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.
With the deepest sorrow I write today to say farewell. All things must pass. My time with the Bismarck Tribune now ends. I have had a great run. As of today, I have written 520 columns in the last ten years. That's almost 700,000 words. Nobody can say I haven't had my chance to make my views known to the readers of this newspaper.
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."
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.
All you have to do is get down on your knees and take in that greatest of all garden smells, ripening tomatoes, and you realize instantly what is and what is not important in life.
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."
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.
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."
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.
This year I had the joy of making the Lewis and Clark trip with my daughter, now 20, who is spending her summer in Dakota with her adoring papa. For many years I have wanted to bring her on this tour, but she was a serious 4H participant through high school, and the county fair down in northwestern Kansas always competed with Lewis and Clark. Pigs and pies trumped John Colter and Pierre Cruzatte.
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.
It saddened me greatly to miss Buzz Aldrin's visit to Bismarck last week. I was by then in Montana, retracing a bit of Thomas Jefferson's "Apollo program," my annual cultural tour on the Lewis and Clark trail on the Missouri River's White Cliffs stretch, and then on to the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho, west of Missoula. It's always one of the professional highlights of my year.
I was once briefly mistaken for Buzz Aldrin in Grand Forks, but that is another tale for another time.
Aldrin was the second man on the moon. Almost immediately after he stepped down onto the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, he spontaneously formulated perhaps the best short description ever offered about earth's lone satellite. Aldrin called what he saw "magnificent desolation."
Aldrin has written a number of books about his Apollo Program experience, which can be collectively summarized by the phrase, "When you've been to the moon, what's left?" I call this the Buzz Aldrin Syndrome—peaking early, spending the rest of your life trying to recover the ecstasy or learn to accept normalcy. Olympic athletes sometimes experience this, as well as soldiers who have been in harm's way, and extreme sportsmen. Meriwether Lewis suffered grievously after his return from the wilderness in 1806, when he realized that bestriding the source of the "heretofore deemed endless Missouri River" had been the greatest moment of his life. He was just 32 years old. Not only would he never do anything that extraordinary again, but nobody else would ever discover the source of the Missouri again. The philosopher Nietzsche called this "the melancholy of all things accomplished."
North Dakota's great Eric Sevareid, who covered the American space program throughout the 1960s, reflected on the probable plight of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. "We're always going to feel, somehow, strangers to these men," he said, while the astronauts were still on the moon. "They will, in effect, be a bit stranger, even to their own wives and children. Disappeared into another life that we can't follow. I wonder what their lives will be like, now." As far as I'm concerned, this is a perfect example of Sevareid's genius.
Meanwhile, NASA's New Horizons probe has been sending back stunning photographs of Pluto, once a planet, now demoted to "dwarf planet" status. The most recent photograph, taken within 8,000 miles of the former planet's surface, hurtled across the solar system at the speed of sound, but Pluto is so far away that it took 4.5 hours for the image to reach the earth. Think about this for a moment. Our scientific capacity is so great that we can project a tiny capsule almost three billion miles away from the earth and bring it into a perfect rendezvous with a small rapidly moving spheroid. This would be like shooting a .22 caliber bullet in Bismarck and hitting a bouncing ping pong ball in Japan.
One of my close media friends wondered out loud the other day whether the photographs of Pluto were worth the $700 million it cost to send the probe. I say yes, absolutely, positively, unquestionably yes. Tomorrow marks the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I regard that event as one of the handful of greatest moments in the history of humankind. It's as great an achievement as Shakespeare's Hamlet, as great an accomplishment as the pyramids of Egypt, as great an triumph as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I feel tremendously fortunate to have lived through that moment, to have sat in my parents' living room and watched the first human ever to set foot on a celestial object other than the earth. I find it appalling and unbearable that we have no rocket today that can project our astronauts into orbit, that we are forced to lighten our geopolitical pressures on neo-imperial Russia in part because they are the only space taxi that can get our astronauts up to the International Space Station.
We humans are measured by what our innate restlessness can make happen—in poetry, in sculpture, in architecture, in philosophy, in technology, in exploration. If we ever turn away from that restlessness, we may find happiness, but we will cease to be what Hamlet called "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals."
Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930. It was demoted in 2006. The man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, grew up in a puny village called Burdett, Kansas. A small quantity of Tombaugh's ashes were placed in the New Horizons probe, thus carrying the discoverer to the planetary body he discovered. What could be more wonderful than that? Tombaugh was a Great Plains farm boy who developed a fascination with celestial objects and the kind of unbelievable precision that enabled him to pick out the planetary movement of Pluto against a dizzying sea of fixed stars.
I feel some special affinity with Clyde Tombaugh. We were born on the same day (February 4), though half a century apart. After World War II, he was stationed at White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico, where my father served for two years as a desk clerk and supply sergeant. It is at least possible that they met.
I've been more fortunate than Tombaugh (though I haven't discovered a darn thing), because he lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His plans to go to college were crushed by a hailstorm that ruined the family's crops and left his parents destitute. He began building home brew telescopes from local odds and ends in 1926. Four years later, at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he discovered the trans-Neptunian planet that Percival Lowell had insisted must be out there somewhere. Tombaugh was only 24 years old.
Tombaugh has an asteroid named after him (1604 Tombaugh), but he did not get to name the planet he discovered. The name Pluto was suggested by an eleven-year-old English schoolgirl named Venetia Burney. All the previous planets (except earth) were named for Roman gods: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, so it was perhaps inevitable that the new planet would also be named from classical mythology. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, of darkness, and of death. Pluto (the Greek Hades) was able to make himself invisible. That's what led the young British girl to suggest the name. Tombaugh immediately approved.
The New Horizons probe has also taken photographs of one of Pluto's five moons, Charon. Charon was the figure in Hades who ferried the dead across the river Styx. Given the deep classical heritage of the discovery and naming of the planets, Charon adds considerable profundity to the designation of the last planet as Pluto.
It was at Fort Mandan, on the upper Missouri, in what would eventually become North Dakota, that Meriwether Lewis walked off the map of the known world on April 7, 1805. He believed, Euro-centrically, that every step he took west of Fort Mandan was the first ever made by a "civilized man." Lewis was so inspired by this idea—that he was going where no white man had ever gone before—that he began writing his journal after almost a yearlong silence. He said he was "now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width upon which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."
Boldly to go where no man has gone before—that's the essence of the human spirit.
My daughter and I had the opportunity last weekend to see the famous Calgary Stampede. We were here on professional business, had time off, and reckoned that if you're in Calgary during the Stampede, you'd regret it if you didn't see what is billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth," and is widely recognized as one of the handful of greatest rodeos in North America.
We bought our tickets online, made our way to the stadium using public transport, and zipped through an electronic kiosk with the greatest of ease. The seats were well marked and comfortable, with good sight lines to the big arena. Because it was Canada, everyone behaved with a kind of civility we haven't seen in American life for decades. In the row behind us, a man and his young son had taken the wrong seats (wrong section). When this was politely pointed out to them by the rightful occupants, there was no dispute of any sort. Everyone apologized to everyone else for a while, all around, and then the father and son edged their way through twenty sitting patrons to the aisle without experiencing a single sigh or glare. Oh Canada.
The arena was flawlessly groomed, the shoots freshly painted in white, with red trim, all the signage professional and tasteful, and every reach of the entire facility, from the restrooms to the furthest reaches of the stands, spotlessly clean.
Calgary really knows how to host a show.
The Calgary Stampede is an invitation-only rodeo. That means that only the best riders in North America participate, which makes for breathtaking but rather predictable rides. The overwhelming majority of bareback and saddle bronc riders stayed on their horses, and well more than half of the bull riders held on for the full eight seconds. The lowest percentages we saw were in tie-down roping and steer wrestling. It's fun to watch that level of professional ability, and to speculate on what it takes for a 20-year-old kid to get that good at riding a large dangerous animal bent on throwing him to the ground and maybe stomping on him too. How many times have you been bucked off bulls in small rural arenas before you learn to stay on more than half the time?
The announcers, some of them famous on the rodeo circuit, kept us informed about who was coming off reconstruction knee surgery, who had to sit out last year after three consecutive concussions, and who got "all tore up" in Las Vegas last year when the clown and bullfighters could not distract some legendary bull from his wrath. The winning barrel racer explained that she now wears a helmet after a fall that required five reconstructive facial surgeries. About one out of four bronc riders lurch-limped out of the arena in excruciating pain, not because they were hurt in today's ride, but because they got "stove up" a week ago somewhere else and determined not to let that slow them down. When the announcers cheerfully explain each rider's recent chapter of grave injuries, from dislocated shoulders to groin pulls, it makes you wonder if these are heroes of the Old West or people lacking in the most rudimentary good sense.
Rodeo had its origins in actual ranch life, often during the spring or fall roundup, when the gathered cowboys would take turns during leisure hours trying to ride unbroken horses or show off their roping and tying skills. That's what I like most about rodeo. It develops and showcases skills that were once, and to a certain extent still are, essential in ranch life. From up in the stands, it is easy to take the skill level for granted, especially in an all-star rodeo like the Calgary Stampede where North American champions make everything look so easy. But when you get down to arena level and observe the actual relationships between man or woman and horse more closely, you begin to feel how the strange, powerful, almost mystical connection works. It is a cliché to call a great rodeo rider a "centaur," the half man, half horse figure from Greek mythology, but there is something to it. The horses are magnificent to watch in action, backing gracefully to their marks, responding to the slightest nudge of a knee, stopping on a dime to let the cowboy jump down to tie three legs of a terrified, squalling calf, or leaning almost prone to the ground around a barrel with only a few inches to spare.
The minute you spend time at a rodeo you realize what a remarkable subculture it is. I generalize but this is what you tend to find: seriously Christian, intensely patriotic, grounded in the best rural values of decency, discipline, hard work, neighborliness, and grit. Country music in every boom box and ear bud. Corny but generous announcers who specialize in "western grammar," who tend at some point during the rodeo edge up towards a hint of sexual or racial stereotyping, but who console the losers and remind the winners that just a week ago in Saskatoon they were thrown headlong into the dust.
My daughter and I drove through the rodeo grounds at Bowman, ND, in early June during the state high school rodeo competition. We threaded our puny Honda civic through a sea of fifth wheel horse-campers the size of Rhode Island, pulled by pickups that you have to use a ladder to get in. Each one had a couple of beautiful horses tied up by its side. There were patios and pullouts and giant gas grills and flags of every sort and tiki lights and deck chairs and racks of cowboy boots and hats that made it feel like an outdoor sales event. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these rodeo families have more invested in their rodeo rigs than I have in my home, and these are just the amateurs, ranch families working to provide their kids with wholesome recreational opportunities and hold up one of America's great traditions.
We loved the Calgary Stampede, but the truth is that three weeks ago we went to a small rural rodeo in the boondocks of North Dakota, ($6 bucks, "no returns"), and had a much better time. The riders fell off well more than half the time. Almost no team managed to rope a calf at both ends successfully. The announcer dreamed of being famous but he's not likely to quit his day job anytime soon. In the uncomfortable bleachers (no luxury boxes, no jumbotron) neighbors chatted in that familiar friendly way and shred out food. There were no urban wannabees in gleaming new cowboy hats and worn-for-the-first-time cowboy boots scouring their official programs trying to figure out the rules.
The Cowboy Prayer chokes me up every time because it is so perfectly corny, so steeped in romance and faith and Americana. The Calgary Stampede is too slick, professional, efficient to be an authentic expression of rural life, the riders are too masterful, and there aren't enough pint-sized kids bouncing around the arena on giant horses. The rodeo queen and princesses at the Calgary Stampede seem to come from central casting, not last year's prom.
What makes rural culture great is its earnest amateurism, real people doing remarkable things with heart and cheerful imperfection. It has to be just a little clunky to be fully life affirming, and fully authentic. That's what makes you smile and believe again.
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?
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.
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.
The great and powerful G7 nations resolved last week to eliminate their use of fossil fuels by the end of the 21st century. The seven leading industrial nations, including the United States, produce 25% of the world's carbon emissions.
It's hard to imagine quite how this will come to pass. I have great admiration for Germany's green economy—powerful, prosperous, innovative, and a pioneer of environmentally friendlier technologies—and it is fitting that the G7 resolution was shepherded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who aspires to be the "greenest" world leader of our time. But how exactly do we wean ourselves of carbon dependency?
Life in the modern industrialized world is utterly dependent on instant access to affordable power. It is so readily available to us, woven so deep into our lifestyles, that we literally take it for granted. On the few occasions when we lose power for a couple of hours in the wake of a massive thunderstorm or blizzard, or even when our cable TV or internet systems go down, we walk around like lost souls and we tend to get very grumpy. Our carbon addiction is total.
We know all this, but there are times when we snap (or are snapped) out of our complacency and realize how synonymous modern life and access to carbon-based power really are. Here is my own confessional narrative.
In the last week, I flew to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City, then Calgary, where I stayed on the 12th floor of a hotel. Had the elevator broken down, it would have been a very long four days. In fact, there were six elevators for a single 18-story hotel. I texted and made phone calls across international lines. I ate sushi. At one restaurant I was assured that the prawns had been harvested in the last 24 hours, flash frozen, and airlifted to my table. $17. Then I flew from Calgary to Minneapolis, and then on to Fargo. From Fargo I drove to Bismarck.
All of these transactions occurred flawlessly and without a single interruption. The North American industrial grid performed its functions to perfection. The biggest disappointment of all of those complex transactions came when a flight attendant announced that she would not be passing out peanuts on one flight because a passenger (we all glared around) had a peanut allergy. Are we spoiled or what?
Once I got home I went into industrial hyper drive. I've been gone a lot and I am going again, so my home time for the moment gets very concentrated. My house was hot and stuffy. I fired up my air conditioner (large use of power to cool things off). I cleaned out my Jacuzzi and refilled it, and watched with satisfaction as the water temperature rose three degrees per hour. Cool down, heat up, make my life comfortable at all times! I watered the entire garden.
I used the microwave. I heated the oven to 400 degrees. I did five loads of laundry. Everything worked flawlessly, except for many human errors of one sort or another.
I fired up my lawnmower and raced around my unkempt yard. I placed heavy tomato cages around my fledgling tomatoes. Imagine what it took to find the ore for those tomato cages, process it, fashion it into a spiral grid work, and then ship it in container modules from China to some giant dockyard in Los Angeles or Seattle?
Then I fired up my weed whacker (two cycle), and whined and whizzed around the garden.
With a little spare time on my hands I drove to the grocery store, purchased some additional flowers, and bought some produce that came from California, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Florida, plus bottled water from Colorado. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it took to deliver all of those peppers, tomatoes, oranges, cherries, and cucumbers to a small grocery store in Bismarck, North Dakota. Fertilizers, pesticides, color and flavor enhancers, plastic shipping cartons, the traction required to till, plant, cultivate, and harvest, and then all the shipping by boat, rail, 18-wheeler, and all the front-end loaders lifting pallets at every major stage of the ride. But when I lift the cantaloupe out of the display case and into my cart, I almost never think about what it took to deliver it from its birth to my mouth. And who stooped in a field to pluck it off its stiff vine.
If you add all of this up, one week of one nameless American individual's life, one of 330 million Americans who take all of this vast industrial network of processes, propulsion, and products for granted, it adds up to a colossal carbon footprint. You can say what you want at the G7 meeting, but I vote with my pocketbook every day, almost every hour of every day, for a carbon extraction universe I sometimes pretend to deplore.
If I had to watch a video of what it took to deliver all of these conveniences to me, it would be quite a sobering experience. Strip mines, Saudi oil drilling, oil and gas fracking, the tar sands in Alberta, mining for silver, lead, copper, bauxite, and uranium. Coal-fired power plants, hydro plants, nuclear reactors. Picture the assembly plants that make the giant front-end loaders, the combines, the bulldozers, the draglines, the cranes, the boxcars, the oil tankers, the anhydrous blimps. Imagine the smelters in China that create the steel, iron, and aluminum.
All this so that I can leave my climate-controlled house and get into my car, and drive with the force of 278 horses, two miles to a grocery story on a whim? If I had to walk to get those flowers and green peppers, I'd pare down my "needs" pretty severely. If I had to haul my bottled water, you can bet I'd learn to drink from my kitchen tap with greater satisfaction.
And don't even mention my clothes. If you had an x-ray machine that showed you precisely how the clothes you are now wearing were produced, by whom, and under what environmental and human rights conditions, you might find it harder to sleep at night. But the genius of industrial capitalism is that it "exports" the costs (human, environmental, political, social) while importing the benefits in packaging that allows us to disown our moral and global responsibilities.
I know there are many enlightened individuals who have a much lighter carbon footprint than I do, and I deeply admire them for their Thoreauvian courage and restraint. I aspire to be more like them.
All of this is why I grow a garden in spite of the odds. If I want to go out and snap a cob of corn off its fabulous green stalk in August, and dig up an onion, I have to kneel down in the earth and put my hands in the soil and caress a seed into fruition. Whatever we kneel for is prayer, and when we kneel in the earth we are reminding ourselves of what is really at stake. It makes life a sacrament. It doesn't absolve me of my complicity and addiction in the global carbon economy, but it gives me pause—for a few minutes a day—to think about how precious the basics of life are, and how many tens of millions of people worldwide would give anything to have a garden to grow food in, and a ready and clean water supply to keep it—and them--alive.
This spring has been so hectic that it would have been sensible not to plant a garden this year. But that is not the kind of life I wish to build for myself. A number of my close friends are gardeners, some of them master gardeners by my standards. One of them said you need to spend an hour a day in the garden just to stay on top of the weeds. Oh dear. Last year I lost control of my garden to two predators: Canada thistle and a group of pesky pheasants who live in the diminishing patch of prairie west of my house. Those darn pheasants are still here, or their cousins. They are as regular as a village rooster in the way they torment me at dawn every day with their "kruk, kruk" call.
I spent the winter devising a non-lethal pheasant abatement program. I need to test fire my paint ball assault rifle soon. A friend from work made me a heavy two-dimensional metal coyote silhouette out of a piece of oil field pipe. It is already holding a gleaming and tireless vigil at the corner of my tomato patch. And, after a reader last year suggested that critters are afraid of pinwheels, I ordered 40 of them online. If nothing else, my garden will be colorful this year! For added protection, I put four of those miniature solar-powered yard torches on the corners of my raised garden. If necessary, I will play tapes of Glenn Beck lectures to scare rabbits, raccoons, and pheasants away.
All of my tomatoes are planted: 47 by my last count, plus six ceramic containers where I planted cherry tomatoes for the famous triathlete Melanie Carvell, who stops by to graze before she runs off with the antelope towards Double Ditch.
I have two gardens this year—my regular vegetable garden, with a large and unruly raspberry patch in its center, and a 12x24 foot raised garden, which I'm calling my Square IX garden. It's part of a project I am doing with the garden staff at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. I send them Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara seeds, like the ones Meriwether Lewis sent to Jefferson from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, and Monticello sends me Jefferson garden seeds. We keep obsessive Jeffersonian planting records at both ends, and compare baskets of produce during Monticello's annual garden festival in the fall. Jefferson, who was one of the most orderly individuals who ever lived, designated one portion of his immense garden terrace "Square IX," as a plot in which to experiment with new or unusual seeds. He was a one-man cooperative extension farm before such things were invented in 1914.
Last year I did a fundraising dinner at a lovely farm-to-table restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Monticello's head gardener Pat Brodowski supplied all of the vegetables from Jefferson's terrace. It may sound a little silly, but eating straight from the garden of the Sage of Monticello is a very heady and moving experience. We are, after all, what we eat.
I quadrupled my rhubarb patch this year. I made my first rhubarb pie of the year on Mother's Day, and my mother reported it that she devoured it like Little Jack Horner.
The late May freeze and the chaos of my schedule have kept me from being a very systematic gardener this year. On the day you read this I will be flying back from Calgary, Alberta. If my plane lands on time, I will have just enough time in the evening to finish planting, because the next morning I have to go to Fargo for a couple of meetings. What I have needed, and did not have this year, was a full weekend of long days with my hands in the soil. The best garden days are when you can stay dirty all day and well into the evening, hands in the soil, planting, grubbing, pruning, trimming, hoeing, mowing, weeding, weed-whacking, with periodic interruptions to drive to the plant store and the hardware store for flowers and parts and gadgets that suddenly seem necessary to make everything right. And then, at the end of the day, the simplest possible meal out on the deck, as the breeze comes up and the sun goes down—a baguette, some fine cheese, a bit of salami, and a good glass of wine. It's a ritual as old as humanity. You can read about it in Homer's epics, in the famous agrarian odes of the Roman poet Horace, in the Georgics and Eclogues of Virgil, and of course in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.
I love that moment, perhaps the greatest moment of North Dakota life, when you are sitting out on the deck on a summer evening, reading or talking with a friend or just gazing out onto the prairie, sipping (but not drinking) wine, and at first it is almost too hot and bright to enjoy the experience. But this is North Dakota, where for eight months per year it is too cold to sit on the deck, so in May or June you persevere out of a kind of "I will pretend this is California!" stubbornness. Then towards sunset, at first imperceptibly, the intensity of the heat and the light begins to diminish. At some point a kind of invisible trigger trips, and you realize that the temperature is now perfect and the breeze heavenly in its gentle caress. It is one of the happiest moments of life. Almost everything that really matters is free.
I like to linger then just a little bit longer, to watch the western sky exfoliate in arrays of pink, tangerine, slate, charcoal, and Bloody Mary red, and someone says, because they cannot help it, "I cannot believe it's still light this late in the evening." And everyone goes silent with wonder, and somehow all of those months of trying to start the snow blower at 23 below or waking up and coming home in the dark are instantly redeemed. The last step in such an evening of perfection is to sit out until it is just barely chilly enough that you think you should go in to get a jacket, but you don't, because you realize the chill is actually not uncomfortable. In its own way, it is a very agreeable sensation.
This year I am dedicating my garden to Eleanor Rixen, who was precisely what we think about when we remember the ideal rural women of North Dakota, when we were still a lovely forgotten backwater in America, scratching a living out of the soil, and thanking God for the blessings he had laved on us, and watching the western sky for hail. She supplied the hollowed gallon coffee cans that protect my tiny tomato plants. They are rusted and battered from thirty summers. I love them for all the memories and the quiet humble husbandry they represent.
Sometimes you just have to face disquieting truths. Take Canada for example. There it is just on the other side of the border filled with people more or less just like us, 36 million of them, most of whom speak English. You don't need an interpreter or a power converter to get along in Canada. Of all the countries an American might pass into, Canada provides the most immediate and comfortable fit.
I spent five days there last week consulting on a big film project. Here is my report. I'm sure I'm generalizing.
First, they are politer than we are. Not in some sort of stiff Queen's English sort of way—there is some of that—but in a manner more civil, with a more careful vocabulary, much less of the F-word, more complete sentences, more grammatical. Every transaction I had, with hotel clerks, restaurant personnel, bartenders, shopkeepers, and civil servants was marked by a kind of effortless politeness and respect. There was none of the "yeah, whadya want?" attitude that is now so common in American commerce. During my short stay in Alberta, I never heard a single rude remark. And the good cheer is not that sort of saccharin "Have a good day," or "Enjoy!" we sometimes get in our own cultural exchanges.
Second, the Canadians are healthier than we are. The United States of America, I am sorry to report, tops the scale in the global obesity rate. More than 30% of the American people are obese. That's more than a hundred million seriously fat Americans. Our beleaguered health care system has to lug us back from the brink with stents, bypass surgeries, diabetes regimens, pacemakers, blood pressure medicines, and a whole industry dedicated to trying to keep our digestive systems working in they way they were intended. Go into any American Costco and you will find a 200-foot aisle of floor to ceiling shelves filled with laxatives, fibers, and probiotics. When you survey the hundreds, maybe thousands, of products designed to help move out the massive amounts of processed bad food we keep shoveling in, it just makes you pause to wonder.
Canada's obesity rate is 14%. Half of ours. How can it be that a nearly identical people who live just across an imaginary 3,987-mile line can be twice as lean and just half as fat as we are? Surely Canada is a mirror we ought to gaze into from time to time. And not only are the Canadians less obese than we are, they are fitter and healthier looking too. My colleague and I walked along a beautiful bike and running trail that follows the Bow River through the city of Calgary. It was filled with smiling people of all ages, in casual sportswear that was not vulgar, people that it was a pleasure to gaze at.
Just in case you are wondering, the Canadian health care system spends $5,948 per capita every year, and the U.S. system spends $8,299 per person per year.
Third, them Canadians seem more curious and better educated than we are. Not smarter. I think they read more books and watch less television. My taxi driver this morning gave me a brief and thoughtful description of the state of Canada's relations with her Indian (First Nations) populations. I've had this same conversation in Montana and Wyoming. In our heartland, it tends to settle quickly into the "why can't they just get over it and be like us" argument, laced with sarcasm and contempt. Another taxi driver asked me where I was from, and then offered up a thoughtful and nuanced analysis of America's foreign policy. At customs a few minutes ago the agent, when he heard that I was traveling to Bismarck, asked what I knew about the sinking of the German warship Bismarck (May 1941), then gave me a ten-minute short course. It's as if they are all channeling public television up there.
Once, in New Hampshire, my dawn taxi driver turned around and said, "Wanna know what the most important nine-letter word in the English language is?" "Sure," I said. "D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E, discipline!" I said, "Ok, but that's ten letters." He said, "Whatevah."
The Canadians are more law abiding than we are. Vile Tories and Loyalists! Twice in four days when I walked from my hotel to the flat where we worked I found myself waiting five minutes at a stoplight (with no traffic either way) because the others on the sidewalk quietly paused for the light to turn. Try that in New York.
And of course the Canadians have much more restrictive gun control laws than we do (by which I mean they actually have some). But that of course is a subject that we are not allowed to talk about in the freest country that ever was. There is very little gun violence in Canada. You are five times more likely to die of gunshot wounds in the U.S. than in Canada.
I've always felt that Canada was America's better self, the same nation without steroids. There are little independent bookstores everywhere, and bread shops, and wine boutiques, and greengrocers, and cheese shops, and the widest possible range of ethnic restaurants. Their newspapers still look like newspapers, not People Magazine on newsprint. There is none of the mean streets honking and gesturing and jockeying for position one experiences in Chicago or New York. Somehow it just feels like a calmer and more generous world.
Don't get me wrong. I love America. I love the pulse and beat and boisterousness and bravado and irreverence of America, but in some ways we seem a much more tribal nation than Canada. We're a vast land of sharply defined identity groups that co-exist uneasily, in each other's face, each pursuing the "main chance." I think that in a land like ours where capitalism has been given such a loose leash, it runs a little amok, and gives a hardness and an edge to life. There is, in my view, a fair amount of cruelty and desperation embedded in our national operating system.
In nations where capitalism is treated not like a god, but like a powerful and at times problematic economic system that must be softened in its effects, in nations where there is widespread agreement that a dignified and ample safety net is the best way to create social security, life seems to be more relaxed and more generous.
Put it another way. Canada seems to have fewer fundamentalists than we do. By fundamentalists I don't just mean severe Christian evangelicals. I mean Second Amendment absolutists, and those who just want us to return to the protocols of the Founding Fathers, those who want us to pull out of the U.N., super-patriots, anti-evolutionists, and those who say "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the world." It's hard to imagine a Canadian super-patriot, just as it's hard to figure out what Canadian cuisine would be.
It's as if the Canadians take more breaths per minute than we do. They see what a good life they have huddled up at the top of the United States, protected by our massive security umbrella, the beneficiaries of our much more raw and energetic economy, always getting to be the more reasonable cousins of their best friends, those magnificent yahoos south of the border.
I would never want us to stop being America, but I think we would gain by taking some lessons from our genial cousins to the north.