Last night after my reading at Dickinson State, sponsored by the Heart River Writers' Circle, an older man with a cowboy hat who was sitting in the front row came up and introduced himself. He had one of those great western nicknames, which I hesitate to repeat here. So, let’s just call him Montana Slim. Anyway, as we talked, I noticed that his right eye was watering. He pushed aside a few tears and told me that he was a little under the weather because he was just recovering from a rattlesnake bite. I’ve been in North Dakota for three weeks, traveling around the state doing writing workshops for the North Dakota Humanities Council, so I’ve heard lots of stories, but I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. I tried not to show it. Really, I said. What happened?
Montana Slim said he was riding around in the Badlands all by himself when a rattlesnake decided to up and bite him. As soon as it happened, he said, he just sat down in the dirt and said, God, you’ll have to take care of me. He was way out there by himself; he knew he had no chance of getting to a hospital in time. But in a few seconds God talked back and said, Think, Slim, just think.
So Slim sat there for a while and thought. Then he remembered how a Cheyenne friend had once told him how they used to use echinacea to treat horses with rattlesnake bites. So he looked around and found some echinacea. He put the flower in his mouth and worked it into a mash, then added some water, mixed it with some clay, pulled up his pant leg and applied the concoction on the bite. He tore a strip of fabric off his t-shirt and wrapped it around his leg to apply pressure and affix the poultice to his leg.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him how long he sat there or how he got back to town. Some doubt must have passed over my face because before I could ask these questions, he was pulling up his pant leg to show me--mid-calf, just at the top of his cowboy boot, in that soft spot behind the knee were two small side-by-side puncture wounds. They were red and puffy around the edges but brown in the center, like a scab in the process of healing.
You may not believe him, but I did. Maybe just because I wanted to. Maybe his story wasn’t all true, maybe it included parts that involved ambulances and doctors. But there’s no question Montana Slim had been bit by a snake.
This place seems to go on forever, and so do its stories. I feel a little snake bit myself, by Montana Slim’s story and by all the other stories I’ve heard the last three weeks. They’ll roll around my head for years, and maybe I’ll start to believe I’ve forgotten them. Then one day when I’m in real trouble, in real need of advice, they’ll come back to me with the cure for my ills. That’s what comes from listening. And for that, I’m grateful.
What is there to say other than Thank You, North Dakota? For the past three weeks Deb and I have been bumbling around in our suv, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and stories of North Dakota. We've logged over 4,000 miles, listened to over 100 people tell their stories of loss, migration, change, and love, and we've watched the light ripple across the buttes and prairie of this land.
It's a gift to travel throughout your home state, teaching--but teaching isn't really the right word-- its more living out your vocation. I love words. I love stories. And I love helping others tell their own stories.
When I signed on to help lead these writing workshops I had little faith anyone would show up. Writers do not live in North Dakota.
I was so wrong. As Deb and I traveled from Beach to Hettinger, Dickinson to Cannonball, Williston to Watford City, Crosby to Powers Lake, Tioga to Towner, Fort Totten to Dunn Center I kept meeting people who love language, people who love telling stories.
Something beautiful happens when people write: they go deep within themselves to search for a language, their own language, to help express their experience of life.
In his essay "Doing Good Work Together," William Kittredge puts it this way: "We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things."
North Dakotans can certainly tell a good story; it's my hope that they continue to write the stories of their lives.
For much of my life Zion Lutheran Church existed in the distant corners of my memory. Tucked away, behind stories of my life on the prairie, I could only recall a musty, wooden basement that I met in my youth. I did not even know the name Zion Lutheran Church.
During our time in North Dakota Deb and I have heard stories--stories of dreams, of losing wedding rings, of time spent with grandchildren, of living in r.v.s, of watching barn swallows. Stories infuse the landscape of North Dakota.
But along our way, and on a forgotten gravel road, stands Zion Lutheran Church--and it has completed my own story, one that is now complete after 20 years of trying to find the language to tell it.
In 1991, when I was 4, I attended my great-grandmother's funeral. I only have the memory of the day she died and of being at a white church with a musty basement. I now know that church: what it looks like,with its cream-colored plaster walls and ceilings, the stained glass that marks the front of the church, and the quaint loft; I've now played hymns on the piano in the church; I have now seen the landscape that my childhood had forgotten.
Nestled in the prairie a few miles south of Noonan, ND, Zion Lutheran Church has imprinted itself more fully in my memory. It has helped me to complete my own story of loss and of remembering, which is what we do when we write. In agreeing to lead workshops across half of the state I did not think of my own roots and my own story, but in listening and helping others tell their stories, I have now been able to tell mine.
Let’s play the License Plate Game: Alaska, Texas, Florida, Montana, Georgia, South Dakota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Louisiana. In the last several days, traveling around North Dakota teaching writing workshops for the North Dakota Humanities Council's Our People. Our Places. Our Stories program, I’ve seen all these license plates and met people from most of these states and more.
I’ve met and talked with longtime residents of North Dakota, people whose families emigrated here, whose history in the region goes back three and four generations, and I’ve met people whose ancestors were on this land for countless generations before Europeans arrived.
This state is in flux, having found itself in the middle of an oil boom. Especially while driving Highway 2 from Minot to Williston, one can see the multi-layered evidence of habitation and the multiple uses of the land--harvesters and other farm equipment in fields alongside oil wells pumping; new construction sites being dozed beside old silos and grain elevators; the steeples of beautiful country churches now sharing the horizon with tall, vertical fracking rigs. At night, around six o’clock, the intersection of Hwy. 85 and Main in Watford City looks as busy as Lake Shore Drive in Chicago--a line of cars, trucks, and semis snaking through the stoplight, an unbroken line of headlights shining into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Just regular people trying to get home or to work, trying to get groceries or pick up a kid from the babysitter, or trying to deliver a load of water or oil to some appointed site. Only, everything is a little more complicated now.
In the last few days, I’ve thought a great deal about my own ancestors, the first of whom arrived in this territory in 1886 having left their German-Russian villages along the Black Sea to escape changing political conditions that they sensed would not be good for their future safety. They arrived in a state of desperation; there was no turning back. They found the land welcoming but also inhospitable. Slowly, over time and seasons, they fell in love with the place. The beauty won them over, just as I have been won over in the last few weeks traveling these roads, watching rolling moraines open to luxurious plains of farmland, watching snow geese resting in their migration beside a slough. Last week, I saw a coyote standing stock still on a frozen pond, just looking around. I’ve felt a bit like that coyote recently--just looking around, trying to understand what is happening, what will happen, wondering how all this change will be absorbed and accommodated.
The Pioneer Museum of MacKenzie County, located on that busy intersection of Highway 85 and Main Street in Watford City, houses an impressive array of artifacts from the history of the region--a Buffalo fur coat, a display of photographs of threshing machines, and a new display with a small scale model of an oil rig with a video explaining how fracking works.
As I drive, I think of how much patience it will take on all parts to understand how all these layers of land use and history are going to come together into something that will last, something that will be sustainable. I’m keeping my eyes on the horizon and my ears open, listening for those stories.
Throughout our travels in North Dakota, one thing has been a part of our daily conversations: the play of light on the landscape.
As Deb and I drove south and west through Solen, over to Cannonball, the beautiful buttes were brushed with a pink pastel; on our drive to Hettinger we noticed the slant of light, painting the horizon a gentle gold; and as we drove to Dunn Center, through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt, we saw light muddle the Little Missouri River.
When you've been away from North Dakota for awhile, and when you return, you notice subtlety. We've been greeted by pronghorns, noticed snow geese near Crosby, a coyote even decided to walk on a frozen lake in full view, and have counted numerous pheasant and deer on the prairie.
North Dakota is a land of vastness--the glaciers that moved through this part of the state have given us an open view of the world from horizon to horizon. The many ponds that dot Divide County look as if copper coins have been gently pressed into the landscape, and the lonely buttes of southern North Dakota help us to get our bearings. Both Deb and I are grateful for this, for the time spent in this landscape, and for the light we get greeted with every day in our workshops because of our students' discussions.
I flew over from Michigan to Bismarck on Saturday, November 2nd to start this traveling residency in North Dakota--driving, talking, writing, and listening, followed by more driving, talking, writing, and listening. Three time zones and one time-change later, I have no idea what time it is. In keeping with the season of time-changes, I am falling back into North Dakota. All my watches are set to different time zones; all the wall clocks we see as we travel from place-to-place are set to the wrong times. However, one thing is certain: everyone we meet seems to be in tune, set to the melody of story.
In only a few days, we've been to Beach, Hettinger, Dickinson, and Solen-Cannonball. We've met amazing, vibrant, engaged people around the state who are ready to talk and write. We've heard about blizzards, fighter pilots, life philosophies, recipes, berry-picking, lost fathers, crazy quilts and so much more. We've seen pheasants flush from ditches and Angus cattle grazing in pastures. We've seen prong-horned antelope in a wheat field and a group of horses with coats ranging from red- and blue-roan to pinto patterns running up a hill near Solen, North Dakota.
I feel so lucky to be traveling with Taylor Brorby--writer, talker, listener, and navigator extraordinaire--and we're grateful to the ND Humanities Council for making this trip possible. I have been homesick for this place, my home. As we drive the roads, all I can do is ooh and aah at the beauty.
Admittedly, when Brenna Gerhardt sent me an email this past spring titled "Theoretical Project," I was a bit nervous. Brenna asked me if I would like to join Deb Marquart on a journey through western North Dakota to teach people writing. I had to read the email twice. Deb Marquart. Writing workshops. Western North Dakota. What wasn't to love?
North Dakota is etched on my heart. In my youth I wandered creeks, over buttes, through coulees, and I have found that the landscape of North Dakota has never quite left me. I grew up with my maternal grandparents sharing stories from their childhoods, and I eventually came to love the world of language and words. It is from this place of love that I am eager to return to North Dakota with Deb to teach these upcoming creative writing workshops.
Both Deb and I are grateful for the participants who have already signed up to be a part of our workshops. (And please know that there is still room for more in some communities.) We're eager to return to our home state to help share stories in poetry, in fiction, in essays, in writing at large. We're less than three days away from getting started. We look forward to writing with you soon!
One day last summer Debra Marquart came to visit my office and said, "You should send me out to do writing workshops in the western part of the state were all the rapid development is happening." Writers are by nature curious people and Deb is no exception. She wanted to see for herself how the place we both grew up is changing. The story of North Dakota's oil boom is all over the national media, but Deb wasn't content to read about her home state from major new outlets. She wanted to travel the countryside and hear people tell their own stories. She wanted to take a snapshot of North Dakota in pen and ink using the voices of the people who live there. Of course, many of the best stories that come from the workshops won't have anything to do with oil. They might talk about travelling to foreign countries, falling in love, or skydiving. The stories might even be fictional or written in poetic verse. The point is that each story will still be shaped by the connection the writer has to the place they are writing in. It will be a fun adventure. In fact, it was such a fun project that it attracted the attention of another North Dakota author. Taylor Brorby was keen to join Deb on the road and add his own voice to the project.
During their trip we have invited Deb and Taylor to blog about their adventures right here. We hope you will join us in following their journey.