Plains Folk | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Plains Folk

Once a week during Main Street, weekdays at 3 pm CT with a repeat at 7 pm CT.
  • Hosted by Prairie Public

Plains Folk is a commentary devoted to life on the great plains of North Dakota. Written by Tom Isern of West Fargo, North Dakota, and read in newspapers across the region for years, Plains Folk venerates fall suppers and barn dances and reminds us that "more important to our thoughts than lines on a map are the essential characteristics of the region — the things that tell what the plains are, not just where they are." 

Ways to Connect

Last week I detailed how the arsenic-laced pesticide, Paris Green, came into general use more than a century ago, mainly to combat the Colorado potato beetle. I was led to this topic by a fascinating paper presented to the Western History Association by Professor Lynn Ellen Bennett, of Utah Valley University. I determined that here in North Dakota, sale of Paris Green was handled, under state regulation, by drugstores.

I intimated, too, there would be more to say about the deadly effects of this toxic product. So now I think I better give a trigger warning: this essay deals frankly with cases of suicide in our prairie past.

Wrapping up the prairie gardening season of 2019, I bid farewell to some slimy companions. As I work in the beds, often barefoot, I welcome all the frogs, salamanders, and toads I touch with my toes. I like to see the nightcrawlers boiling up when I lay down a water hose.

I am not a strictly organic gardener, but I spend a lot of time in the beds, and we eat a terrific amount of our own produce, so I minimize the use of hot chemicals and deploy a lot of manure and compost. The slimy critters are my coal-mine canaries.

Well, I will not inquire if you did your homework. Last week I asked you to go to a Cornell University website and listen to the call of the upland sandpiper recorded at Long Lake in 1988. As recorded there and as heard it in the wild, I find the bird’s tuneless trill to be wonderfully macabre. The call of the upland plover--which is what I call the bird, by historical usage, despite the preferences of ornithologists--the call of the plover, like that of the sora rail, makes me feel like I am in some tropical paradise.

Plover on Toast

Oct 26, 2019

One night in March 1900, the Pennsylvania alumni of Yale University gathered in the genteel quarters of the Scranton Club to host a visit by Yale President Arthur T. Hadley. A sumptuous feast was served, including courses of salmon, chicken, beef, and a wild game entre: Broiled Plover on Toast.

Prairie folk of the late nineteenth century were accustomed to reading grim reports of deadly gorings inflicted by horned cattle--a catalog of grief and outrage chronicled in my previous essay. In March of 1888 a correspondent of the Emmons County Record offered them an answer to their problem: dehorning.

In one of our family photo albums is a snapshot of me, age pre-school, sitting astride our prize polled Hereford bull. I’m pretty sure his name was Domino. I’m also pretty sure if such a photo were taken and viewed today, there would be charges and investigations.

“Spend less, see more” -- this has been the candid and standard advice dispensed for 25 years by Seth Kugel, author of “The Frugal Traveler” in the New York Times. Now, in book form -- under the title, Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious -- Kugel codifies his practical approach to travel, updates it to deal with the modern, digitally dependent travel industry, and gets philosophical about the experience of travel.

Hunter’s Dilemma

Sep 28, 2019

It is a yellow dawn on the northern plains as I settle into a sunny place for some reading. My head pivots frequently, from the hazy rays streaming through corn raised by farmers of perilous tenure and destined for markets on shaky footings, to the yellowed manuscript pages on the table before me. Through them I enter the mind of William C. Hunter, as he contemplates the past and future of agriculture.

Wolf Hunters

Sep 21, 2019

Coyotes, known in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “prairie wolves,” were considered merely a nuisance in the days of the overland trails. As agricultural settlement dug into prairies, however, farm folk redefined prairie wolves as a menace.

Organized community wolf hunts were social affairs with a hostile purpose: eradication of a perceived pest. At the same time, people retained a curiosity and odd affection for the prairie wolves, often attempting to keep them as pets.

Prairie Wolves

Sep 14, 2019

It can be confusing to read, in documents of early prairie settlement, references to “prairie wolves.” The creature of note is no more a wolf than a prairie dog is a dog or a prairie chicken is a chicken. Canis latrans, known in parts south as the coyote, was christened the prairie wolf by early travelers on the overland trails, who first encountered it on the prairies.