of all the best sounds of the Great Plains—the breeze in the cottonwoods, the perfect liquid purity of the Meadowlark, the sound of a boot on dried, packed February snow, the owl out at the edge of one's listening horizon, the yip of coyotes not far from camp—the sound of the sky being ripped apart by a thunderstorm is my favorite.

A classical thunderstorm has a leading edge and a trailing edge, with hard rain in the middle. I love the moment when the pre-storm calm starts to give way to the leading edge. The breeze begins to pick up, but before you can appreciate it the hard wind bursts on the scene and everything that is not buttoned down starts to bend or tumble away. I was up at the replica of Fort Mandan years ago during a whopper of a thunderstorm. As if out of nowhere, a calm evening turned into a tempest, and the mighty old cottonwoods alongside the river bent over as if they were wetland reeds not stately old stiff trees. I expected them to snap off from the sheer power of nature, but they "weathered the storm" and shook off the rain as soon as the winds disappeared, like dignified English dowagers after a rude remark.

Can any North Dakotan, any person from an arid or semi-arid climate, resist the smell of fresh rain?

When I was a boy I used to rush out after a thunderstorm to play around the storm drains, barefoot, feeling the power of the little roadside flash flood as I waded against the current. These days, I wander around the house checking the gutters. The loss of wonder as we grow older, and the obsession with property, is one of the saddest facts of life.

How many days per year in North Dakota does nature overwhelm us? A dozen maybe. A few winter blizzards (sometimes with loss of power); one or two or three thunderstorms (occasional loss of power, sometimes with serious hail damage); those ten or so days when the wind is so violent and unrelenting that it rattles your car windows and jangles your nerves and makes you for a moment hate the Great Plains. We have few tornadoes here, so the annual North Dakota storm damage is usually pretty modest. If you live in the Red River Valley or less often the Souris, however, nature can overwhelm in an entirely unromantic way.

The two storms that passed through recently did no damage to my garden. I'm shocked and delighted by the resilience of plant life. Now that the typically cool and moist June is yielding to the long hot reliable glare of July—recreation season in North Dakota!—my corn is growing an inch or two a day, my cucumber plants are exploding with leafage, and my 57 tomatoes are starting to get serious about their destiny.

Summertime. We must squeeze the next ten weeks like the last lemon for our annual outdoor pleasures.

The Death of Ivan Doig Leaves a Vacuum in Plains Writing

I was so sorry to learn that Ivan Doig has died—another great blow to Great Plains literature. First, back in November, Colorado's great Kent Haruf died, the author of Plainsong (1999), and now Doig, who was 75 and living in Seattle. Doug is the author of 16 books, mostly set in central or eastern Montana. People who love all of his work get into arguments about whether his best book is the novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) or This House of Sky, his 1979 memoir.

In each case we will have the consolation of a posthumous book. Haruf's Our Souls at Night is due to be released in May. Doig's Last Bus to Wisdom is due out on August 18. I've pre-ordered them both. Doig and Haruf were two of the giants of Great Plains literature. My plan now is to read all of Doig's books that I have so far overlooked.

Doig had a beautiful, quiet, brooding prose style, understated, but more powerful because he was not straining to capture the Great Plains and Intermountain West in one magnificent paragraph of purple prose. He understood that the kind of people who pioneered the farm country of Montana were strong, rough, sexist, pragmatic; basic in their outlook but with a lot more going on in their souls than they had access to on most days. Drink was the way they coped, or coped when prayer and hard work weren't sufficient, and drink was the magic key that opened the door to all that was dark and unresolved in their lives. In reading Doig you get a sense of what it took to make Montana (or any Great Plains state), and you cannot help wonder if we, the great, great grandchildren of those "giants in the earth" have enough of the right stuff to take things to the next level.

A number of years ago, Doig described his muted but poetic prose style: "My eight or nine published poems," he wrote, "showed me that I lacked a poet's final skill; the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But still wanting to work at stretching the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose—a lyrical language, with what I call a poetry of the vernacular in how my characters speak on the page."

The poetry under the prose. You can hear it in this short passage from Doig: "It came to me more as a whisper of suggestion than the fundamental adage that it is - if this is not biblical, I shall always believe it should be - that all of us need someone who loves us enough to forgive us despite the history." You can feel the melancholy in that, and some resignation. Doig understood that if we concentrated too much on "the history," we'd have to walk away from almost everyone we know, and vice versa.

I remember reading This House of Sky twenty years ago with the shock of recognition that comes when you discover that a major artist is writing about your world. I was living on a farm in Kansas at the time, in a village so tiny that the vast plains just ate you up. When you drove the section line roads or even the asphalt farm to market roads through that country, you almost had an out of body experience, almost could see your pickup from high above, as from a blimp, as it threaded its way on the long straight roads trailing dust through the endless undifferentiated countryside. There was so much sky in every direction, with thunderheads beginning to gather up out on the western horizon, so much flat or gently rolling land, dotted here and there with abandoned farmsteads, and every few miles a broad new ranch style farm house with fifteen cars. That was a perfect setting for reading This House of Sky. Doig's prose is the kind that makes you ache—for all that you have lost, for all that is inevitably lost, for the ways in which humans, no matter how intimate, work at cross purposes and damage each other's lives. You ache too to be in the presence of someone who gets what you get about the strange improbable landscapes of the Great Plains. Someone who loves this place enough to grace it with the incredible discipline (and gift) of a book.

Landscape is always effectively one of the characters in a Doig novel. Montana has that effect. For Colorado's Haruf the sweep of the high plains of eastern Colorado is just the backdrop of special futility in which the dark lives of his characters blunder their way through struggles and bewilderment. Once he has given you Holt, Colorado, (based largely on Yuma, out on the eastern plains), and you have absorbed how little it promises to anyone who grows or turns or washes up there, Haruf concentrates on the sad and bewildered story he needs to tell.

You cannot think about those great writers without feeling sad about the state of North Dakota literature. We have no Doig or Haruf. Our greatest living writer, in my opinion, is Larry Woiwode, but he hasn't written a book for a very long time that attempted to wrestle Dakota life to the ground. His magnum opus, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was devoured when it first appeared in 1975, not only because we all realized that it was a serious book written about us, but that it was also a true work of literature and something more than a just a good regional novel. That has both helped and hurt Beyond the Bedroom Wall. My sense is that it is not read nearly as much as it deserves these days. I like all of Woiwode's more recent work, particularly Acts: A Writer's Reflection on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life (1993), but what I naturally want from so enormous a talent is another run at the Great North Dakota Novel.

Louise Erdrich is our other greatest writer, in my view. I love her work and envy her amazing talent. I think her work carries with it a great moral imperative, that we (she) give voice to the lives and loves and struggles and stories of Native Americans, that what for most North Dakotans remains essentially an "invisible culture" receive the artistic and public attention it deserves. My slight quarrel with Louise Erdrich is that she chooses not to live among us; we need her, to inspire young writers, to testify before the legislature, to speak out on public questions, to block—thanks to her grace and dignity and modesty—cultural setbacks in white-Indian affairs that happen when homogenous cultures forget to look around to see all the other people in the room.

But where are our Ivan Doigs, our Kent Harufs, our Willa Cathers, our Mari Sandozes, our William Kittredges, our James Welches, our Linda Hasselstroms, our Dan O'Briens, our Larry Watsons? I know a number of North Dakota writers and poets, and admire them, but what we need now is our first next major work of North Dakota literature.

Someone who will have the creative horsepower and Great Plains life experience to write a sentence like this, Doig's, "The nature of love is that it catches you off guard, subjects you to rules you have never faced, some of them contradictory."

Farewell to One of the Plains Great Writers, Kent Haruf

While I was out of the country one of the great writers of the Great Plains died. His name was Kent Haruf, born February 24, 1943, in Pueblo, Colorado, the author of the celebrated novel Plainsong (2004). It won several awards, but not all that it deserved. Haruf died in his home in Salida, Colorado, at the age of 71.

I was in Rome when I heard the news—from a journalist friend in Telluride, Colorado, a woman from the Great Plains now "imprisoned" in the mountains of western Colorado, if anyone who lives in Telluride could ever have cause to complain. Our friendship is based on the Great Plains, and we discovered right away that we both love Haruf's work. We had actually been making tentative plans to visit him together, to interview him, converging on Salida from Dakota and from Pueblo, Colorado, her true home. I felt helpless to learn of his death in Rome, a place so profoundly opposite to his fictional plains town Holt, Colorado, that they really don't belong in the same sentence. Holt is all dust and Dairy King, a declining backwater where high school sports are the principal town passion, aside from drinking, adultery, and prunish church ladies.

If I had been in North Dakota when I heard the news, I would have thrown a few things in my car and driven in no hurry the back roads to Belle Fourche or Broadus or Lusk, with his books in the back seat, and I would have checked into a shag carpet motel where they still issue you a diamond-shaped green key with your room number on it. I would have ordered a chicken basket at the drive in (oops, "See U in the Sumr") and had a shot in the "Rustler's Bar." That's how Haruf would have wanted to be honored, by a loopy auto pilgrimage through the empty quarter where his characters struggled to pay their bills, pull calves, find mates, make peace with small town bigotries, and wrestle with a God who dwelt partly out of the Old Testament and partly out among the bluffs and coulees and lone cottonwood trees. I'm still going to do this before we settle into spring.

The plot of Plainsong is less interesting than the feel of its portrait of Great Plains life in those towns that continue to exist now only because they once did, towns that somehow hang on beyond the laws of probability even though the quality of life has long since been dimmed and the mating pool is no bigger than a large punchbowl. Plainsong is about a young woman (a girl) named Victoria, whose single mother throws her out when she gets pregnant. Victoria winds up living with two old bachelor farmers, so unbearably single and set in their basic rhythms that they regard Victoria like a fawn they have rescued from the hay rake or a porcelain doll that might break if you look at it cross-eyed. In the end everyone is damaged precisely as they (and we) knew all along they would be, and life goes on in Holt because it's never going to be otherwise on the high plains "where the rain don't come." 

I met Kent Haruf four or five years ago when I was giving a lecture in Salida. There was a reception after my talk, a picnic, and I was being introduced to one eccentric after the next. Then my host, a glorious redhead in a top hat, said, "This is Kent Haruf. He's a writer." When she said Haruf, I nearly sagged to my knees. I had recently read Plainsong and loved it. In fact, when I finally put it down I wondered if it would be possible to locate the author and strike up a correspondence. Haruf's novels are set in a fictional town in eastern Colorado, but they may as well be the actual towns of Limon, La Junta, Trinidad, or Lamar. I lived just on the other side of the Kansas border from all that wild open dry high plains country when I was first married. Haruf absolutely nailed its windswept dilapidation, the sense that every time folks aspire to climb out of the lowest rung of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, trouble and bleary confusion are sure to follow. Haruf is my kind Great Plains writer. We had an hour of conversation together in Salida, and he offered to read my work and help me in any way he could.

Last June I gave the keynote talk at the annual Willa Cather festival at Red Cloud, Nebraska. Turns out I was a sub. The keynote was supposed to be Kent Haruf, but he was not feeling well enough to make the journey. At the conference I met the photographer Peter Brown, who collaborated with Haruf on a magnificent Great Plains coffee table book called West of Last Chance. It contains some of the best Great Plains photographs I have ever seen. They are not all landscapes and they are not all pretty. Brown has an eye for the townscapes that Haruf writes about—real plains Americans standing in front of barber shops and gas stations, junked vehicles next to deteriorating farm to market asphalt roads, home brew restaurant signs, hail bales painted as the American flag, farmers standing gothically next to grain elevators, a man crouching below a giant mural that imperfectly depicts John Wayne. If you are still looking for a great Christmas book for those who love the Great Plains, you can find discounted copies at West of Last Chance is the Great Plains not as state tourism divisions like to depict us, but the Great Plains as they actually are.

The photos are superb, but it is Kent Haruf's short prose commentaries that I really prize. Here's a bit of one: "We were in Shattuck's Café middle of the morning… it's one of those places where they bring you biscuits and gravy with every breakfast order unless you tell them you don't want any…. I was paying more attention to what the three men at the next table were saying. They had on orange vests, worked for the highway department … and at one point—I can't recall now what had prompted it—one of them said to the other two: 'We may not be the smartest sons of bitches in the world, but we sure can kill weeds.' And I thought to myself: Bud, say no more."

Haruf's long passage on church suppers is one of the greatest short pieces I have ever read. If you email me I will send it to you. I've read it a dozen times now, always out loud, and I burst into tears at a different place every time. I've been in that church basement in five or six locations on the plains, because they are all the same out there everywhere. "And there were a good many church women in the kitchen getting things ready, making coffee and stirring up pitchers of iced tea, and uncovering dishes that people had brought in, and heating things up, and cooling things down, and sticking in serving spoons, and hustling back and forth carrying loaded dishes and platters out to the serving tables… and don't you know when she made something it always tasted as good as it looked."

Haruf's last book Our Souls at Night will be posthumously published in 2015. Meanwhile, I'm re-reading the five previous novels.