“I may not know who I am, but I know where I came from.” So writes Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winner and prairie boy, in an essay I assign every fall to my students in the history of the Great Plains. Stegner here addresses what he calls “the question mark in the circle,” the identity question: Who am I, and what am I doing here?
Likewise in the prologue to my own book, Pacing Dakota, I make homage to the greatest of all poets of the plains, William Stafford, with lines from his poem, “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 may be feeling forlorn about the disconnection of his life from that farm back of a great plain where mother is not at home, father is not at home, but the poem is more about resolve. Stafford resolves to “be the plain.”
Here a few days ago I was feeling a little forlorn myself, laid up and hurting from an accident, but then I had the opportunity to sing to a virtual gathering of friends a couple of songs from my grandmother’s ballad book. “A Farmer’s Son Am I” was the first one, and after that, “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven.” You probably never heard of these old songs, but I tell you, they lit up the telephone line of memory that spans a lifetime to the back of that plain. Because yeah, I know where I came from, but now and then I need a reminder.
I am frequently heard to remark, sometimes in this broadcast, that I am a farmer. A critic might tell me, no, you’re not a farmer, you’re just a landlord, the heir of a farm. But that raises the issue of what it means to be heir to a piece of land, and be affected by an old song like “A Farmer’s Son Am I.”
Like most farmer’s sons of my generation, especially if they happened to have older brothers who were capable farmers, I left the home place for another line of work, as an academic historian. My dissertation, however, was a history of custom wheat harvesting on the Great Plains of North America.
Which set me on the yellow road toward being not just a professor, but a scholar of agricultural history and prairie life, a farm boy historian. The academy has been a place of tenuous tenure all my life, but I have been fortunate in my professional career. More to the point, though, I have job security in that no matter how many essays I deliver, how many books I write, I will never be done telling the story of farm and prairie. Which is good. I’m a little long in the tooth to buck bales or throw calves, but I can tell stories.
And sometimes sing them. The theme song for my weekly webcast, the Willow Creek Folk School, starts out,
On the great western prairies I do the work of the Lord
My saddle’s my pillow, and I preach for my board
There was a time during the folkie days back in the last century when I made rent with my guitar and songs, and so now, even as I approach my three-score and ten, as I have taken up regular public singing again, it’s another instance of returning to my roots. We light up the mic from our place on Willow Creek, and sure enough, people gather around virtually. Just like on account of these weekly pieces on Prairie Public, everywhere I go, people come up and introduce themselves because they recognize my voice. Please feel free to do so yourself!
The lines are still live. My self will be the plain.