- In the Great Bend of the Souris River
My father, David Whippet, moved a family of eight from Lancaster, in the western Mojave, up onto the high plains of central North Dakota in the summer of 1952. He rented a two-story, six-bedroom house near West-hope. It was shaded by cottonwoods and weeping willows and I lived in it for eleven years before he moved us again, to Sedalia in central Missouri, where he retired in 1975. I never felt the country around Sedalia. I carried the treeless northern prairie close in my mind, the spine-shattering crack of June thunder—tin drums falling from heaven, Mother called it—an image of coyotes evaporating in a draw.
I went east to North Carolina to college the year Father moved us to Missouri. When my parents died, within a year of each other, my brothers and sisters sold the Sedalia house. I took no part of the proceeds. I looked back always to the broad crown of land in Bottineau County that drained away into the Mouse River, a short-grass plain of wheat, oats, and barley, where pasqueflower and blazing star and long-headed coneflower quivered in the summer wind. I came to see it in later years as the impetus behind a life I hadn’t managed well.
That first summer in North Dakota, 1952, the air heated up like it did in the desert around Lancaster, but the California heat was dry. This humid Dakota weather staggered us all. I got used to the heat, though the hardest work I ever did was summer haying on those plains. I’d fall asleep at the supper table still itching with chaff. I grew to crave the dark cold of winter, the January weeks at thirty below, the table of bare land still as a sheet of iron. Against that soaking heat and bone-deep cold the other two seasons were slim, as subtle and erotic as sex.
Considering my aspirations at the university in Chapel Hill—I majored in history, then did graduate work in physics—the way my life took shape seemed not to follow. The summary way to state it is that I became an itinerant, a wanderer with an affinity for any kind of work to be done with wood. I moved a lot—back to California from North Carolina, then to Tucson for a while before going to the Gulf Coast, Louisiana—always renting. After that, I worked in Utah for six years, then moved to eastern Nebraska. I considered moving to North Dakota, but that country seemed better as a distant memory. I felt estranged from it. [End Page 69]
Over those twenty years of moving around I installed cabinets and counters in people’s homes, made fine furniture, and built a few houses. In my notebooks, dozens of them, I wrote meticulous descriptions of more than a hundred kinds of wood, detailing the range of expression of each as I came to know it. I wrote out how these woods responded to various hand tools. In line after neat line I explained the combinations of human desire, material resistance, and mechanical fit that made a built object memorable. I was in my thirties before I saw what I’d been straining after in North Carolina, obscured until then by academic partitioning: the intense microcosm of history that making a house from a set of blueprints becomes; and the restive forces involved in physical labor. It becomes apparent in wiring a house or in routing water through it that more than gravity and the elementary flow of electrons must be taken into account. The house is alive with detour and change. Similarly with squaring its frame. The complex tensions that accumulate in wood grain affect the construction of each house. Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.
Aging got me down off roofs by the time I was forty. Pride, I have to think, a desire to publicly acquit myself by choosing a settled and respect -able calling, precipitated my first purchase of a house, in Ashland, Nebraska, in 1986. Attached to it was a spacious...