North Dakota

#1329 Laboratories of Democracy

#1329 Laboratories of Democracy

"I am a loyal, proud, cheerleading sort of North Dakotan."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

A listener in Texas admonishes Clay for offering to give up a North Dakota senate seat, and we take questions about the Fourteenth Amendment. Our constitutional discussions continue by reading additional correspondence from listeners.

#1322 Roosevelt and Jefferson

#1322 Roosevelt and Jefferson

"Few people grow in office; few people grow in life. Roosevelt grew in life. He became more interesting, more sensitive, more thoughtful ... [Roosevelt] became more enlightened as time went on."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

Prompted by a listener request, and recognizing the 100th anniversary Theodore Roosevelt’s death, this week Clay Jenkinson discusses the differences, and a few similarities, between Roosevelt and Jefferson.

#1282 The Map

#1282 The Map

We answer listener questions in response to episode #1277 Gerrymandering, and then turn to a discussion about an important discovery of an 1805 Lewis & Clark related map. It was found after being stored for 200 years in a French archive. The map and its background story appear in this month’s issue of We Proceeded On, published by the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

#1203 Benjamin Franklin's Visit

#1203 Benjamin Franklin's Visit

President Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson, is joined in conversation by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is portrayed by GregRobin Smith, a history scholar, author, actor, and educator. Smith was invited to Bismarck by the North Dakota Humanities Council to speak, as Franklin, at the GameChanger Ideas Festival.

#1202 Income Inequality (Live in Fargo, ND)

#1202 Income Inequality (Live in Fargo, ND)

Bill Thomas of Prairie Public Radio is this week’s host of a live performance of the Thomas Jefferson Hour in Fargo North Dakota. Bill speaks to President Jefferson (as portrayed by humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson) about income inequality.

Dakota Access Pipeline

Dakota Access Pipeline

"These people deserve our commiseration. They only wanted to be left alone. They didn't invite Columbus or Henry Hudson or any of the Europeans to come and discover America." 

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

#1201 Religion (Live in Fargo, ND)

#1201 Religion (Live in Fargo, ND)

Bill Thomas of Prairie Public Radio is this week’s host of a live performance of the Thomas Jefferson Hour in Fargo North Dakota. The subject Bill chose to speak with President Jefferson (as portrayed by humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson) is religion.

A Time to Listen, Not to Spout

A Time to Listen, Not to Spout

Events of historic importance are slowly unfolding south of Mandan, North Dakota, near the boundary of another nation state, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest has grown into something much larger and more important for the future of white-Indian relations. As we in the non-Indian community look on, it is essential that we try to shut up and just listen for a change.

The Rebirth of North Dakota After a Near-Death Experience

Ten years have now passed since I moved back to North Dakota. I drove in on Labor Day 2005 with the last of four big U-Haul rigs. I began writing this column for the Bismarck Tribune four weeks later, and I have appeared in this space on Sundays ever since. I'm fond of special anniversaries (the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, the hundredth year of our National Park System). They offer us the opportunity to look backward and forward, to step out of the iron tyranny of the present for a moment or two and engage in some serious reflection. With your permission, for the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to make sense of the last decade. I will try to sum up, if I can find a way.

When I arrived home ten years ago, the great North Dakota agony of outmigration, school and farm consolidation, small towns on life support, and general rural decline was in remission. Things were not at all ok west of the Red River Valley, but the worst of the outmigration crisis of the 80s and 90s was over, and a kind of fragile (and nervous) stability had set in. I remember reading a book then entitled The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains) in which the brilliant historian Dan Flores argues that the Great Plains are a formidable and forbidding place where humans come for a time (wet times usually) and then are eventually driven out by drought, wind, economic marginality, and geographic isolation. Back in 2005 it seemed that we were perhaps living through one of those macro-historic waves of human withdrawal. Something much bigger than human agency was taking place on the Great Plains (in rural America generally), and all we could do was try to adjust to the changing dynamics. 
Officials in my hometown of Dickinson were having emergency meetings then to see if they could find a way to keep the hospital open. A newly arrived hospital CEO told me at dinner at my mother's house that he had been brought to Dickinson "to manage decline." One of my closest friends, also at my mother's dining room table, speculated that the population of North Dakota would continue to spiral down, but perhaps it would find a sustainable plateau at about 500,000. 

That was then.

Thanks to God and Harold Hamm, who saw the possibility of applying emerging technologies to the oil-saturated shale that lies beneath northwestern North Dakota and had the gumption to take the pioneering risk, almost every significant problem in North Dakota life has been solved. Thanks to the Bakken oil boom, North Dakota has finally reached a population of more than 700,000, for the first time in its history. The western towns that were ready to dry up and blow away—Grassy Butte, Killdeer, Stanley, Crosby, Epping, etc.—have staged a startling, almost miraculous, at times overwhelming comeback. Houses that couldn't be sold for $35,000 or even given away in 2001 sold overnight for three, five, even ten times that in 2013. New businesses on main street; coffee kiosks and food trucks in whatever vacant lots remain; whole new subdivisions in towns that had thrown away their infrastructure development manuals; full employment—indeed long lists of unfilled jobs. Towns that would have fought against a highway bypass with fierce defiance back in 1995 now begged for traffic and dust relief. And perhaps best of all, many of the young people who left during the desperate years to find jobs and fulfillment in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, or Spokane, were now returning to spend the rest of their lives where they grew up, among their kin and authentic community.

Meanwhile, the state's coffers are full to bursting. Finally, we are able to pay our K-12 teachers and professors something closer to what they deserve. Centers of excellence have blossomed all over the state, thanks to former Governor John Hoeven. The magnificent new Heritage Center would have been unthinkable before the boom. Property taxes are coming down. The Legacy Fund now exceeds $3 billion. Even at the low oil prices of the last year, when you are pumping 1.2 million barrels per day, the tax revenues pile up like manna from heaven.

When I came home in 2005, the question was how to manage decline. That was the period of the Buffalo Commons, "emptied prairie" trope. Who will be left to turn out the lights? 

Now, just ten years later, the challenge for the people of North Dakota is how to come to terms with unprecedented success and prosperity. I know a few philosophers who believe we North Dakotans are masters of perseverance in hard times, of getting by on little or nothing, squeezing a trickle of life blood out the turnip, finding a way to hold things together—somehow--with some gray tape and hand-me-down overalls. But we are not, these sages say, trained to handle prosperity, because the history of North Dakota has largely been the history of hardship and gumption, of grinding a bare subsistence out of the soil in the face of inhospitable conditions: climate, isolation, and colonial predators. How we choose to manage success, how we invest these gargantuan surpluses, how we choose to imagine what North Dakota might be in an era of unprecedented prosperity and confidence, has become the challenge of the twenty-first century. We're going to need some visionary leadership. We do not at the moment, I believe, have visionary leadership.

Perhaps the single richest conversation I've had in my homecoming years occurred five years ago during the pitchfork fondue on the Tjaden Terrace before the Medora Musical. My dinner partner was John Andrist, then a state senator and the emeritus editor of the Crosby Journal. He continues to write a lovely, lively, and insightful column for a number of North Dakota newspapers. I was asking him whether the social and environmental strains of the oil boom should be regarded as "temporary growing pains" or the "unavoidable cost of industrial extraction."

Senator Andrist put down his fork and gave me a look that mingled annoyance and his characteristic wit. "Look," he said, "I've spent the last thirty years watching my hometown Crosby decline—fewer businesses, our kids leaving and not coming back, empty and even abandoned houses, fewer farms. Every couple of years we formed a new civic group to try to attract new businesses to town and new citizens, yet no matter how hard we tried nothing very positive ever seemed to happen. It's agonizing to watch a community you love die." 
I could see he was deeply moved, and so was I.

He continued, "So now the oil boom has reversed everything, and suddenly Crosby is back. The town is buzzing with new confidence, new hope, new enterprise, new citizens. And the children who left are starting to return, because they really do want to live in North Dakota. Do I wish it were happening a little more gradually, and with less social disruption? Of course. But it would be insane to prefer decline and death to the strain of sudden growth." 

Amen.

Still, if the oil boom has solved many of our problems, it has created some really challenging new ones. How well we address them will determine what sort of place North Dakota will be for our grandchildren. 

But there is no question that the main thing I have observed in the last decade is: renewal.


The Nobility of Voluntary Renunciation of Power

I was really surprised to learn that Governor Jack Dalrymple has determined not to seek another term. And a little saddened. He has presided over North Dakota at the most prosperous and successful moment of its history. I believe he would have been re-elected effortlessly in 2016. He's popular and extremely well respected, well spoken, calm, unassuming, immune to the superficial trappings of power, without vanity or the slightest hunger for grandstanding or self-praise. When you run into him in the capitol, at the grocery store, or at a restaurant, you would not inevitably conclude he is the Governor of North Dakota. There is none of the Rick Perry huff and puff about him, no stern security detail, no glad-handing, and no inflated self-regard.

When a man of power leaves office before he would have to, two really interesting things happen. First, we suddenly remember that these are actual human beings, not just governors, presidents, or senators. We remember that they have families, interests, hobbies, friends, health concerns, personal goals, travel plans, bucket lists, and a growing pile of books they have neglected during their term of office. Whenever I remember that Barack Obama is a father--of two girls—I like him better. Second, it always makes me feel more hopeful about our system of government to realize that there are people, like Jack Dalrymple, for whom power is not the only measure. Paradoxically, the person who voluntarily relinquishes power restores credibility and dignity to the system.

Renunciation of power is always breathtaking. People ache for power. They calculate and coordinate every element of their existence to achieve it. They avoid glittering temptations and distractions to stay on track. Even when they just want to sit with a beer and watch a ball game on television, or have a quiet evening with their spouse and children, they drag themselves to that precinct dinner in some marginal zip code, because generally speaking you cannot achieve power without making it the central purpose of your life. Bill Clinton openly said that he had wanted to be president of the United States since he was 16 years old.

Think of the two dozen 2015-16 aspirants to the presidency, taking all of those oppressive donor calls, telling every audience as much of what they want to hear as possible, flying at dawn day after day after day to stand at a factory door, do four television interviews with "important" local TV anchors, read a book about whimsical goats to third graders at Lincoln Elementary, address the Rotarians of south Sioux City, then whisk off to Pahrump, Nevada, for a "major speech" about trade policy.

All this to achieve power. In the end, someone—some one—will achieve it. And then, for four or eight years, to have the pundits of the Other Network hammer at you every single day, taking everything you say out of context, gripping like a pit bull anything that could possibly be construed to discredit you, searching incessantly for the slightest crack in your private life, replaying the moment when you tripped off the helicopter like a continuous loop, or the one clip (from 10,000 solemn alternatives) of you smirking through the National Anthem. Look at the before and after photographs of any president. That gray and haggard survivor is who you are going to become.

And yet they line up like lemmings to win the prize.

The Founding Fathers understood the intoxication of power, and its danger to republican values, so they created a mythology of renunciation that they borrowed from ancient Rome. All the Founders read Plutarch's Lives (short biographies about ancient Greek and Roman leaders). Jefferson and Adams read them in the original Greek. Everyone else read them in John Dryden's English translation (1683). The most important of Plutarch's Lives, from this perspective, was his biography of Cincinnatus, a fifth-century Roman aristocrat who lived in great simplicity on a farm, was called to public service during a severe war crisis, served brilliantly, saved Rome, and then immediately retired and returned to his modest agrarian life. All of the Founding Fathers had to pretend they admired the example of Cincinnatus, and a few, like Jefferson, genuinely did.

The great American Cincinnatus was George Washington. As soon as the Revolutionary War was won, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. This, one of the greatest moments in the history of America, occurred on December 23, 1783, in Annapolis. There, Washington quietly handed his commission as Commander in Chief to members of the Continental Congress. He had his horse waiting at the door. The next day he left for his farm. There were many things he valued more than power.

If he had been Napoleon or Julius Caesar he would have clung to power at the end of a sword or musket, would have installed himself as dictator for life, and ruled with as much force as necessary until death or a coup d'état. When King George III of England heard that Washington was planning to renounce power and return to private life, he said, "If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.

I was sorry to hear Barack Obama hint recently that he would like to serve a third term as president, if the law permitted it. Bill Clinton loved being president so much that he is said to have slept hardly at all during his last few weeks in office. In Rudyard Kipling's terms, he wanted to "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run," or, to invite the inevitable gag, he sought to squeeze every possible joy out of his last moments in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt loved power so fiercely that he was really never fully happy after March 4, 1909, when he left the presidency.

Jack Dalrymple's path has been comparatively smooth. If he is a man of ambition, it doesn't show. Now he has the satisfaction of knowing that he leaves the state of North Dakota better than he found it. And it was already doing well on December 7, 2010, when he became our 32nd Governor.

Dalrymple's voluntary retirement leaves an open seat in 2016. The automatic advantage of incumbency will not be a factor in the next election. We all have a short list of likely candidates, but no matter who winds up running, the governor's withdrawal provides a great opportunity for the people of North Dakota. What we need now is a serious and sustained statewide conversation about the future. Thanks to the governor's decision, and the downturn in world oil prices, we have a unique opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and assess the revolutionary developments of the last dozen years, to ask ourselves who we have been (1889-2008), who we now are, and who we are becoming; what we value, how we want to manage the future of this amazing state, how we should invest the surpluses and the Legacy Fund; what landscapes and habits of our North Dakota identity we should try to conserve as we move into the second phase of the Bakken Oil era; above all what kind of statewide community we want to sustain or create with all of this unprecedented opportunity and abundance.

Meanwhile, no matter what your politics or party affiliation, I think almost every North Dakotan agrees with Matthew 25:21. "Well done, my good and faithful servant."


A Whiff of What's to Come in the Morning Air

There is no moment quite like that first faint whiff of autumn on a late August morning. I felt it last week, and it filled me simultaneously with sadness and joy.

You can sense the imminence of autumn by the frenetic way people are seeking recreation on our lakes and rivers. I was out on a sandbar on the Missouri River south of Bismarck a few days ago, at what I suppose you would call a pontoon party. To the extent I could still see through the fog of about twenty varieties of brats and beer enough to lift the level of Lake Oahe, I noticed a little edge of anxiety on most of the faces of my companions. You could almost feel the seasonal clock ticking.

The English poet Robert Herrick wrote, "Gather ye rosebuds while you may, Old Time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles today, To-morrow will be dying."

This has been an unusual summer, at least in my experience. Six weeks ago we had those two whopping thunderstorms in short order, both of them assassins of our precious trees. But there have been very few classical thunderstorms this summer, the kind where the massive gray-black thunderhead moves in with stately and unhurried violence from the far west, deepening its fury as it crosses the plains. Such storms seldom bring much rain, but the prolonged light show they provide is one of the three or four most characteristic experiences of Great Plains life. Silly as it may sound, I moved home to North Dakota ten years ago in large part to stand out in thunderstorms, the kind unique to the Great Plains, and also to hear the lucidity of the meadowlark, and to lie out under cottonwoods as they dance to the tune of the autumn breeze.

This summer will be remembered for the Day of the Appalling Wind, July 29, 2015. I've never experienced anything like it in my life. Oh, yes, during a terrible blizzard, or perhaps at the climax of a massive thunderstorm, but this was just plain incredible wind, unending for 36 hours, clocked at up to 70 mph in northwestern North Dakota. It blew down three rows of my corn, not in a single blast, but by way of wearing out the corn structure until the stalks just gave up and lay down to die. That wind set most of my garden back significantly. I almost cried when I surveyed the damage, after the wind broke, and I did think sympathetically of the North Dakota pioneers, our forebears, who actually depended on their crops and gardens to get through the winter in this inhospitable place.

Somehow it always makes me a little sad to see mothers and their children in the big box stores buying school supplies. It's the surest sign of summer's end. It makes me remember going into Green Drug on Main Street in Dickinson with my mother when I was in second or third grade. When I see children grabbing up school supplies in mid-August, I want to cry out, "Too soon. Too soon."

My garden this year is in some respects the best I have ever grown—largely weed-free, thanks to a little help from my friends, and flourishing in biomass. Whether my 50+ tomatoes will redden and bear much edible fruit remains to be seen. I have devoured every cherry tomato thus far straight from the vine. My corn is statuesque—taller than any previous year—and now finally filling. I have five varieties: Mandan purple/black corn, Omaha Indian corn, Jefferson's favorite Monticello corn, and two varieties of the kind you buy from the grocery store rack. My onions, for some reason, have largely dug themselves out of the ground as they grew, so they are smaller than I would like. But I'm awash in cucumbers this year. The entire top half of my refrigerator is now occupied by brining pickles, so tart, some of them, that they make my lips smack.

The owner of the for-the-moment empty land west of my house did me an immense service recently. He cut that prairie for hay. In doing so he either scared off or perhaps shredded my pesky pheasant, who spent last fall devouring virtually my entire corn crop, ear by ear, sometimes merely out of spite. My friend Jim, a master gardener and a master bird hunter, told me earlier this year that my rooster pheasant was the largest he ever encountered. It was the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, living off the fat of the land in my subdivision, smug, cocky, unapologetic, and loud. I have stalked that pheasant like a character out of Caddie Shack, but no matter how many times I have wriggled through my back yard in camo with my assault rifle paint gun, that bird got the best of me. It turns out the answer was not lethal force, but habitat encroachment. Good riddance. I shall have corn aplenty.

My friend Jim loves tomatoes so much that he eats them incessantly—the best BLT sandwich I ever consumed—until he gets his first canker sore from the ten varieties of acid they carry. I know fall is coming the first evening I come home to pluck a couple of tomatoes, an onion, a cucumber, and two ears of corn from the garden, and then eat an entirely fresh meal not fifteen minutes later. And I know it is time for winter when the yellow cornstalks clatter in the crisp afternoon breeze.

The cycles of nature are a mystery. Last year I had almost no crickets, but this year, even this far in advance of the first frost, they are massing around the foundation of my house like the Greek hordes before the walls of Troy. I've had to dispatch four or five of the boldest of these warriors in single combat in my laundry room, and I'm bracing for their full-on assault in a few weeks time. The noise they already make is grating, and I can tell that they are just getting warmed up, like musicians before a symphony concert. However unpleasant crickets are, they are nothing compared to the sluggish flies that somehow gather in our houses after the first freeze. They were out of control in my house last year, I'm not sure why. Unless you spend the day with a flyswatter or an old magazine, wreaking exoskeletal carnage in every room in your house, they are sure to light on your arm or face at the worst possible moments, and again and again.

My favorite days of the year are about make their appearance. I love the period between August 20 (or so) to October 15 (or so) when you wake up deep into the night, chilled to the bone, seeking a comforter, when it is chilly, and perhaps even alarming, when you leave the house in the morning, but 85 or 90 degrees by mid-afternoon. Autumn evenings with a good book, a glass of wine, and a fire pit, when the fire is really necessary, are like paradise on earth. North Dakota does fall better than anywhere I have ever lived.

We cherish autumn with special relish here, because we are all too aware of what must follow.


The Myth of North Dakota History and the Truth About Federal Subsidies

Now that we are rich beyond the dreams of our grandparents, and North Dakota has become one of the most prosperous states in America, we are getting a little cocky in our denunciations of the federal government. Suspicion of outsiders trying to tell us who we are and what we should do has always been deeply woven into the North Dakota character. But until recently, we were so dependent on the national government that we generally toned down our criticism. Things have changed.

It might be useful for us to remember how much and how continuously North Dakota has been made possible by the national government. The national Homestead Act (1862) opened Dakota Territory for settlement. A total of 118,472 homestead claims were filed over the next four decades, encompassing 17,417,466 acres or 39% of the state. North Dakota ranks second only to Nebraska in percentage of acreage homesteaded under federal protocols.

America's transcontinental railroads (including the Northern Pacific) were authorized and massively subsidized by the national government. A quarter of the state was handed over to the railroads (especially the Northern Pacific) to get them to lay track over so empty a landscape.

The national government propped North Dakota up during the Great Depression, through a wide range of programs: the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and rural electrification.

The Rural Electrification Act (1935) brought electricity to some of the most remote corners of America. Probably no other piece of federal legislation had such an impact on the daily rhythms of rural North Dakota life. Rural electrification is a perfect example of why the federal government has been essential in North Dakota history. Depending as it does on profits, market capitalism is not well suited to bringing services to scattered populations, where the cost of running an electrical line may exceed the expected revenues. It took the federal government to get it done.

It was the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 that stabilized the ranches along the Little Missouri, Sheyenne, and Grand Rivers during the Great Depression. The combination of sustained drought and severe national economic depression made it impossible for the great majority of badlands ranches to remain solvent. Under the generous terms of the federal Bankhead-Jones Act, these ranchers were enabled to keep their homesteads, cede the rest of their ranches to the United States government, and then lease the very lands they lost at advantageous rates. What could be more generous than that? Imagine what would have happened if FDR's New Deal had just shrugged its shoulders and "let the market decide" in the grasslands of the American West?

North Dakota has always benefitted economically from the presence of the U.S. military on our soil. In the nineteenth century it was Forts Berthold, Buford, Abercrombie, Totten, Stevenson, and Lincoln. During the Cold War (and continuing to the present) we hosted two massive Strategic Arm Command bases in North Dakota, at Grand Forks and Minot. At the moment, more than 2,500 military personnel are assigned to Grand Forks AFB, and more than 5,500 to Minot AFB. In every round of national base closure initiatives, Grand Forks and Minot lobby Congress to keep these bases open. Why?

The capricious Missouri River was tamed by the federal government. All six mainstem dams on the Missouri were undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using federal tax dollars. This includes the two massive dams that impound waters in North Dakota: Garrison Dam (1953) and Oahe Dam (1962).

Imagine the last seventy years in North Dakota without the support of the U.S. Farm Program.

This is merely the short and obvious list. In countless ways, from the moment Lewis and Clark (federally funded) passed into North Dakota on October 13, 1804, to the new federal highway bill that is making its way through the U.S. Congress as I write, North Dakota has been the beneficiary of U.S. government largess. We are one of the states that receive more federal tax dollars than we send in. In fact, we rank sixth in this regard, behind West Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Even now that we are rich, we still receive $1.68 for every dollar we send to Washington, D.C.

Federal programs: the Women, Infants, and Children health delivery program (WIC). The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA). TSA. National School Lunch Program. Head Start. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA). Food Stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And on and on.

In short, the settlement of North Dakota was made possible by the federal government. We have been propped up by the federal government. We have been rescued in times of great stress by the federal government. We have been protected from real and perceived threats by the federal government. Our natural and human resources have been developed by way of federal subsidies. And we continue to be subsidized by the federal government in countless ways.

In spite of these unmistakable facts, we North Dakotans love to pretend that it is our gumption that has brought us to this great moment in our history, and we love to rail against federal intrusion into the sovereignty of North Dakota.

It would be interesting to create an interactive website or video that—one by one--stripped away federal programs from the "large rectangular blank spot" that has become today's North Dakota. As each program or infrastructural benefit was lifted from the landscape, we could see the loss of dollars, jobs, rural stability, connectedness, comfort, and economic possibility that program has represented in North Dakota history. Would we have electrified ourselves? What would the great flood of 2011 have done to Bismarck and Mandan had there been no Fort Peck and Garrison Dams? Would we have built our own four lane highways in the state? Imagine if we had been passed over by Dwight Eisenhower's federal Interstate Highway Act. What would have become of North Dakotans had there been no New Deal on the Great Plains? At one time during those nightmare years, 70% of North Dakota's 630,000 people were on some form of federal assistance. Thirty thousand people left the state during the Grapes of Wrath period of our history. How many would have picked up and moved on without the rural stabilization of the New Deal? If you took away federal research dollars from our two largest universities, how much would they shrink?

In periods of sustained drought, when our rivers flood our towns and our fields, when tornadoes shatter a community, we turn instinctively to the federal government for help. Imagine the last twenty years of North Dakota life (including 1997) without FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

If you stripped away the cornucopia of the federal encouragements and benefits North Dakota has received since 1862, this would be a very dreary steppe. Surely we would have done some good things on our own. But sit down and do the math and the imagining some Sunday afternoon, and ask yourself just what North Dakota would look like if the federal government had said, "Welcome to statehood. By the way, you will be entirely on your own. Good luck with that. Oh, and start saving your pennies to tame the Missouri River."


Seeking Renewal Among the White Cliffs of the Missouri

The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Herodotus said you can never walk into the same river twice. He was talking about actual rivers, of course, but also something metaphorical much bigger than rivers. All my life I have been drawn to rivers—more than lakes, oceans, seas, or prairie potholes. I love their linearity, their sinuousness, their purposefulness in carrying their silten loads down towards a faraway sea or gulf. As Herodotus understood, a river is an invitation to philosophize, to muse about the not-same person who wades into the not-same river a second time. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? How does it keep recharging itself? Is it possible to find and bestride its source? If you do, what have you accomplished? Since I was last here, who or what have I become?

We are fortunate to have one of the world's great rivers running right through our lives in North Dakota. The Missouri River and its tributaries drain the entire Great Plains before being absorbed by the mighty Mississippi at St. Charles, Missouri. The Missouri was America's first highway to the far west—until replaced by the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century. As he closed in on its source in August 1805, Captain Meriwether Lewis marveled that so extensive a river was navigable so deep into the interior of the continent, more than 2,500 free-flowing miles, he reckoned. Lewis was more accustomed to such rivers as the James, the Potomac, and the Ohio, where the fall lines (waterfalls) cut the river in half and posed a serious impediment to navigation.

Unfortunately, the giant dams between Fort Peck, Montana, and the bottom of South Dakota, have metamorphosed (to use one of Lewis's words) the wild Missouri into a series of tame flat-water reservoirs, whose purpose is flood control, irrigation, power generation; and to support an entirely unnecessary barge industry between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis. Not very sexy. The dark genius of America has been to transform the new world Garden of Eden into an industrial infrastructure designed to provide us security and comfort and profit rather than adventure and romance.

You can pretend you are visiting the old authentic Missouri up at its confluence with the Yellowstone River southwest of Williston; or by floating the 90 or so "free-flowing" miles of the Missouri between the tailrace of Garrison Dam and the Oahe Reservoir slack water just south of Bismarck. But even in those beautiful places you are not encountering the true Missouri, but rather humankind's wing-clipped Missouri Valley water management system. There was a proposal in the last thirty years to rip rap the entire stretch between Garrison Dam and Bismarck, just to make sure that the river could never again jump its banks and redesign its course. Thank goodness that weak-souled plan was never fully implemented.

If you want to see the Missouri in something like its natural state, you have to go to Montana. The stretch between Fort Benton and the backwater of Fort Peck Reservoir (hundreds of river miles) bears a very light industrial footprint. Cattle have replaced the buffalo, and dilapidated shacks have replaced tipis, but otherwise the river looks the way Lewis and Clark left it in August 1806. When you turn your canoe into the stretch of river that runs through the White Cliffs (Meriwether Lewis's "scenes of visionary enchantment") or the Missouri Breaks and badlands, you are suddenly thrust back into a time before we decided that the Missouri River could no longer be trusted to manage its own destiny. For a few stolen days you find yourself floating through Karl Bodmer's America rather than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hydraulic corridor.

I float the White Cliffs every year now, with a couple of dozen fellow travelers. It has a kind of "same time next year" feel, except that I am not the same person as last year (or next), and the river is a different creature every time, too. Three days are not a lot of time in so magnificent a place, but even in so brief an encounter the experience is profoundly restorative. Each year I go kicking and screaming—not enough time, too many projects, too much work to do, my body and soul are unprepared, and what about my garden? And each year I am in some sense born again on the second day out when the accumulated crud in my heart and soul slips away into the river and transforms me into a leaner, clearer, happier, more serene, more alive, more present organism, more in tune with what Jefferson called "Nature and Nature's God."

By now I've canoed the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River southeast of Fort Benton, Montana, a dozen times. We've had thunderstorms and punishing headwinds and days so hot that you wind up dipping your baseball cap ten times per hour just to stay cool enough to continue. There have been many whole afternoons when my canoe mate and I just rest the paddles and drift down the continent, letting the river take us where it listeth, dozing, soaking up the hot Montana sun like human zucchini, gazing from time to time at the stunning sandstone outcroppings and the igneous dikes that thrust themselves up between sandstone formations eons ago and now stand like the ruins of some lost pre-Columbian empire.

At the end of the day, we usually jump out of the canoes in our life jackets and just bob down the river like corks. That's when you feel closest to God and the river god Missouri, and surrender to something much bigger than yourself.

On the last camping night of the journey, I wandered away from the group and found a spot to lie down in underneath a grove of 50 or so lodge pole pines. It was a calm clear night. A very slight breeze wafted through the mountains every few minutes. At ground level the breeze was so slight as to be essentially imperceptible, but up at the top of the trees it created a gentle sway and stir. Lodge pole pines are named from their pencil-like straightness; they were prized by plains Indians for tipi poles. As I took the time to look up at them, I realized that they are almost unbelievably thin, like reeds or tall grass, no more than a foot in diameter, often less, and yet 75-125 feel tall. All praise to the engineer! The subtle dance of the treetops was astonishingly beautiful. It made me ache. About half the trees are now dying from the pine beetle epidemic in the American West. But as I lay there drinking in the pine tree poetry, mesmerized by their grace, I realized that the pine beetles are just doing their job, filling their evolutionary niche, and the trees will come back stronger when that moment comes.

I know this, surely. I will continue to make this odyssey as long as my body holds up—twenty years, I trust—and I will try always to look into the mirror Herodotus holds up before us. We see through the glass darkly, but woe to those who refuse to gaze into the river looking for clues.


Volunteerism in the House that Harold Schafer Built

Last weekend my daughter and I drove out to see the Medora Musical for the first time this summer. It's always pure joy to sit in row G with the incomparable Sheila Schafer, now 90 years old (but going on 60!). When we were there she had already seen the Musical eight times this summer, but you would have thought she had just dropped in from Mars and was experiencing the show, the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and the badlands for the very first time. She laughed at every joke or gag as if she had not heard them repeatedly over the last three weeks. She jumped and clutched her throat when Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders shot their way up San Juan Hill. She cried over a sad country western song and when the patriotism climbed up towards tilt. If anyone could ever genuinely enjoy the Medora Musical more than Sheila Schafer does—and 30-40 times per summer—I have not met that person. 

Meanwhile, she performed her usual a whoopin' and a hollarin' routine from the stands, beginning with her ear-splitting salute, "Hi band!" when the Coal Diggers first appear on stage. People in our vicinity turn their heads to see who is making all the ruckus, but when they recognize that this is the famous Sheila Schafer, widow of the man who transformed the sleepy village of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist attraction, they relax and smile knowingly. Sheila is almost as good a show as the Musical. Throughout the evening, people meander up the stairs nervously and kneel before her to tell her how she and Harold changed their lives some time long, long ago. "You won't remember me," says a woman in her sixties, but Harold put me through NDSU back in 1972, when my parents got a divorce." "You won't remember me, but you sent a gift to me in the hospital when I had that emergency surgery. And yet we had never even met."

She does remember.

Sheila is a living embodiment of the concept of grace. If grace is the love and benefit that come unearned, unexpected, and undeserved in life, when we least expect it, Sheila appears to exist to perform that role in the world. I have seen her write a note of appreciation to someone she has never met or heard of, but who was mentioned in the newspaper for having represented the Hettinger speech team at the national finals. "Congratulations! You've made all of North Dakota proud." Think of the effect of such an unlooked-for act of generosity--particularly in the heart of a young person just starting out in life.

The Harold and Sheila philosophy of life seems to inspire everyone who visits or works in Medora. Perhaps Harold put something in the water supply. He did, after all, build Medora's basic infrastructure in the 1960s. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (the heir to the Gold Seal Company) hosts an astonishing volunteer program, which this year will bring more than 600 people from all over the United States to spend 5-14 days in Medora—at their own expense. More than 1000 people from 23 states vied for the chance to come to Medora this summer to plant flowers, bus tables, sweep sidewalks, greet foursomes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, work at one of the food stations at the Pitchfork Fondue, or hand out programs and point people to their seats at the Musical.

Why do they do volunteer? Because they love Medora and the badlands. Because they love what I call "the House that Harold built." Because they like the mix of innocence, family friendly entertainment, faith, patriotism, and optimism that Medora represents. Because they want to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Because they are the kind of Americans who live to volunteer. Because they love Harold and Sheila Schafer, and all that they stand for. 

Someone close to me had a close encounter with the American medical system recently and was treated like a leper: rudeness, arrogance, dismissiveness, unnecessary pain, how do you intend to pay? But in Harold Schafer's Medora you never hear a rude remark and, if you do, that person will not be working there long. There is something at times a bit retro and corny about the Medora Musical, but that turns out to be one of its greatest charms. In an era of breathtaking change, including here in North Dakota, there is something very comforting in driving off the northern Great Plains into the badlands, into a kind of magic western frontier village where the old values and verities still have traction. When I see the TRMF's extraordinarily successful CEO Randy Hatzehbuhler running up and down the amphitheater steps selling popcorn, I just feel better about myself, my state, and my country, however silly that may sound.

The performers on that stage—the Burning Hills Singers, the Coal Diggers (band), Sheriff Bear, cowboy Lyle Glass, the Medora Trail Riders, and hosts Emily Walter and Bill Sorensen—dance and sing and play their hearts out night after night all summer long, in good weather and bad. And whatever the harshest critic may say of this dance or that joke, the performers are clearly having the time of their life, and the audience quickly leaves all their troubles aside and surrenders to the spirit of the place. Innocence still matters. When the North Dakotans in the cast are introduced, they get a roar of pride and affection. When Emily Walter (an Air Force veteran) asks all the veterans in the audience to stand, I choke up every time. Nor can I hear the North Dakota songs without covering my face and feeling a wave of joy, pride, nostalgia, and loss wash through me. Several of the key players on that stage have significant health issues, but you would never know it from the unrestrained exuberance and joyfulness of their performances. 

Meanwhile, back at the Rough Riders Hotel, my young Argentine friends Fecundo and Lucia (and all of their mates from 28 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states), work cheerfully through long shifts as if it were a privilege to spend their summers in Medora rather than a job. We have all experienced the sullenness of service employees in some of our national parks and in commercial stores and restaurants around the United States, and indeed here in North Dakota. But you never see that in Medora.

Why? The best answer I have is that the spirit of the founder, Harold Schafer, lives on. Randy Hatzenbuhler has done a marvelous job of keeping Harold's spirit at the center of every aspect of the Medora Foundation's mission. Another CEO might not have been able to do that, or even wished to. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the indomitable Sheila Schafer is now spending her 50th consecutive summer in Medora, on this, the 50th anniversary ofthe Medora Musical. If you ask her, she will tell you all about "my five terminal diseases," with joyful detachment, while she bakes 200 rolls for a family gathering or rolls out a pair of rhubarb pies, plays a couple of rounds of miniature golf, greets a parade of strangers on her front porch, or gets ready to whoop her way through another Musical performance under the moon and stars. 

Happy Golden Anniversary, Medora Musical. What would a North Dakota summer be without you?


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.