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Our over-the-air radio signal in the Bismarck area is down as a tower crew repairs damage from an ice storm last April. The outage should last a few days.

Language of Cottonwoods

Soon the last of the massive poplars planted in the 1970s at our property on Willow Creek will all fall. Then the tallest tree on the place will be the native, seeded cottonwood I planted in 1992. Surely it will outlive me. I like that. Because Clay Jenkinson is right: cottonwoods speak to us of our common condition.

He says, “I regard the cottonwoods as a barometer species that informs us how intelligently we are living on the Great Plains.” This is a utilitarian consideration--as the cottonwoods go, so we go also--but there also is an affective element, metaphorical, to the relationship: “I am as much a part of North Dakota . . . as the cottonwood I am contemplating, no more and no less.” Parse for a moment the words in this paragraph: barometer, metaphor, contemplation. Because before I am done here, I will be going full-on literary.

Clay intimates that The Language of Cottonwoods is to be his great work, by which he will be remembered. Allow me to be, if not the first, then the most direct critic to call BS on that. In the first place, Jenkinson, you are a young man, so it’s too soon to pose silhouetted in a sunset. In the second place, your book poses a lot of important questions--as our friend Jacobson testifies--but the answers are all over the place.

In the third place, you have a better book in you yet. Write it. Review the current work, talk to the cottonwoods, and realize that your best talents are narrative. Let narrative drive the car, subsume the exposition, and when you feel the impulse to make a bulleted list, go on a hike instead.

As new essays emerge, farm them out to a periodical readership for conversation. Gather them into another book--not your last book, not your best book, just another book--and take them to a publisher somewhere who understands the importance of--and the current, global affinity for--indulgent hardcover books with serious content, showcased with fine design, promoted to a literate public. Then do articles with your bulleted points for the less-literate executive types.

Rinse, then repeat. Maybe the big book emerges, maybe not. It’s the corpus that counts.

For you have now declared yourself a writer, and also pointed to the stunted status of our literary canon in North Dakota. So Clay, and all the rest of us writers on the northern plains (and you artists of all kinds)--take this to heart and get to work. There are all sorts of excuses we can make for our status--our dearth of resources and audience, our longstanding grievances against external elites, droughts and blizzards and leafy spurge--but shouldn’t we be writing, every day?

And if our literature is low-growing, then elevate it like a cottonwood. If your easel is occupied with a commissioned work, then put up another easel for what your heart desires. If you are the master of a comfortable literary genre, then subvert it and rebuild on a more elevated plain. If you once wrote a great book, but have become comfortable in your easy chair, then pull up your pants and get back to work.

With a fancy title, a microphone, access to publishers, and enviable resources, I have more bully pulpits than a bishop. If you are just doing good work, I will call you out for more and better. If you are an emergent author with potential place in this more elevated grove I am talking about, I will speak your name with expectation, perhaps presume to offer you advice.

I am that landlord on a journey, who knows how many talents are in each laborer’s hands, who returns now and then for an accounting, who reaps where he did not sow.

But I am also that favored son who, with twelve teams breaking the field, drove the twelfth team himself.

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