Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why North Dakota?

I've always imagined the place we grow up to sink into our bones and set the course for where we feel most comfortable in life. For me, that's meant the shore and the scent of a salt marsh at low tide... traffic and malls and lots of people. Something, though, has tugged at me to see a place where all the oceans are equally far away; a place where long stretches of land flow for miles unfettered by anything but my imagination.

Other places I've traveled to make the world feel small by comparison: the sky hemmed in by mountains or trees or buildings. The prairie is different. The landscape doesn't shout out its beauty here, but entices you in small ways... the winnowing of snipe overhead, the soft huff of horses grazing in the predawn light, the starkness and loneliness of it, a velvet bowl of ink black sky so full of stars it makes you wonder what it might feel like to count so many, clouds that stumble across an unbelievably big sky, the long soft blur of sunset shadows that cross a patchwork of farm fields and prairie: where a few trees and a grain elevator are the only comfort for the eye in all that emptiness.

Maybe I like the challenge of finding beauty where others would see none... the black backbone of road and the faint lines of light at the horizon that mean there's a town off the interstate, the nothing between me and a three wire barbed fence and a pasture of horses or bison, the wind that carries the grace notes of a meadowlark or a bobolink. This, this middle in the middle of nowhere, is a place of quiet where birdsong and the gentle whistle of wind are the only music and me the lonely audience.

There's something here in the intersection of land and light, sky and the ever-present wind, the dark earth and the cerulean water in each and every pothole with its breeding ducks that communicates the language of this place; words of solitude translated by a yellow-headed blackbird hanging from cattails in a slough beside the road or the sight of ancient purple lilacs watching over deserted dooryards. There's all of this and yet, sometimes, you need to bend close to the ground and pull the soft dusty green sage through your fingers or catch sight of prairie smoke bloom
ing among the short grasses, with kingbirds squabbling on the fencerow behind you, to know that emptiness looks like this and that the place that one calls home need not be the only place a heart resides.

(Written mostly as a response to the cross-eyed glances of friends who wondered why I wouldn't choose Hawaii as a vacation destination instead of the frozen land of North Dakota.)


More to come...


z-silverlight said...

The BIG SKY. That's what gets you. The big blue bowl from horizon to horizon.
Overwhelms and fills you with something more than awe.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. That was lovely. The birding perspective from JZ, the adventure perspective from Birdchick, and then the description of your experience. Hmmm. I hear the potholes calling.

Wayne, PA

egretsnest said...

I hadn't had much urge to go to the prairie before but now . . .

Floridacracker said...

Very nice.
A bit like being at sea.

d. moll, l.ac. said...

Beautiful pictures! Room to breathe and room to roam.

Carolyn H said...

North Dakota is a pretty cool place. I like the Badlands and the Red River valley. Good birding, too!

Carolyn H.

MojoMan said...

Oh, I hear North Dakota is the hott place to visit this year. Very chic. Right up there with New Jersey. How did you EVER get reservations!? You must know people.

In about 1978 I took a train from Syracuse, New York to Edmonton, Alberta, sitting in a coach seat for about 3 days. Rolling through the plains of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta was mesmerizing. I never tired of gazing out at the 'waving fields of grain' and the infinite horizons.

LauraHinNJ said...

Silverlight: Hey! Yeah, it was really impressive - especially the clouds and their many moods.

Heather: Thanks for coming out of the woodwork and commenting!


You're right; there were quite a few of us there with blogs and it's been interesting to read eveyone's different take on the trip.

Liza: Yes... you've got to find your way there sometime.

FC: An interesting comparison... that sea of grasses spread out before you.

d. moll: Yes! Coming home felt like reverse culture shock almost... between the awful heat this week and that particular *Jersey thing* of people here.


Carolyn: Yeah... I've wanted to visit the badlands in SD... maybe next year.

The birding was spectacular!

Mojoman: Thanks for the laugh! You might actually (not) be surprised that finding a decent place was kinda tough.


A childhood friend emailed me for my birthday and asked if I was doing anything special - told him I was in ND - he told me he'd peed there once in 2005 (in an airport I'd guess) - and thought it an exciting place.


I get the idea ND is the kind of place that people just rush through on their way to somewhere else, but they're missing out, I think. I might say the same for NJ.

Sekhar said...

Beautiful post and nice photos too. Thanks for sharing and keep it up :)

Julie Zickefoose said...


It was an honor to bird with you on your bird-day. This post is utterly perfect. Thank you for this word picture that captures North Dakota's majesty and lonely beauty so well.

BT3 said...


nice to meet you in ND. I can see that you've been 'bit' by the prairie's allure. you'll return often I predict.

RuthieJ said...

Wow, Laura, that's such a beautiful post! You definitely have a gift of words. Thanks for putting these thoughts to words so others have a chance to understand what it is that lures people to the prairie.

dguzman said...

My only views of North Dakota have come courtesy of the Coen brothers and Fargo, so it's a beautiful surprise to see the prairie without all that snow. The clouds and the land and the grass--wow. I'm so bummed I missed it.

KGMom said...

Laura--your writing has some of the quality of Kathleen Norris. Something about the spareness that forces us to slow down, consider the beauty, the majesty of it all.
Glad you are there and not some splashier place!

Born Again Bird Watcher said...

I haven't had the opportunity to visit this area yet but I certainly have it on my short list.

Susan Gets Native said...

Your description sounds heavenly to me. A place that I can drop all my stress from my shoulders.
Arrgh. I have so many trips to save for! Cape May this fall, Mary wants to go to a thing in WV in April, and now the next prairie thing. Anyone want to go in on some lottery tickets?

Mary said...

Lottery tickets? I'm In!

Beautiful post, Laura. I just love the way you write. I have a group of friends who would imagine I'm crazy not to opt for the Bahamas, too :o)