Plains Folk

On the Level


Living a semi-public life, I get a fair number of semi-personal questions as I travel about the region. Including the common query, are you retired yet? To which I reply, not hardly. Gimme another twenty years.

Life has come to the point, however, where I have thoughts like, in my threescore and whatever, How many more Labrador retrievers are there in my life? How many F150s?

And today, how many more books can I write? With a couple in the pipeline and a couple in progress, the prospects are good, but my list is long.

One folder I keep adding notes to carries the title, “On the Level: Living the Good Life on the North American Plains.” I’m not sure when this one rotates to the front burner, because I’m still practicing what I intend to preach. I can give you an update, though. I’ll put this in the form of four adjectives that I think describe the good life on the plains.

First, the good life on the plains is sensate. I got this adjective from Father Taras Miles of St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church, Billings County, as we came in for mass. He knew it would be long, and for us, often incomprehensible, so he advised us to enjoy the mass as a “sensate experience.”

There is another trope about regional life often propounded, both in folk saying and in serious literature–the idea that life on the plains is ascetic, even hard, an experience of deprivation, which makes us better people in the end. In this regard I say that Kathleen Norris, and for that matter St. Paul, have a lot to answer for.

It is the concrete experiences of the senses that ground the intellectual sense of place and fill our lives. Living here, you need to make space for such experiences. For me, this means things like sharptail grouse hunting, snowshoeing, and juneberries.

Second, the good life on the plains is literate. Just yesterday I finished reading a biography of John Joseph Mathews, the Osage author. In particular I relished reading of his interactions with others of the literary community in mid-twentieth century: the legendary editor, Savoie Lottinville, the folklorist, J. Frank Dobie, the Osage Rhodes scholar, Carter Revard. I suppose I read a lot, generally three books at the same time.

Being literate as I am speaking here is not just reading books and knowing authors. What I want to establish is the value of knowledge and reflection. The prairie landscape and everything therein is more meaningful, and more conducive to contentment, if you have reference points–historical, poetic, geological, ecological.

Third, the good life is social. This is the one I am still working on. At our house, we tend to get so immersed in work, and sometimes play, that social networks suffer.

But fourth, by way of adjectives–the good life on the plains is situational. I may need a better adjective to describe what I am talking about. I mean coming to recognize the prairies as your default comfort landscape. I have the advantage here. Wide open spaces are my comfort zone. The Minnesota lake country holds no attraction. Oceans make me uncomfortable.

So–we still have some summer left, with its opportunities for sensate living. Come winter we can work on all those other things.

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