Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The silence of the hogs

Snow on the prairie, February 27th, 2011
 It's 2 degrees, which is downright balmy.  Ish.  It's above zero for the first time in days.  Belle Fourche is actually located just this direction of the Black Hills and sits in a pocket of relative warmth.  Some people call it the banana belt of South Dakota, which means that disastrous weather is not as common as it might be elsewhere in the state. 

You have to talk about the weather out here because it's a serious, serious matter.  I'm reading The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (Harper, 2004) right now.  It's creative nonfiction along the lines of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, where the lives of real people in overwhelmingly life or death situations have to be somewhat imagined to describe the horror of a given moment.  I have to say, I'm impressed that settlers managed to tame - a relative term again - this place, at all.  I'm surprised anyone survived it.  The German/Russian contingent that pioneered their way Westward after being kicked out of Russia by Alexander the Great (after Catherine the Great had invited them in to farm the Steppes), were used to tough circumstances.  But yowza, tough doesn't quite measure up to what they found on this green and golden, blazingly beautiful, but desolate land.  Droughts, grasshopper plagues, floods,and  blizzards of biblical proportions raged through the Dakotas (and still do today; however, weather reporting, proximity to food and shelter, modern transportation and means to snow control have vastly improved the situation) in the 1880s, when settlers were arriving in droves, sent that way via advertisements and speculative ventures that promised land if a claim could be staked and worked for 5 years. 

At any rate, they didn't expect the vulnerability of the prairie to bugs and severe storms.  A series of blizzards swept the state throughout most of the 1880s.  In 1887, millions of cattle were killed during what was termed (rather charmingly) as The Winter of Blue Snow.  Havoc wreaked over a whole winter, or a series of winter, were bad enough.  But one blizzard, in 1888, killed scores of children, farmers, and anyone caught out on a falsely-warm January 12th (my birthday) day.  That day, warm after severe cold, was cause for celebration.  And hundreds of restless, home bound children set off for their prairie schoolhouses.  Farmers and ranchers set off to see to livestock and to do chores they had not been able to do for weeks.  Many of them didn't dress for impending winter weather.  Some of them were kept home because their Mamas thought the day was 'eerie' in terms of the color of the sky - a copper cast - the mugginess of the air, and the quiet. 

Enter the perfect storm - warm air streamed up from the south, while stupendously cold air from the north met it in the middle of a third cold front coming over The Rockies.  A maelstrom issued that resembled a giant, driven-by-hell cotton-bale with streaks of lightning roiling along the ground at a tremendous speed, with a roar - after a minute of complete silence - that sounded like am approaching train.  The ground storm sucked up what snow there was and pummeled it into cornmeal-sized ice that proved deadly.  The storm was called "The Children's Blizzard" because many teachers let the children out for the day to head home after the storm struck.  Cold, wind force, ice that clung like a mask to exposed faces and bodies, disorientation and lack of visibility, took their toll.  And children, and adults who were out and about, perished.

Bob told me a story about his childhood, in which an early March blizzard in 1966 forced him to stay on at a cousin's place for three days, until his father rode up on horseback to take Bob home so that he could help with the chores.  When they dug out the hog barn, a huge chicken-coop-type structure that was completely snowed-in and over, 89 of the 90 hogs appeared to be sleeping, lying on their sides, steam rising from their bodies, all suffused in an eerie blue light cast by the nine feet of snow on the roof and surrounding the hog coop.  But all but one hog had died of suffocation.  That one pig, that lucky pig that managed to breathe in what air was left, managed to shake it off and stagger to its feet.  The weirdness of this whole scenario gives me the shivers.  My Eastern upbringing finds this weather-driven brutality a hard thing to comprehend. 

We had such different childhoods, Bob and I.  Although he finds that my beloved East Coast trees tend to block the view, the shelter they offer is immeasurable in terms of survival.  Having lived through some of the winter here, and been privy to the vagaries of the temperatures and storms, and having actually been isolated to one place because the major highways have been closed to travel, I am agog with the fact that people managed to stick it out.

I have learned not to be foolish.  I walk the little dog in subzero temperatures, and sometimes we only go out because she never learned to use the toilet.  (My cat has, by the way, and I'm so proud of him.)  Some days, the dog and I play inside.  But sometimes, we venture out until her paws get too cold.  And I know when to go in, now.  Below zero is nothing to play with, particularly ten or so more below zero in a prairie wind - a nasty creature with little mercy.  I have learned to respect the temperatures, and I have noticed that when I'm out too long, I tend to have mood swings when I go back inside.  My speech is slower, I'm crankier, and it has taken more energy than I thought it would.  So, it's above zero today, but it's still cold.  I will walk the dog tonight for about twenty minutes, tops, and then I will go inside to our warm place, eat barbecued pork sandwiches put together by my descendant-of-tough-pioneers baby, drink some wonderful Pinot Noir picked out by our sweet friend, David, and we'll watch too many episodes of The Sopranos while the weather does what it will, outside, where it freakin' belongs.


  1. Congratulations, Morgan. Rubinrotes Herz selected as the third best book of the year by the German booksellers mag Buchmarkt. Right behind no 2 Jonathan Franzen. You're big in Germany!


  2. I guess I'll take the gray, cold, dampness of the Pacific NW. At least w/ rain gear for me and a toweling off afterward for Tess, we can get out for an hour walk everyday.