#1248 Private Thoughts

#1248 Private Thoughts

"I'm trying to explain to you and to your listeners what makes for a happy life."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

President Thomas Jefferson speaks about Monticello, his private and daily habits, his compulsiveness and how his Virginian hospitality cost him a personal fortune.

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.

So Now We Wait for the First Thunderstorm

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 suddenlyseemingly overnightit 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 12First 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 13I 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 23My 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 26I 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 basin2 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 photographgreen 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 prairiethe 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.