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An Old Home, Who'll Stay?
Field Notes from the Nebraska Sandhills
Dakota is everywhere, at least in diaspora.
On an early morning in July 2003, I joined three fellow coworkers on a field trip to Valentine, Nebraska. I was working part time for an environmental consulting firm while finishing up my graduate work at Utah State University. We had been hired to conduct preliminary vegetation surveys in the sandhills of Brown and Cherry counties as part of an environmental audit for our client. In particular, we were instructed to look for two endangered flowers—the Western Fringed Prairie Orchid (Plantanthera praeclara) and the Blowout Penstemon (Penstemon haydenii). If we found an occurrence of either flower, we simply had to pinpoint its location with a Global Positioning System and e-mail the coordinates to our data analyst in Logan, Utah. Simple enough and hardly scientific.
For me, Nebraska existed only in books and in my research. It occupied a theoretical, not geographical space, although much of what is written about Nebraska centers on its landscape, on its geography. I've read Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, and contemporary authors such as Lisa Knopp and poet William Kloefkorn. My master's thesis devoted a significant portion of its first chapter to the landscape of the Nebraska prairie.
My own family grew up in those plains, outside of Lincoln, and when the U.S. economy tanked during the Panic of 1893, my great-great-grandparents, John and Kate Woodward, loaded their wagon, and lit out across those rolling hills heading west—to the place where they could seek their future and escape the barbed elements of their past: the wind, poverty, and the child they buried in the Nebraska sod. Eventually, they settled in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But as I read their narratives, and as I read page after [End Page 117] page of what might be called Nebraskan literature, something deep within the Big Blue Stem and switchgrass country tugged at my curiosity. Something begged to repudiate the theoretical Nebraska and supplant it with the real Nebraska, with the place itself.
Before I left on our field trip, I studied the map intensively. I wanted to know for certain that I would see the North Platte River. I needed to see those rolling hills, the "windy Nebraska tableland" as Cather called it. And I needed to see the landscape that led to those tablelands and all that it held. Oil derricks dotting the Wyoming plains. The rise of dales, the shimmering tallgrass. Wind-burnt homesteads that hunkered on the prairie, aslant against all that sky. Creaking windmills. Railroad lines. Everything.
I aimed to examine Nebraska despite the uneasiness Charlotte Hogg expresses about such an undertaking in her fine essay, "'Settling Down' in Western Nebraska." "I was surprised," she explains "when I found myself resisting authors like Kathleen Norris (Dakota), Gretel Ehrlich (The Solace of Open Spaces), and Ian Frazier (The Great Plains), not because what they were saying was inaccurate or inauthentic, but because they seemed preoccupied with examining—rather than living—a life on the Great Plains" (227). Her resistance to these works is sound and is a point well taken. But as a writer who has walked miles and miles in ninety-degree heat along the shores of Merritt Reservoir, who has studied the vegetation coverages of northwestern Nebraska, and whose family once called this place home, I don't know what else to do but to write these words. I can't not examine that place. I suspect the same is true, in one way or another, for Norris, Ehrlich, Frazier, and every other writer who has been so fully impressed by this landscape that they wrote about it whether they wanted to or not. Ultimately, I think, we're lucky that people are examining the Plains at all. Their interest indicates a kind of stewardship—either literary or in practice or both, like...