“Bright clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon…. Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.”
Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth is a classic novel about pioneer life on the prairies of Dakota Territory. The book opens with that description of the prairie. Perhaps like me, you often attempt to visualize the Dakota landscape of a couple hundred years ago. I think about that more now during the winter months when the trees are bare, and the big white blanket covers the landscape. And it really comes to mind for me when I drive down out of the Turtle Mountains to Bottineau when the landscape ahead for several miles is largely unobstructed.
There are many descriptions about the prairie by early settlers and others. Many, perhaps most, invoke a sense of emptiness. The winter emptiness is perhaps most intense and comes up again in Rolvaag’s book when the prairie is described as:
“A grey waste…an empty silence…a boundless cold. Snow fell; snow flew; a universe of nothing but dead whiteness.”
Rose Wilder Lane in her novel Let the Hurricane Roar described the aftermath of a winter blizzard:
“Under the immeasurably vast sky, a limitless expanse of snow refracted the cold glitter of the sun. Nothing stirred, nothing breathed; there was no other movement than the ceaseless interplay of innumerable and unthinkably tiny rays of light. Air and sun and snow were the whole visible world – a world neither alive nor dead…”
Theodore Roosevelt made several observations about winter in the badlands in his book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.
“When the days have dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seem never ending, then all the great northern plains are changed into an abode of iron desolation…All the land is like granite; the great rivers stand still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel…“The great white country wrapped in the powdery snow-drift seems like another land…when the sun is out the glare from the endless white stretches dazzles the eyes; and if the gray snow-clouds hang low and only let a pale, wan light struggle through, the lonely wastes become fairly appalling in their desolation. For hour after hour a man may go on and see no sigh of life except, perhaps, a big white owl sweeping noiselessly by.”
So, as you travel the region this winter, try to imagine and visualize that landscape before European settlement.