Gear Up and Go
Clay Jenkinson’s book, The Language of Cottonwoods, is a lot like my suitcase packed for a long research junket. You open it up, and all sorts of things pop out. Some of them are kind of loopy—on purpose, I suspect. They help to situate the more sober ones as propositions for serious consideration.
Some of these ideas are statements of chronic condition. Clay says, for instance, we have “a significant identity problem” because we are caught “in a limbo of inbetweenness.” We are “neither Midwest nor West.” All of which is complicated and accentuated by rural-urban animosities. He argues, too, that we have a “weak literature.” (Which I question. Our literature may be weak on a per-acre basis, but it's pretty strong on a per-capita basis.)
The author doesn’t provide a direct answer to the split-personality dilemma, but I think there is one: complementarity. What we need are commentators, then leaders, who are capable of defining our differences as strengths. (No, I do not require that everyone don a Bison t-shirt this fall.) People and leaders in the urban centers need to be vested in the countryside, and vice versa; vested intellectually, emotionally, and financially, and not in a predatory way. Carl Kraenzel talked about this in the 1950s, but we haven’t taken it seriously, hence our continuing tensions. (And by the way, I will weigh in before moving on: the entirety of North Dakota lies within the Great Plains, and is thus of the West.)
More fundamentally, Clay offers a dichotomy for us to consider and an ideal to pursue that might, eventually, subsume the tensions. There are, he says, two types of North Dakotans: accidental and naturalized. Accidental ones just happen to be here, by accident of birth or employment or marriage. They live their lives without a sense of place, spend their time in insulated environments doing things that do not put them into touch with the land or its grassroots culture. Fine, they may be good citizens, but we need more naturalized North Dakotans—people here on purpose, nurturing a sense of place, going out of their way to interact with the land and its people.
As Clay says, “We all need to fall in love with North Dakota in a new way ... we have to get out onto the land again to fall in love with this stark, endless, grass savannah we have the privilege to live on.” It is possible, he thinks, to implement something like a new homestead act, which idea has some merit. More generally, since even in the best-case scenario, most of our people wish to be, and will be, urban residents, we need to contrive means of connecting them to the land. I know Game & Fish is trying, but in matters of access to the land, we have been regressing in recent years. Let me emphasize, however, Clay’s specific construction that I quoted above: “fall in love with North Dakota in a new way.” The old way of agrarianism is past; even the more recent wave of environmentalism is growing suspect; what is the new way?
In parts of the book Clay sounds a little like Larry Woiwode, who for decades has lamented the loss of our pioneer hardihood. We have it soft with our digital communications and our high-tech fibers and—my favorite—our fuel injection; we need to get out there and suffer. I confess that when a blue blizzard blows in I am inclined to put on snowshoes, hike out beyond the shelterbelts, and face north like a bison, but then I go back inside and sit with a propane fire and a comforting glass.
There is, though—as my students have taught me—a new way to fashion a relationship with the land. Its narrative is not one of suffering, or resentment, or any of the burdens their elders may nurse; it is a narrative of joy. Winter approaches, and these kids are longing for snow. They want to get out there onto the hard water and the snowy trails. They gear up and go. Let us go about the business of cultivating this and every other new way of falling in love with the country. Talk about it among yourselves. Then walk the talk. Go ahead, I’ll keep the fire going, and I’ll bet Clay Jenkinson will, too.