Monday, April 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: David R. Solheim, Loneliness is an Aspect of the Land

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator


Loneliness is an Aspect of the Land

David R. Solheim


From a wide-angle, geographical perspective the Midwest is probably seen as that which isn’t coastal or mountainous in North America, excluding the Old South. That would pretty much be everything northwest of the Ohio River extending to the Rocky Mountains, and around the Great Lakes across the northern plains. In the US the Midwest changes on its southern edge somewhere around Oklahoma into the Southern and Southwestern regions. It also seems to me the Great Lakes themselves give a kind of costal flavor to the eastern third of that territory, and I tend to think of the Midwest as close to the 1803 Louisiana Territory from the Mississippi River west stopping short of the foothills of the Rockies and north of Arkansas to the Canadian border. My own life experience shrinks it a bit further to being the Missouri River watershed and especially west from the 100th meridian in the semi-arid rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It includes the many tributaries of the Missouri and surrounds some hilly rugged outcroppings such as the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains. Such a description/definition also eliminates almost all cities over a hundred thousand people.
     For most of my life, I have been a resident of this particular version of the Midwest and as writer think of it as the territory I write of and from. It wasn’t until I began graduate study in California that I begin to think of my homeland as a kind of life/career task, as before having much experience outside of the region, it didn’t seem that interesting. However, as I was beginning to see it from a distance I found it valuable as subject.
     Just as I was settling into what I thought would be my focus as a writer, I read the following paragraph from N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain:
A single know rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Witchita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil’s edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. There are green belts along the rivers and creeks, linear groves of hickory and pecan, willow and witch hazel. At distance in July or August the steaming foliage seems almost to writhe in fire. Great green and yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time. Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plane are isolate; there is no confusion of object in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.
Reading that passage in the mid 1970s as I was thinking of myself as the writer who would present the Midwest to the world stopped me cold. Here what I hoped to do with and through my writing career had already been done and in one paragraph.
     I have since recovered and try to go about my business embroidering some details from my experience to enrich the tapestry of Midwestern writing, but I continue to believe that The Way to Rainy Mountain is the essential non-fiction book about the Midwest. Momaday is a great writer, and the book uses his skills in a multilevel experience. It is a memoir of his personal experience from childhood and retracing the mythic journey of the Kiowa to the southern plains, and it includes family and cultural history. It is also written in a variety of forms, beginning and ending with poems, including three essays, and three groups of multiple prose paragraphs or prose poems making most of the body of the book. The multi-level subjects and multiple formats made reading and re-reading it and enriching experience. 
     The paragraph from the Introduction presented above also establishes central elements of Midwestern experience and writing. Life on the prairies, the northern plains, or the upper Midwest, is essentially a solitary experience. The land and landscape is active, not a mere setting for events to take place. Weather is also an actor and full of extreme conditions. Humans share the experience with the flora and fauna of the territory, and like the weather, not always under the best of circumstances. In addition to prairie and hills, the landscape is dominated by rivers, and creeks, moving water. Human society and community is implied, but it has to be sought and created. 
     A second significant book in my Midwestern reading experience from a decade or so later is Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. A major aspect of this book is that Norris is writing from and about the experience of extended time living in a small town on the prairie. Norris appears to adopt the characteristics of Midwestern life, I have delineated above, but she also depicts the complications of living in a community of other people, not all of whom are of the same cultural stock. One feature she does point out is that we Midwesterners seem to have universal nostalgia for the past. It may be a preceding generation, it may be one’s own childhood, or perhaps only the preceding decade; however, it is also a nostalgia for a past that probably didn’t actually exist as it is imagined from the present. There is a wide-spread sense that other times (and sometimes other places) were better than the present. I think this is an almost universal illusion that Midwestern writers confront, often in their own thinking as well as that of the society they might be critiquing. Norris makes it clear that she is friendly analyst and member of the society she depicts, but she is not a self-satisfied member of it, and feels the short-coming of small-town society in her experience there. The book does include significant spiritual meditations that are also a benefit of place, and that idea is even more fully examined in her later book, Acedia and Me.
     A third non-fiction classic of Midwestern writing is William Least Heat Moon’s Prairy Erth. Unlike the first two mentioned above, either of which could be read for the first time in a few hours, Heat Moon’s work here is encyclopedic and in fact took me several years of interrupted reading to complete. That is not to say that it is excessively difficult, or lacking in attractiveness to the reader, it is just a big book with lots of detail. For his undertaking Heat Moon went to a Kansas county near the physical centers of the country and continent and wrote about what he learned there. This process itself included many extended trips over several years. He chose the area because it was Midwestern, in the middle of the natural territory under discussion. In addition to being thorough about current conditions, weather, nature, and historical events, one of the insightful characteristics of the book is to use the grid of land measurement as its organizing principle. When one flies over much of the Midwest this grid is easily visible from the air and the flatter the agricultural land the more prominently the roads, fence lines, and cropping patterns reveal the way the landscape has been organized. Even the circles of center pivot irrigation fall within the squares of square mile sections and the larger pattern of Heat Moon’s book, the thirty-six square mile townships. This book covers the territory, giving the history of a particular piece of ranch or farm land, the demise of a ghost town, the wagon roads, the Native American peoples, and the material in a pack-rat’s nest. 
     A final contender in my sense of the mid-western nonfiction is Trees, Why Do You Wait by the late Richard Critchfield. Critchfield studied two agricultural communities particularly analyzing the changes they were going through toward the end of the twentieth century. His is both an ecological and social study showing the interaction of economy and social structure. The movement of the study suggests that the Midwest might be becoming too lonely and too isolate. That the informal movement towards Poppers’ idea of the buffalo commons is weakening the small towns, and people are living too far apart. There is a particular balance of scale, towns not too small and cities not too big that might achieve harmony for the inhabitants, and that such places contribute to national stability. The difficulty is to find the economic balance on the scale.
     There are several excellent memoirs of mid-western life such a Debra Marquart’s Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, Larry Woiwode’s What I Think I Did, and Bill Holm’s The Heart Can Be Filled Up Anywhere on Earth. Giants in the Earth is the essential beginning reading of Midwestern fiction, but Woiwode, Louise Erdrich, and Larry Watson write fine contemporary fiction of the Middle West and there are excellent poets too numerous to mention.
     What makes Midwestern writing Midwestern, begins with Momaday’s outline: isolation, active landscape, active weather, interaction with the natural and agricultural biota, and finally the interaction with social structures of the small community. Those who live in the Mid-west and those who write about it have either chosen the place or been chosen by the place. Those living or writing in the Midwest, will continue to find ways to make peace with place and find satisfaction or even joy in being part of it.

A Professor of English Emeritus of Dickinson State University, David R. Solheim was also the North Dakota Statehood Centennial Poet and, thanks to Larry Woiwode, is an Emeritus Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota. Teaching primarily American Literature and Creative Writing, Solheim has published two chapbooks and four full-length books of poetry and had poems included in five anthologies.  He earned a BA degree in English and history education at Gustavus Adolphus College in his present home town of St. Peter, MN and advanced degrees in literature from Stanford University and the University of Denver. His book-length publications are available via:

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

No comments:

Post a Comment