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Fisherman’s Dream

Well, he’s got that part right. Fisherman’s Dream is the most wonderful of all the roadside installations on the Enchanted Highway. In his new book--or manifesto, or memoir, or really it’s an extended essay--Clay Jenkinson declares, “I am wild about Fisherman’s Dream.” This particular Gary Greff creation drips with irony, while at the same time appealing to the basal fisherman, so that you come away affirmed but also feeling like there are some things you may not have apprehended.

Which may be how you feel about Jenkinson’s book, The Language of Cottonwoods, too--so to get into it, let’s begin in medias res, in the middle of things. About a third of the way into the book, after the author has concerned himself with definitions of North Dakota and the dilemmas of our times, but still hasn’t said anything about cottonwood trees, suddenly we are ushered into a full chapter devoted to colossal roadside effigies--Earl Bunyan, Sandy the sandhill crane, Salem Sue the colossal cow, the Rutland hamburger skillet, the Enchanted Highway, of course, and finally “the granddaddy of them all,” Professor Peterson’s World’s Largest Buffalo.

All these things are treated with a mix of honest affection and puckish humor, so that you’re thinking, I don’t know where this chapter is taking us, but I’m enjoying the ride. It is what I call a stealth essay. The author engages in a lot of loopy indirection, until you have forgotten what you’re supposed to be fishing for, then he sets the hook, and the play is on. (Ask me how I know about this--go ahead, ask me.)

Considered as a collection, our roadside leviathans, says Jenkinson, “express a kind of insecurity about our homeland on the northern Great Plains. . . . Why is it that we seem to lavish loving attention (and expense) on things we chose to eradicate in the conquest of the North American continent?”

“I’m interested in the logic of White people,” the author continues, “the psychology of settler communities, colonizers, occupiers, conquistadors”--people who displace or even extirpate the creatures and peoples that preceded them, then turn around and make memorials to them in ironic homage without sensing the irony in them. Who put Red Tomahawk, killer of Sitting Bull, on their highway signs and state patrol cars.

(By the way, Clay, have you examined the official statement on the Red Tomahawk emblem on the highway patrol website? Have a look; I’d love to hear you parse it out.)

Now, as a fourth-generation exemplar of the settler society on the prairies, I’m becoming less comfortable with where the stealth essay is going, as Jenkinson declares, “the overwhelming majority of the White people of North Dakota feel, tepidly or passionately, that it is time for Native Americans to ‘get over it.’ . . . There are,” he says further, “plenty of open racists in North Dakota.” He recounts intolerant, even homicidal rants overheard in public houses. I’d like to say, no such thing, but I have heard them, too; if you haven’t, then you are leading a sheltered life.

A Lutheran like me may say with the apostle the Lord loved, “This is a hard teaching; who can hear it?”

In his foreword to the book Mike Jacobs describes Clay Jenkinson as “a public intellectual” and The Language of Cottonwoods as “an important book about an important place.” I’m inclined to agree, while suffering the discomforts of its hard teachings and arguing with its interpretations.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll try to give the work the critical and appreciative attention it deserves. This is the beginning.

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