Farm on the Great Plains

Aug 28, 2018

The past couple of months I have spent a great deal of time book touring, promoting my new book, Pacing Dakota, with North Dakota State University Press. Most of the book is about life on the northern plains, but it is grounded in my own history in Kansas--specifically my own roots in Barton County.

The prologue to the work gets personal about those roots, and so I decided to share it here. I think the sentiments expressed are common to the whole region of the Great Plains. (Sharing this excerpt also will answer the question I get everywhere I go, as to the meaning of the title, Pacing Dakota.)

We made a drive around the farm, my elder brother and I. It was coming on autumn. Our ninety-eight-year-old mother had passed away in January, leaving her estate in our hands. It was time to settle things. Her instructions were, essentially, you two fellows work it out among yourselves.

What sounds like a prescription for a family feud was, in fact, a perfect expression of the values of a German-American farm woman and the result of reasonable calculation on her part. My brother and I talked about wheat, feed grains, cattle, petroleum, water, quail, and deer. After ninety minutes the estate was settled, legal work to follow at its own pace.

Sometime during the night following, a night spent in the old hotel in town, now enjoying new life as a bed and breakfast, I was up in the silent dark. I settled into a corner of the parlor to do some reading and thinking.

I have a photograph of my great grandfather sitting in this exact place, he who, after years as a widower, took up with the widow woman who ran the hotel, married her, and lit his pipe in this corner of this very room. He, then, was about the age I am, now. I hope that he, then, enjoyed the same sort of peace that I enjoy, now.

So, that night, I did more thinking than reading. I did not have with me the collected works of William Stafford, but was able to recite to myself the most memorable stanzas from his poem, “The Farm on the Great Plains.”

A telephone line goes cold;

birds tread it wherever it goes.

A farm back of a great plain

tugs an end of the line.

Stafford the poet calls home to the farm, but no one answers. Mother is not at home. Father is not at home. Finally the tenant answers, but he has nothing to say. The poem speaks of time, space, mortality, and resolve.

I am not tested in quite the way Stafford was in 1956, when he penned his poem. Our farm is still a going concern populated with kids, crops, and cattle. One of my life aims is to see the farm into the seventh generation, God willing. Still, Mother is not at home, Father is not at home. Or maybe they are. I do not think Stafford was Lutheran, but even he hints that home may not be merely terrestrial. As for me,

My self will be the plain,

wise as winter is gray,

pure as cold posts go

pacing toward what I know.


~Tom Isern