Plains Folk

Story of the Prairies


A few days ago, having concluded that the deer hunting was hopeless, we turned up a prairie trail west of Binford and followed it right to the top of one of those pyramidal hills characteristic of a terminal moraine. The view for 360o was lovely. Directly north a half-mile rose another pyramid just like the one we were on, and in-between lay a perfect gem of a kettle lake, blue as blue can be, a few bluebills paddling around in the middle. Surrounded by such a striking landscape, I wished Daniel E. Willard could be there to expound upon it.

I’ve been reading The Story of the Prairies, Willard’s textbook on the landscape geology of North Dakota, First Edition 1902. It went through another ten editions after that.

The book requires a little patience, because Willard at times, despite his determination to communicate to the public the wonders of geomorphology, can be downright incomprehensible. Then again, he can be lucid and even inspirational.

A New Yorker by birth, Daniel Willard worked his way through to a master’s degree in Geology from the University of Chicago, then headed west to teach at the teachers college in Mayville, North Dakota, for eight years. After that he moved over to the agricultural college in Fargo for about the same period of years, before moving on to a career mainly in promotional work for railway companies.

Just before leaving Mayville Willard published The Story of the Prairies, which is, to begin with, a fascinating snapshot of science at the turn of the 20th century. Willard was mainly a field investigator, but he was a modern scientist, too, and he felt the tension between scientific inquiry and social conservatism. As he discusses periods of glaciation, for instance, he declines to attach dates or years to them—thus avoiding conflict with fundamentalist conceptions as to the age of the earth. Only late in the book, in paragraphs buried deep in a chapter, does he address issues of geological time.

Willard’s book is most fascinating in those sections wherein you can reconstruct and share in his travels—particularly as he explores the Badlands. I realize as I read that I am picturing Willard’s landscapes as I know them, accessed by F150, but everything looked different and unfolded more deliberately in the saddle, the way Willard saw things. Adjusting my perspective, I was able to share with Willard, having navigated the breaks of the Little Missouri, his joy on arrival at an humble log ranch house, “glad to rest and hear again the sound of a human voice,” even though there was nothing to drink but warm river water, sediment-laden.

Driving home to modern readers the difference in perspective on the land wrought by mode of transport, Willard devotes the final section of his book to what he calls “Geology from a Car Window,” by which he means a railroad passenger car window. He lays out a series of trip-logs following the Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Soo Line railways across the state. It is an evening’s amusement to get out a De Lorme atlas, or open up Google Earth, and trace Willard’s extensive travels and lyric descriptions across the land. Better yet, take to the road, his book in hand, and follow Willard along the old railroad grades.

Get on Highway 13 between Lehr and Wishek, for instance, and enjoy the terminal morainic landscape of gleaming lakes and boulder-strewn hills that Willard first observed from the Soo Line, then examined horseback. “Majestic,” he calls this landscape—not a clinical word of science, majestic, but the lyric expression of a poet.

Did Willard bring this poetic sensibility to the prairies, or did they instill it in him? I think he must have had it in the first place, but the land awakened it—as it will for any of us willing to invest our time and open our hearts.

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