Dwelling upon the High Plains

Jan 26, 2016

Credit Karen Madorin

By nature, Plains people share what they have with neighbors. It is how we survive and thrive. This opportunity for readers and lovers of ideas to explore and discuss our common landscape and the stories it generates is a gift. Each of us brings original perceptions to our common experience. Those differences can strengthen or weaken bonds necessary to make life good in a hard land. This group offers a venue for us to learn who we are because we value life on the Great Plains.

Over a billion years ago, a collision of tectonic plates in the Precambrian period initiated our current scenery. In the Black Hills and Eastern Wyoming and Central Texas uplifts, we find visible evidence of the metamorphic and igneous rock lying deep below our topsoil. After the massive impacts that reshaped this continent, reoccurring shallow oceans deposited layers of limestone, shale, and sandstone to create the geography we recognize. When the seas dried, wind and water worked to turn this into the landscape we awaken to each morning.

These natural forces, collision and erosion, that formed  this landscape also shape the people who live here. Throughout time, this region has experienced ethnic, religious, political, economic, intellectual, and social impacts that affected its development as much as that first crash of continental plates. While two or more independent units melding create a new form, erosion wears it away and unveils hidden understandings. Just as nature constructs and deconstructs, our selected texts will examine these collisions between humans and nature, cultures, and ideologies. Working like sand and wind, authors’ words will shear away layers of misunderstanding to reveal core truths that help us answer Wallace Stegner’s question, “Where do I belong in this country? Where is home?”

The Kiowa Puebloan author and poet N. Scott Momaday tells us, “A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning. It gives origin to all things.” Our authors gift us with tales  in which landscape plays an integral role. As readers, we learn our this ancient seabed adds complications. Stegner states that when writing about this arid country, “Perceptions trained in another climate have had to be modified. That means we have to learn to quit depending on perceptual habit.  Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see. Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them. Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them. And our fourth, unfortunately out of our control, was to train an audience that would respond to what we wrote or painted.” He’s thrown down the gauntlet, challenging us to find meaning by looking at our world through others’ words.

Plainsong, Empire of the Summer Moon, and the memoir A Strong West Wind provide multiple genres through which to view a landscape that includes the western third of Kansas, eastern Colorado, western Nebraska, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Each writer examines the emotional and physical impact of place on those who make a life in its dust. The power of their language acknowledges Cather’s statement that “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” As we read, we can peel away the layers to see how all of us strive to reach the same goals.

People who write about the Great Plains and its people understand that our infinite horizon paired with unpredictable weather that can produce howling blizzards to raging tornadoes and blistering droughts possesses as much if not more power than any towering mountain range or surging sea. These bards know the real magic of this place occur in the shade of a porch on a hot afternoon, in watching waves of red grass roll over endless prairie, or in seeing a community pull together to help a friend in need.

Enjoy this opportunity to steep deeply in words about a place you call home. Relish the collisions and the shedding of layers to find all our truths. Momaday probably says it best: “Once in his life  a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. I believe he ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.” Enjoy the dwelling.