I’m trying to imagine a dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson. Perfect food, cooked in the Avant Garde French fashion, and a flight of fine wines. And Jefferson presiding, a man of perfect manners who seems to have no discernible ego.
"nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."
— Thomas Jefferson, 1821
Clay Jenkinson returns from his cultural retreat held at Lochsa Lodge in Idaho last week and reports in on this year's meetings. Also, perhaps prompted by the 50th anniversary of the famous Beatles "rooftop concert," we wander into a short conversation about pop music, and discuss the recent extreme cold weather along with how Jefferson is co-opted by many of us without paying enough attention to the historical record.
"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.
"He's a bit of Tea Party guy, he's a bit of libertarian, he's certainly for small government."
— Clay S. Jenkinson
This week's episode is devoted to answering listener questions, and many of the questions are about the current administration. We anticipate and appreciate comments on the issues discussed during this episode. Thanks for listening.
"Nobody ever used the English language to greater effect than William Shakespeare."
Clay discusses his new show, "Clay Jenkinson's Shakespeare the Magic of the Word" — which held its world premiere in Norfolk, VA in September — and shares Jefferson's thoughts and regard for the work of William Shakespeare.
Listen in as Clay & David discuss their summers, the commemorative quarter for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and new projects — including the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and a new book about conservation. Animadversions on this episode broach subjects such as food, recording quality and bibliophilic materialism.
Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch is back in the news. A coalition of conservation groups and dedicated individuals have been pressing the Obama administration to designate the Elkhorn Ranch as a National Monument. Under the provisions of the Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 1906, the President of the United States has the authority to designate National Monuments by presidential proclamation alone. No further congressional approval is necessary.
Since 1906, 142 National Monuments have been proclaimed by presidents of both parties, including, most recently, George W. Bush (six) and Barack Obama (sixteen). All eleven western states have National Monuments—in profusion. Minnesota and South Dakota each have one. North Dakota: none.
The history of the National Monuments system, beginning with President Roosevelt's designation of Devils Tower National Monument (September 24, 1906), tends to go something like this. Ardent local or national conservationists convince the president to make the designation, often over the strong, sometimes fierce, protests of local development interests. In the ensuing decades, most of the opposition subsides, except for a little residual grumbling in some quarters, and the localities come to realize that National Monument designation does wonders for tourism, which proves to be a sustainable and lucrative economic engine for the region in question. At some point, like Devils Tower (WY), Jewel Cave (SD), Death Valley (CA), and Scotts Bluff (NB), National Monuments become beloved local and national treasures, and sources of great pride in the very regions where they were at first opposed.
Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch headquarters is currently one of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Consisting of a mere 218 acres, it has been called the crown jewel of the National Park. It is remote, pristine, serene, and not effortlessly accessible. As you approach the site, on a hike of about 1/3 of a mile, you realize with great joy that it is little changed since TR last departed.
Maybe indeed Roosevelt just departed—and will return with stories of fabulous adventures, covered with dirt, blood, and grit, "all teeth and eyes," as Victor Hugo Stickney described him in 1884. The Elkhorn Ranch deserves to be cherished as a national shrine to TR, who "became" the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt of American memory during his sojourn in North Dakota's badlands, and who turned out to be the greatest conservationist in presidential history thanks to the dynamic interplay of wildlife, habitat, hunting, grazing, resource exploitation he observed along the banks of the Little Missouri River.
Roosevelt chose the Elkhorn site in 1884 for its beauty and remoteness, made it his Dakota Territory headquarters and retreat center, and returned to it again and again, even after he left North Dakota, as a place where he could hunt, read, write, and restore his great spirit in times of perplexity and sorrow. He grieved for his first wife Alice there. He wrote parts of at least two of his books there. He seems to have formulated some of his revolutionary conservation principles there.
The Elkhorn Ranch was much larger than 218 acres, of course. According to the informal custom of the badlands at the time, TR was entitled to "claim" a ranch that extended four miles upriver and four miles downriver from his headquarters, and all the way out to the end of the Little Missouri drainage system. That means he had an effective ranch claim of 20-30,000 acres. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created by Congress in 1947, only the ranch headquarters was set aside to protect and commemorate TR's Elkhorn experiences. Back then the size of the NPS site was not particularly important, because it was so remote and inaccessible, and it was surrounded solely by the kind of family ranches that Roosevelt prized.
The Elkhorn National Monument would probably include the 218-acre ranch site, the 5,200-acre former Eberts Ranch, purchased by the U.S. National Forest System in 2006, and perhaps some modest parcels of adjacent North Dakota state lands and private property. The National Monument would attempt to knit these parcels together to conserve forever Roosevelt's "greater Elkhorn Ranch," ensure that the viewshed from the ranch headquarters will never be ruined or compromised by industrial or commercial activity, and provide a critical buffer around the ranch headquarters to protect it from the noise, dust, and visual scarring of oil development. Oil extraction in the vicinity has already begun to diminish the quality of experience that Roosevelt sought at the Elkhorn (silence, serenity, the sense of inhabiting a landscape barely touched by human enterprise). As the oil boom continues, pressures on the Elkhorn will grow in intensity.
To understand what is at stake, we need to remember how small the current Elkhorn site is. 218 acres is about a third of a section of land. Imagine what it would be like if Old Faithful were merely a quarter mile from an interstate highway, an array of oil storage tanks, or a gold or copper mine. If we could ensure that the 218-acre Elkhorn headquarters would always be surrounded by traditional cattle ranching, there would be no threat to the sanctitude of the shrine. But the U.S. Forest Service's National Grasslands have a multiple use mandate—mining, oil development, gravel extraction, grazing, recreation, etc.
The Forest Service is decidedly lukewarm about the idea of an Elkhorn National Monument, for at least three reasons. First, when the Eberts ranch was sold to the U.S. Forest Service ten years ago, there was an "understanding" that the land would continue to be available for a range of non-commemorative uses. Second, a re-designation of the land would create a turf between federal agencies. Third, most of the Little Missouri River ranch community is hostile to the idea of the National Monument, in part because they don't want any further acreage "locked up" by the federal government. Since the Forest Service has to work continuously with badlands ranchers to regulate their use of federal grazing lands, it is not eager to damage what is already an often-contentious relationship.
Last week the Billings County Commission rejected the idea emphatically, arguing that commodity production is the heart of the economy of Billings County. Presidents can proclaim National Monuments over the objection of local and state entities, but they are generally reluctant to do so unless they are able to secure at least the grudging support of a state's congressional delegation, the governor, and local communities. It seems unlikely that President Obama will declare the Elkhorn a National Monument. The president does not seem to have much passion for conservation measures of this sort, and Roosevelt does not appear to be one of his heroes.
But if nothing is done, the Elkhorn Ranch will be seriously degraded in the years and decades ahead.
If we care about Theodore Roosevelt as a man we helped shape for national and international greatness, North Dakota's "honorary president," certainly one of the greatest individuals who ever lived among us, if we cherish Theodore Roosevelt National Park as one of the finest things in North Dakota, if we believe that anything, (something!) is too sacred to sacrifice on the altar of carbon extraction, we must together find a way to protect and conserve the Elkhorn Ranch.
To do nothing because there is no easy thing to do is a formula for the permanent degradation of one of the most important places in America. To do nothing is the very antithesis of what Theodore Roosevelt represents in American life.
Long before white people showed up, what would become North Dakota was the home of buffalo and antelope, elk and grizzly bears, and indigenous people who either roamed the plains on foot in pursuit of the great herds or farmed along the river bottoms. The former lived in tipis and wickiups, and the latter dwelled in round earthlodges. At times the game could be hunted out in some very local sense, but the technologies of American Indians were such, and their understanding of the chain of being so deeply respectful, that there was never a question of killing so many of anything that the resources central to their lifeway would collapse.
Then came Euro-Americans, Verendrye from the north in 1738, Lewis and Clark from the south in 1804. White folks run by a different software. Lewis and Clark saw their first grizzly bear just south of today's Bismarck in October 1804. By the summer of 1805 they were killing every grizzly they could, not for food but because they regarded them as a dangerous nuisance. Today there are no grizzly bears in North Dakota, and though elk have been reintroduced in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they were hunted out in the age of Theodore Roosevelt (who mentioned several times that he had killed the "last" elk), and they probably could not survive here if it weren't for the protection of the national park.
Once the floodgates of Euro-American settlement were opened, it was only a matter of time before more than 90% of the land base was privatized, thanks to the homestead programs, under which fully 39% of North Dakota was deeded out, what now appear to be obscene land grants to the railroads, and private speculation corporations. When Indians refused to get out of the way or sell out by way of "legal" land cessions, the white newcomers drove them off the lands they coveted, and finally settled them on reservations, which at the time were seen as temporary holding zones for Indians who would soon either disappear altogether or be assimilated into the new dominant culture. The tenacity and resilience of American Indians in the face of the unrelenting pressures white culture has employed against them is one of the most significant (and joyful) developments in the modern history of North Dakota. We are an incomparably richer culture for the continuing presence of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Lakota, Assiniboine, and Ojibwe in North Dakota life.
The first homestead in North Dakota was filed in the northeast corner of the state in 1868 (early), but the great homesteading boom did not occur until the period between 1890 and 1920. Fully 39% of North Dakota's 45 million acres were homesteaded, second only to Nebraska, where 45% of the land was homesteaded. The percentage in Indiana was less than 1%, because most of that land had been deeded out by the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. More than ten million acres (23%) of North Dakota were handed over to the railroads in post-Civil War era as an infrastructural economic incentive.
For many decades North Dakota was primarily a producer of wheat (and some cattle). Today, on the Fourth of July, less than a quarter of the state is carpeted in wheat. From 1889 to 1989 we were an essentially agrarian backwater, a broad open land of family farms and ranches. Since 1989, certainly since the millennium in 2000, we have been graduating into a more mixed economy (with or without the oil boom). The day may soon come when agriculture slips out of first place as the engine of the North Dakota economy. That will be a sad day for the agrarian dream. Meanwhile, we are, in the second decade of the new century, knocking on the door of corporate agriculture.
The first population peak in North Dakota occurred in 1930, at 680,845. The second peak is occurring now. At the moment, the best estimates show 739,482 people living in North Dakota, the largest population in our history. Some people believe the population will reach one million in the next twenty years. Where will we put them!?
Think of the transformation. In 1830, none of North Dakota's 45 million acres had been plowed, and very few acres had been planted by the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indians. Today, there are only a handful of acres left in North Dakota that have never been plowed, and the demise of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) means that we are moving back towards fence post to fence post tilling. Actually, we are tearing up the fences and shelterbelts, too. My point is that North Dakota has been a culturally modified landscape for most of its recorded history. To see it as it looked before the first plow broke the prairie grasses would now be an overwhelming, and perhaps disturbing, experience. I know an artist who ventured to Mongolia to see endless grassland without the rectilinear grid of section and township lines. She felt swallowed up.
Making North Dakota viable for modern white civilization required an amazing sequence of infrastructural "developments." A U.S. military presence (occupation may be a better word) to protect white settlers from the displaced native peoples whose lands we appropriated. This included Fort Totten, Fort Berthold, Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Fort Lincoln, etc. Steamboat service (1832-1870) along the Missouri and the Red Rivers. Railroads, including the two upper latitude transcontinentals, the Northern Pacific (approved 1864, completed 1883) and the Great Northern (completed 1893). Paved roads, including U.S. 10 (created 1926) and U.S. 2 (organized 1919 as the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway), U.S. 83 and U.S. 81. Rural electrification (begun under the New Deal in 1936, finally completed in the remotest hollers of North Dakota in the 1970s). The telegraph, followed by the telephone, followed by fiber optic cable, followed by the Internet. Airports. Microwave towers. Cell towers. An extensive and enviable university system. The Interstate Highways of the 60s and 70s.
Lay the groundwork, and then reap the benefits.
Now, suddenly, thanks to oil, we are rich in an unprecedented way.
If I may use a slang term, the 2014-15 downturn in world oil prices freaked a lot of people out, including many members of the North Dakota legislature. But the experts are almost unanimously confident that oil prices will climb back up, more or less permanently, and that the economic upturn in North Dakota will continue for many decades. Three factors have brought about our unprecedented prosperity. First, there is a giant carbon foundation under western North Dakota, including lignite coal. Sorry Minnesota. Second, a technological revolution in oil extraction has occurred in the last fifteen years, and Continental Oil's Harold Hamm had the insight to bring it to bear on our Bakken shale oil deposits. Third, during the darkest period of our recent history (1980-1995), North Dakota's political leaders, led by former ND Governor Ed Schafer, created a friendly business (i.e., regulatory) climate in the state, which makes North Dakota a more desirable oil extraction platform than Montana and Saskatchewan.
Just what the future holds is unclear. The question will not be how will we pay our bills, but how we should invest public wealth so vast that our grandparents could never have conceived of it, much less expected it to happen here.
This much is sure. We won't be slopping the hogs hereafter, or walking four miles to school through a January blizzard.
Week three. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Rome, and my longest. I'm trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the students I am teaching here. They are seasoned cultural travelers by now, and they have learned a tremendous amount. There are days when I'm not sure what I have to teach them. Whenever they are otherwise occupied, I hop the bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander about with maps, a guidebook, and my notebook and camera.
Tom Schulzetenberg, the U-Mary Rome program director, has mastered the city in his three years here. He's an invaluable guide. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for me to take the students to a number of places that are off the beaten track: the ancient port called Ostia Antica (Rome's Pompeii); the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the English poets Keats and Shelley are buried; the emperor Hadrian's fabulous villa at Tivoli. Today, at our final lecture, I taught them the meaning of a number of Latin phrases that have made their way into English, including in loco parentis, "in the place of one's parents." Tom and his wife JoAnn have served in that capacity with real grace. As you know, U-Mary makes much of its capacity to create "servant leaders." I find it easier to recognize that quality than to describe it. Tom and JoAnn are the epitome of servant leaders—warm, generous, humble, thoughtful, careful, and firm--and they have sacrificed a great deal to live abroad on behalf of the liberal arts at UMary. If you think living in Rome is easy, just try it.
When I get home I'm going to burn my travel clothes, and rethink many of the rhythms of my life. The cars here are miniscule. If all the Ford F250s of Bismarck alone were loosed in the center of Rome, the traffic jam would paralyze the city for weeks. People here can park a Smart Car in a space we wouldn't attempt with a bicycle. I've walked between six and ten miles a day without even thinking about it, and while I walk the city I keep puzzling over why the Romans are so much fitter, leaner, and healthier than we are. Hmmm.
I wish we lived in a society that chose to send all college students for a semester or a year abroad. Many of the fundamental problems of American life would be solved if we had a universal Fulbright program. Foreign travel to a nation that doesn't speak English is the first important step towards global wisdom. We may be America—always the elephant in the room, and sometimes still the class act—but there are scores of countries that don't live as we do, do things in our way, consume at our Rabalaisian pace and volume, and yet they are perfectly civilized. Many of them, in fact, score higher on the happiness index than we do. To travel abroad is to realize that our way of doing things is not the only way, and not invariably the best way.
When we travel to other countries—as I keep telling my students—we are guests in another culture, and it is important that we pull back a little from our full "display" of our American brand of style, confidence, and expressiveness. We should never for a minute be ashamed of who we are and where we come from, but we should remember, too, that being an American (as opposed, say, to being Canadian or Norwegian) comes with a burden and a special responsibility. We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth (ever!), what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable country," and that automatically rubs others the wrong way at times.
Whenever I travel abroad, I am ashamed that I am essentially monolingual. Once, long ago, when I was married, my wife and I spent a week with one her college classmates, an extremely talented woman named Silka from Munich in Germany. She spoke four or five languages, including French, Russian, and flawless Oxford English, the Queen's English. Her husband had eight languages. We went out to dinner one night with her brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law, some kind of European slacker, spoke only German and English. So the dinner was conducted in English, as a favor to the "Americans." I asked for permission to pay and to settle the bill in my weak German. As I recall, I bungled my few sentences so badly that I wound up in a Turkish prison!
Traveling holds a mirror up to us. We are invited to gaze into that mirror, or at least glance at it when we observe how other humans go about their business, and how they respond to us in their midst. Whenever I travel I make resolutions that make New Year's look like a routine Thursday. Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to being one of the most active men who ever lived, and a career politician, once shocked a White House guest, from Poland, by giving her a sustained analysis of the history of Polish literature. In 1910 he lectured about German literature at German universities—in German. Like Jefferson, he was a true citizen of the world. I had a professor friend at UND who learned Russian merely for the pleasure of reading Tolstoy in the original. At this point in my life, I would settle for reading French, Swedish, German, Russian, and Italian literature in translation, but where's the discipline going to come from, and who will grant me the 27-hour day?
A few days ago we went to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Francis deliver a homily to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Right on time, he appeared at the appointed window. I watched him deliver his remarks through my binoculars, while the mass of people watched him on the Papal Jumbotron. He seemed joyful and genial and completely unself-important as he delivered his remarks and waved to the assembled multitude.
After Pope Francis had withdrawn and the crowd began to disperse, one of the students walked with me to the city center. Along the way, he suggested that we duck into one of the scores of nearly identical looking Baroque churches in Rome, the kind you might well just pass by on your way to lunch. He explained to me that this was the Church of the Gesu, the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome, dedicated in 1584. Inside he gave me a brief but really impressive commentary on the various features of the church, and the ways in which it epitomized the Counter-Reformation. Here was my student, a young citizen of the world (since September!) teaching his professor in a graceful and helpful way. A few days earlier, a new young friend, the son of one of my closest friends back home, told me that during Lent he and his fellow seminarians walk to a different church every day for 40 days for early morning Mass. I'd give anything to join those pilgrims.
Rome is truly inexhaustible; me, not so much. I'm now eager to get home, to sit with my mother in her spare Congregational church in Dickinson, to decorate a genuine Christmas tree, and to set up my new heroic spring reading schedule. This has been a bellissimo viaggio, which, so far, is the sum total of my Italian.
Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano. 1748. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading books about the Nonpartisan League, including the standard history of the NPL, Robert Morlan's Political Prairie Fire. The League will achieve its centennial moment during the 2015 legislative session in North Dakota. It was during the infamous 1915 session that Cass County legislator Treadwell Twitchell (who appears to have received his name out of a Charles Dickens novel), allegedly told the desperate, crusading farmers who had assembled at the North Dakota capitol to "Go home and slop the hogs!" Twitchell later claimed that he had not made the incendiary remark, but he's stuck with it one way or the other. It's an essential part of the NPL legend, and whatever he said in February 1915 touched off one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.
In 1915 nine out of ten North Dakotans lived on family farms. The great majority of them were struggling against almost impossible odds to put food on the table for their families and buy seed for next year's crops. Out-of-state banks controlled the credit supply. The interest rates they charged were steep, even usurious. Out-of-state milling and elevator corporations controlled the price of wheat. Their grain grading systems were self-serving, often corrupt, and their scales were sometimes rigged to their own advantage. Out-of-state railroads monopolized the transport of grain at a time when automobiles and trucks were rare in North Dakota. The whole "system" was designed to benefit what the NPL called "Big Biz." North Dakota was essentially a grain-production colony controlled by powerful individuals and entities located in Minneapolis, Chicago, and beyond. One historian has called that North Dakota "a tributary province of Minneapolis-St. Paul."
The farmer-citizens of North Dakota had attempted to improve their conditions in a range of ways, beginning with the Populist Movement, but without measurable success. By 1915 they had come to realize that until they took control of the means of production—until they broke the out-of-state monopolies that controlled the economic destiny of North Dakota—they would never know even moderate prosperity. They were, in short, driven to a revolution—not at the end of a pitchfork or musket, but at the polling booth.
The Nonpartisan League was the brainchild of Arthur C. Townley, Fred Wood, and Arthur LeSueur. Townley was the organizational genius. He was a gifted political strategist, a brilliant stump orator, and a born rabble rouser. His goal was to sign up enough farmers to take control of North Dakota before the opposition realized what was happening. In this he succeeded, thanks to the newfangled Model T Fords he rattled over the dirt roads of the state, and his willingness to accept postdated checks from financially strapped farmers. In 1916 the League (technically nonpartisan but in fact mostly an insurgency within the dominant Republican Party), elected a majority in the ND House of Representatives and Lynn J. Frazier of Hoople as ND Governor. Frazier got 79% of the vote. Two years later, Frazier was re-elected, and both the House and the Senate were now solidly controlled by NPL legislators. That made the legislative session of 1919 one of the most interesting in North Dakota history. Virtually the entire League program was enacted: our three-member Industrial Commission was created, with a broad mandate to "engage in the business of manufacturing and marketing farm products" and to "establish a system of warehouses, elevators, flour mills, factories, plants, machinery and equipments, owned, controlled and operated by it."
This was a breathtaking mandate. If the League program had been fully implemented, we might have established a bunch of state-owned banks, state-owned elevators in many locations, state slaughter houses and cold-storage warehouses, and a range of value-added agricultural processing factories (all socialist) scattered across the North Dakota landscape. What we wound up with was a single state-owned bank (Bismarck) and a single state-owned elevator (Grand Forks). Even so, by 1920 North Dakota was "the most socialist place in America."
Well, my, how things change.
The question that puzzles all historians is how the little conservative backwater of North Dakota found itself in the midst of a socialist revolution. We were then, as we are now, a very conservative people. Some historians say those pesky Norwegian immigrants carried a reformist sensibility with them to Ellis Island. Others point to the worldwide workers movement of that era. It is true that the period between 1900 and 1945 represents the high-water mark of international socialism. In thinking about the meteoric rise of the Nonpartisan League it is worth remembering that all the major European countries, including Great Britain, were teetering on the brink of socialist revolutions in the years before World War I. North Dakota's radicalized farmers took power in 1916-1918, just at the moment of the Russian Revolution (1917).
My answer is simple. I believe there are two types of radicals—ideological radicals and reactive radicals. The first category includes people like Lenin and Trotsky or—in the American context—Thomas Paine and even Thomas Jefferson. These are men (and women) who possess what might be called "the revolutionary temperament." It's amazing to me that Jefferson could have been elected to the American Presidency. His writings are full of surprisingly radical pronouncements like, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Such radicals are comparatively rare—and they almost never taste power.
The other brand of "radicals" are essentially reactionaries. They have no instinct for revolution. They are, by habit, non-political. They just want to live their lives with economic sufficiency and something like a "square deal," to use Theodore Roosevelt's favorite formulation. They have no particular ideology. They are certainly not averse to the profit motive. They do not wish to redistribute wealth or level the social order. But when the existing social, political or economic systems are rigged to exploit them to the point of peonage, when they cannot make ends meet no matter how hard they work, otherwise conservative people can be driven into temporary radicalism. One of my oldest friends once gave me perfect advice: "never drive anyone into a corner they cannot get out of except by going over the top of you."
This is what happened in North Dakota in 1915. The actual winning of power in 1916 and 1918 was such an ecstasy that it siphoned off much of the revolutionary anger. It was a stunning and largely unexpected political catharsis, but it perhaps had the unintended effect of returning many of the "radicals" who pulled it off back to a kind of complacency. Meanwhile, World War I broke the trajectory of the farmers' movement. Prices rose. There was a worldwide demand for maximum production. The Wilson administration passed repressive crisis legislation that crushed dissent: the Espionage Act of 1917 (still in effect, though often amended), the Sedition Act of 1918, etc. Townley was jailed in Jackson, Minnesota, for impeding recruitment of the farm boys he rightly recognized as "cannon fodder" for the plutocratic munitions industries fattening on war profits (and profiteering).
Once the Great War had changed everything, and a few of the League's goals had been met with largely symbolic reforms, North Dakotans returned to their normal, largely apolitical, and traditionally conservative ways.
And today, the great-grandchildren of that radical episode are having a mushy love affair with Big Biz. This would have killed Townley; it would sadden Jefferson; and probably it would hurl TR right back into The Arena.
"It was my crowded hour!"
Theodore Roosevelt on July 2, 1898—the day he led the charge up San Juan Hill.
The response to Ken Burns' latest documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has been overwhelming. All credit to Ken Burns, who is a genius, and Geoffrey Ward, who has been researching and writing Ken's scripts for many years, and who is the shining star of "talking heads" in this 14-hour epic about TR, Eleanor (his niece) and FDR (TR's 5th cousin).
Working with Ken Burns has been one of the principal honors of my life. I was one of the talking heads in his documentary on Jefferson (1998), and an historical adviser to the film. I was in The National Parks: America's Best Idea. And now I have had the joy of being a commentator about Theodore Roosevelt in this film.
The wonderful outpouring of congratulations and praise I have received has moved me beyond my ability to describe. It is so strange looking at a television screen, seeing George Will, Dorris Kearns Goodwin, H.W. Brands, Patricia O'Toole, and others giants of our time, and then suddenly seeing myself. It's a little disorienting, and of course I half blush and half cringe to see a: what I said; b: how I said it: c: how it fits into the larger context of the film.
I was interviewed several years ago for the film, at Ken's home and studio in Walpole, New Hampshire. One sits in a chair about three feet from Burns, with a film camera rolling and a separate audio track, and there is no rehearsal, no hint of what he might ask. He just starts with some provocative statement, and his questions, his penetration, his visual responses, his followups, all bring out of the interviewee (or at least this one) much more than we came to say or thought we had in us.
Then you leave for the airport, cursing the day you were born, wishing you had said that differently, and thisbetter, and that more succinctly. Whenever I come home from Walpole, I write a formulaic letter begging for a second interview. This never happens. Ken says, "The best way to stay off the cutting room floor is to 'stick the landing.'"
After that, you (or at least I) actually half forget that I was interviewed at all. And I assume that what I had to say, even if it helped to inform the script, would surely have wound up on the cutting room floor.
Finally, often several years later, when the film airs on public television, I like everyone else have to watch to see what's in it. As someone who makes documentary films himself, I am always astonished by Burns' genius as an editor.
Frankly, I wish in The Roosevelts I had said a few things I did not, and wish I had not said, or said differently, a few things that wound up in the film. In particular, I wish I had softened a little my statement that Roosevelt was a killer. He WAS a killer, to be sure, and in some ways a jingoist and a warmonger, but that needs to be contextualized very carefully before it can fully make sense. TR lived in a more "heroic" age than ours, and it was still widely felt then that war was the grand test of a man's character and a nation's destiny. TR's thirst to kill quadrupeds was not so much bloodlust (though perhaps there was some of that) as a desire to dominate the world around him. The same dynamics that characterized Roosevelt led Europe into the most disastrous war in its history in 1914. Millions of young man sang and exulted as they marched off to bloody and muddy death in the trenches.
At any rate, there is so much more to admire in TR than to criticize--it's a shame to spend much time questioning his actions or motives. He is one of the most fascinating, most exuberant, most energetic, curious, questing, intelligent, and well-read men of American history. He is so much larger than life that the phrase doesn't do him justice.
I feel honored to have had the opportunity to study him, and to be one of those to try to make sense of him for America's greatest documentary filmmaker.
Two people have contacted me to tease me for using the phrase "writingest president." One of them is one of my dearest friends, my old secretary Naomi Brooker of Grass Valley, CA. The other is an Australian woman I have never met, who said, "at least you did not say threepeat!" I stand by my phrase, though I actually borrowed it from one of the greatest historians of our time, Donald Jackson, who wrote about Lewis and Clark as "the writingest explorers of all time."
I've reconnected with old lost friends in the last few days, and made some new ones. Two of the historians I most respect in the world have taken the time to write letters of praise. I'm on cloud nine, humbled, moved deeply, and of course RESOLVED to get better, learn more, master more, become better read and better educated, and to make this one of the moments which increase one's creative life rather than cap it.
I think this is Ken Burns' best film ever, no thanks to me, and that the episodes on FDR and Eleanor are, if anything, dramatically better than those on Theodore.
Again, to all of you, heartfelt thanks. Bully.
My goal this summer is to visit all the Special Places designated by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Last Saturday I took a couple of delightful badlands greenhorns to the Killdeer Mountains and Little Missouri State Park. We drove from Bismarck to Dickinson the easy way as quickly as possible. Then the adventure began. We turned north.
North Dakota highway 22 between Dickinson and the New Town turnoff used to be one of the greatest roads of the Great Plains. Now it is not much more than an industrial corridor, one of the two north-south transportation trunkways in the Bakken Oil Industrial Park. The other is US85. When I was growing up in the 1960s, ND22 was one of those wonderful "barely paved" roads, narrow, serpentine, a little dangerous in places, a slender ribbon of asphalt that looked as if it might just blow away in the next big drought. You felt like you were on a vision quest when you drove it, especially north of Killdeer. During the last oil boom, in the 70s and 80s, it was widened and straightened and given proper shoulders. That made it safer and less interesting. And now it has been transformed into an ugly industrial corridor. You cannot believe how long it takes you these days to get out of Dickinson's corrugation-and-Quonset shadow. The north-suburb stoplights stretch up to where Manning is supposed to be!
We stopped at what's left of Lost Bridge 20 miles north of Killdeer. The funky old steel girder bridge, built during the Clutch Plague, has been gone since 1994, when a typically bland and efficient DOT concrete slab replaced it. It used to be one of the most delightful moments in North Dakota wandering, to crest the bluff where the rolling plains break down and suddenly you are cast right down into the heart of the badlands, and way, way down there where a cottonwood river runs through the scene there was the uncanny little steel arch of Lost Bridge. Somehow that lonely bridge made a magical landscape even more magical. It reminded you of both the poverty and the audacity of North Dakota in 1930, tucked up in almost complete isolation at the top of America along the Canadian border, a profoundly rural and simple land of barely mechanized farms and traditional horseback cattle ranches. The bridge had been built in anticipation of a serious north-south road, a paved road, but the funds just weren't there in those desperate years when a third of the people of North Dakota were on direct federal assistance, and the outmigration was appalling, so the bridge, impressive for its time, just sat there all alone, gleaming for no good reason in the middle of nowhere, with a two track dirt road snaking off in either direction.
Lost Bridge was part of the romance of North Dakota. That romance is being erased now at a furious pace because that vast sweet western landscape is being refitted as rapidly as possible as an industrial platform for the mere extraction of oil and gas. Our gods are now Efficiency and Profit and Economic Development and Production. Nothing is sacred to such gods. The Bakken carbon zone is merely a problem to be solved—how to turn that entire landscape into an interlocking extraction machine as efficiently as possible. There is no room for romance in such a paradigm, or the kind of quaint country heritage that you find in those old thick county history books, Slope Saga, Pioneer Tales, and Echoing Trails. There is no longer any respect for the sacred places of North Dakota, because to grant that anything is sacred the extractors would have to acknowledge that western North Dakota is something more than an industrial platform, and that would force them to do some tiptoeing, which would violate the gods of Efficiency and Profit. To such an Extraction Engine the Lost Bridges of the West are just a nuisance and the badlands are just a slightly more challenging development platform than the smooth plains all around them.
One small section of the old girder bridge has been embedded into a roadside turnoff on the south side of the Little Missouri River. A number of years ago a superb outsized metal historical marker was attached to the last span, with an incised image of old Lost Bridge and information about how it came to be lost. The sign is gone now. Where did it go? It was too big to be stolen, so it must have been demoted.
The Republican Party platform, adopted a week ago in Minot, opposed the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife, and Parks Fund Constitutional Measure by declaring proudly that North Dakota has "balanced development needs of the industry with the stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
Here's an example. Precisely where ND 22 sweeps up to the lip of the Lost Bridge badlands, precisely where the rolling plains yield to the magnificent chasm of the Little Missouri River, in what has to be regarded by any breathing being as one of the four or five most beautiful places in North Dakota (or for that matter, on the Great Plains), a Salt Water Disposal plant has been erected. There it is, right on the rim, right at the entrance to Little Missouri State Park, a dozen large brown cylindrical storage tanks, and an array of dumping stations that looks like a gigantic covered truck stop. A line of huge mud-splattered oil trucks idles nearby, waiting their turns, their diesel gurglings replacing the quietude of the last great stretch of the Little Missouri with industrial noise.
All I can say is that you have to go see it to believe that such a facility could be built in such a place, when it could just as easily have been built just about anywhere in the neighborhood, and at the very least a couple of miles back from the South Rim of the Little Missouri gorge. If you didn't know better, if you were a visitor from Jupiter, you'd have to conclude that it was put there for the express purpose of destroying the view and the serenity and the grandeur and the poetry of the place. But you do know better. It wasn't erected in one of the most sublime places in North Dakota out of malice. It was thrown up there out of indifference.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." Well, this is our Grand Canyon, and oh my have we marred it. Who's responsible for this travesty? We are. Industry is indifferent. Dunn County didn't stop it. The state of North Dakota permitted it. We the people were apparently asleep and, voila, one morning it was there.
I urge you with the deepest sincerity to go see it right away. And ask yourself, is this ok? Is this "balanced development" that exhibits "stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Montana, with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world's great books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods.
Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man's love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.
One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be "monetized," and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.
So, to take an easy example, it's the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.
According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. "If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works." You don't want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha's Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.
Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson's "that government is best which governs least," to declare, "that government is best which governs not at all." Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls "higher laws." An individual who learns to hear "higher laws" does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.
On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.
An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you "strike oil" nearly 100% of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental "footprint" of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial "hospitality" infrastructure, and—voila--you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.
All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend's economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children's feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?
It's as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state's 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of "higher laws."
I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency--is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.
There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?