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The Wordsworth of Emmons County

When New England-born Ninette Maine Lowater moved to North Dakota in 1916, her journey was not joyous. As a teenager she had moved with her family from Connecticut to Wisconsin in 1859. After the Civil War she had married a returning soldier, Harrison Lowater. With him she raised three children and lived in comfortable, although not luxurious, circumstances. Mrs. Lowater became a poet of some note, publishing her work in both local and the national press.

Then, in 1916, her husband passed away. The widow Lowater soon removed to Emmons County, North Dakota, and moved in with her daughter and son-in-law on their farm.

Judging by her published work, Ninette Lowater had, throughout her life as a writer, dwelt in the past. Her poems dealt with holidays, family, and especially veterans — she wrote at least three Decoration-Day poems. As the years accumulated, she wrote more and more about getting older and the transitions of life.

Some time not long before 1916, however, she journeyed west to visit the family in North Dakota and there wrote a poem, “On a Dakota Prairie.” Here elements of nature and the land begin to emerge in her work — but only as objects of observation, and somewhat abstract. Still, she appears struck to “see the wide, bare prairie fade away / Into the lucent brightness of the day — / Unshadowed day, fresh from the maker’s hand.” Soon after this Lowater published a book of poetry, Songs from the Wayside, in which “On a Dakota Prairie” figured prominently.

Once having relocated permanently to North Dakota, she does not appear to have taken much active part in community affairs, but she did resume writing. And her affection for the landscape deepened, as she published, in the Emmons County Record, a second poem with the title, “On a Dakota Prairie.” “Midsummer rests upon the level plain,” she writes, “The grain fields reach and melt into the sky, / Dancing and rippling as the wind sweeps by … A glory rests upon this northern land, / The glory of long day and lucent light.”

Then comes, in 1921, Ninette Lowater’s most grounded and most luminous work, “A Song of the Soil,” also published in the Emmons County Record. Here she expresses pity for dwellers in eastern cities, “Where you only see the sun at noon, as the captive sees, through bars.” Such cities were places without charity, “Where the strong must fight and the weak go down in the surging tide of strife.”

But O, the prairies of Emmons County — let me put them to a tune.
The bare brown fields, where filmy clouds across the sky-roof stray,
Where blows the sweet, untainted wind through the unhurried day,
Where the plow bites deep and the harrow smooths, and the seeders spread the grain,
To save the hungry multitude from famine’s direful reign.

In a remarkable cadence, the emergent prairie poet captures the seasonal rhythms of farm operations, as well as the consciousness of agricultural importance following the Great War. I have no doubt Mrs. Lowater was familiar with the great Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. Her new, prairie voice is that of William Wordsworth plunked down on a busy prairie farm.

Wordsworth, of course, could not have been happy without his nightingales, but Mrs. Lowater came to love her western meadowlarks. And we are fortunate to have her to state the very ideal of prairie farming.

Here life goes on with honest toil, which harms no brother man,
But gives true riches to the world, in life’s eternal plan.

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