Wrong Side Up
Don’t you love a good, old-fashioned story with a moral? Maybe not, because such stories, although grounded in folk expression, tend to take on a preachy tone in the end. That’s the case with a story I’ve been tracking down: the legend of “Wrong Side Up.”
Here’s the general outline of the story. A farmer is plowing the prairie sod when an Indian comes along and observes the process. After a while the Indian crouches down, takes up a piece of inverted sod, and turns it back, grass side on top again. “Wrong side up,” the native says, and then he walks away.
I think I have determined the origin of this story, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first let me point out how much moral freight this little story has been compelled to carry. For instance, Wes Jackson, the charismatic ecologist who experimented with alternative farming and farm life first in the Smoky Valley and later in the Flint Hills of Kansas, recounted the story multiple times, including in his well-known book, Altars of Unhewn Stone. Here’s the way he told it in an interview for the Smithsonian.
“So when the Native American, somewhere in North Dakota, came by and saw the plow, and what it was doing to turn the sod over, he said, ‘Wrong side up’ and went away.” This, Jackson goes on to say, “has really in a sense threatened the future food supply for not only the American but for the people that we export our food to.” This poor pioneer plowman, we are led to think, has destroyed the environment and thus threatened the world with starvation. Heavy stuff.
There are many other retellings of the story by environmentalists of the late 20th century, some of which add interesting details. In one the pioneer plowman wears a black hat and stands rolling a cigarette-like a scene from a western movie-while the Indian examines the furrows. Others add stereotypical details about the Indian, making his speech guttural, his expression stoic. All of them impute a primitive wisdom to the native, who then, personally and as a race, goes away.
The point of all these retellings is that the Indian had the right idea, he knew the prairie sod should not be plowed, but whites went ahead heedlessly, and so the Dust Bowl and all sorts of other bad things happened. All these moral stories appear after the Dust Bowl. In fact, they all appear after the advent of the ecology movement in the 1960s.
That reference to North Dakota, though, gave me a hint where to look for the origin of the story. In front of the historical museum in New Salem, North Dakota, stands a granite boulder with a plaque attached to it. Alongside the monument is a billboard bearing the legend “Wrong Side Up” along with a portrait of an immigrant farmer, John Christiansen, and a depiction of an Indian replacing a piece of sod.
Working back, though, I find that all public tellings of the Wrong Side Up story date from 1921, when dairy scientist John Shepperd told it in an extension circular encouraging farmers to raise forages and keep cows. Before that, it was just a favorite pioneer-Indian story that John Christiansen, the plowman, liked to tell, with no moral to it.
Such stories take on a life of their own, but they also get bent and twisted according to the desires of the tellers. I think sometime in 1883 an Indian came along and said to John Christiansen, “Wrong side up.” I think that is true, but maybe not. The rest is moral baggage added by tellers with their own agendas.