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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thank you

In about two weeks, I will be traveling east for four months. My book, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, will be published on January 23rd, 2012, eleven days after I turn 60 years old. It promises to be an eventful year with wide, loopy, learning curves. Even as Red Ruby Heart is published, I am writing the sequel, and will be grateful to have the privacy and comfort of an upstairs apartment in the West End of Portland, Maine, courtesy of two irreplaceable and beloved friends. Bob will travel east with me and the little dog, stay for about two weeks, then travel back to the gallery. I will visit him in February, then return to Maine. I look forward to seeing dear friends and family, but I will miss Bob very much.  

As I indicated in the last blog, I do love western South Dakota. Every coyote sighting, every deer encounter, every time I see a hawk or an eagle, or drive the nearly deserted roads through a slice of Wyoming or to Piedmont to horseback ride badly, I am grateful for the Black Hills, for the prairie, and for the sky. When I was a child, I think that this is the landscape I imagined living in. I loved babysitting my five wild cousins in the nearby farming community of Woolwich, where I rambled fields and woods, not as myself, but as a creature fueled by imagination. I may have come by it naturally. My great-grandmother, Katherine (Kate) Morse Rogers lived on a farm in Phippsburg, Maine. She died the year I was born, and I'm told that I look very much like her. She, too, loved horses and the country. I think about her from time to time and wonder if I may have taken on some of her attributes. At any rate, I will miss being here, although not being here during the relentless howl of the wind may be an okay thing.
The patient, gentle Tigger.

I have people here, now, that I will miss. Friends I've made. A writing group that amazes me with its warmth and kindness, and a knitting circle that makes me giggle!  I will miss my friend, Meg, who is solid, feisty, and wise, and my friend, Jenny, who personifies everything joyful. Andi, who took it upon herself to write a long, welcoming email to a lonely eastern woman, thus assuring her passage into the ladies who lunch (well, okay, we drive about 50 miles a shot to do it, but hey...) group. Judi is my riding instructor, and patiently teaches me as she watches me 'ride' the dauntless Tigger, a bay thoroughbred/quarter horse with the temperment and manners of a hoofed saint. I worked at the Tri-State Museum when I first arrived in Belle, and the kindness of the museum director, Rochelle, and my co-worker, DeEtte, were essential to making me feel welcome. I am especially grateful to the Bearlodge Writer's Group (www.bearlodgewriters.com) in Sundance, Wyoming. I am honored to be amongst these folks, who operate with encouragement and wisdom, and a generous eye to what works and might be better in each piece of work that we peruse.

It has taken me a while to understand the heart of this country, and I'm still learning about it. Our politics are mostly, very different. Most of the folks I've met belong to a church and that organization is important to their lives and to who they are. My spiritual side is based on the sky and the earth, and with what I believe to be godlike, which, being intangible to me, cannot be explained. I live in the middle of American history, not as it was taught to me, but learning how it really was and is. Bob likes to say of those of us who saw the west from our living rooms in front of the television (Ah, Little Joe. Ah, Heath and Nick. Ah, The Wild, Wild West), "The West. As it never was." I am living the West, and it is what it is.

I've often felt superfluous in South Dakota, that odd woman who walks her dog at various times during the day. Why isn't she working? Who is she? She's not from around here. Well, that's a bit of a comeuppance for a small-town woman from Maine, who used to ask the same questions of new people, and who used to think the same things of them. But I've asked myself the same questions of the residents, here. Who are these people? What makes them tick? Which zipperheaded ancestor dragged their family onto the plains (fueled by eastern propaganda that promised some kind of paradise) and settled in a flat-lined sea of grass, building a life with tools mainly kept in working order by a stubborn, relentless drive to succeed and settle and to make a home here?

Many of the answers to these questions and more have been found in the above-photographed pile of books. It started almost as soon as I moved here. My book club back in Portland, Maine read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, and I empathised with the plight of an eastern drawing-room woman who fell in love with a western engineer and lived in mining camps, much to her dismay. I vowed not to regret my life, nor my decision. Meg suggested I re-read the Little House on the Prairie series, and I have, and found them more profound in a very simple way. I read Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien, and Great Plains and On the Rez by Ian Frazier, another outsider fascinated by this place. I read The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin and felt sorrow and horror for the loss of lives due to the bibilically-proportioned weather. 

But I really began to 'get' South Dakotans and the people of these plains when I read Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains by Hermosa rancher Linda Hasslestrom. It's one of the most fascinating reads ever. She keeps a 365-day diary of her life on the ranch, and every entry is filled with details of her work, her thoughts on being a rancher, and weather, lots of weather. Pat Frolander (currently the Poet Laureate of Wyoming), penned a book of poems called Married Into It. She, like me, is an outlander who has adapted to her world here. Gaydell Collier's recently released Just Beyond Harmony is another good read by a woman born in the east, but who thought west. I also loved Horizontal Lines: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart - a North Dakota native, blues singer, wild child turned professor, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. 

These books, and the people I've met, and the land, this hard-assed, clear-eyed, no apologies land, have sustained me for the time I've been here. I look forward to my return, after the hard winds have died down, and the spring begins to crack open the hardpan and the plants begin their journeys. Not everything blooms here, but that which does, is hardy.

Prairie Smoke. Photo by Robert Clements