You think of it often: the day that would lead you to become an accidental Midwesterner. Before you learn to live with a cold so pervasive that it forms knuckle-gnarled ledges of ice on the insides of your windows in the blanched eternity of winter, you’re riding shotgun on a driving tour of Grand Forks during a campus visit.
It’s 2017 and the market for college teaching jobs in the humanities has been bleak. Worse markets are on the horizon. And despite that here’s North Dakota—far from the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia, with the promise of potential employment, a place to write, a place to create. Never mind the winters. You can rationalize the bone-deep cold from a job you worked back in Pennsylvania during summers in high school and undergrad: ten-hour shifts in the -14º of an ice cream warehouse.
But you keep this to yourself.
Your future colleague delivers some factoids. The Red River flows north; in winter it freezes solid. When frozen, the river can support snowshoers and cross-country skiers. In spring and summer kayakers take to it. You nod, ask questions. The wing mirrors reflect the receding remnants of winter—muddy tire treads and salt-bleached stripes on the pavement, snow plowed into steep embankments. The piles are spreckled with gravel and green shards of glass, are belted with strata of ice. A fossil record of cold, a melting history.
Your future colleague says those heaps could last until the end of April—or longer. You look at the remaining strips of ice along the roads. They resemble the hashed concrete of medians. You think of those massive snow mounds and Monet’s haystacks: the shapes are similar, both impressionistic humps, striated with homey earth tones.
A year after the campus tour, you’ll see it—the snow piles on the airport’s tarmac and the Target parking lot survive until May. That spring, when you begin to take long walks around your neighborhood, you’ll see one of these mounds in a field near the Dairy Queen on Columbia Road.
Each of the snow piles seeps brackish water, but you’ll imagine them melting with a glacial music: a cooing trickle, a wind chime tinkle.
A mind of winter, you know, can make a concerto from the rustling of dead leaves.
In “Last Snow,” Heid E. Erdrich writes that the last snowfall and its slow melt into slush “runs in first light / making a music in the streets we wish we could keep.” But you can’t hold onto it, you can only preserve the sensation of it in your marrow, what her poem calls the “stubborn calendar of bone.”
The animals of North Dakota record these winters in their bones, too. After the snow mound by the Dairy Queen evaporates, the ground squirrels emerge from their burrows. You’ll pause on your long walks to watch them rise on their hind legs. Even in June they’ve begun to scope out provisions for the next winter.
The driving tour of the city goes on—along the strip of fast-food chains on Washington Street, past the stalwart and vast-porched houses on tree-lined Belmont, by the opera house converted into a brewery, over a bridge into Minnesota and back. You and your future colleague find common territory in a conversation about Pittsburgh, the Steel City, its reputation as the “gateway to the Midwest.”
Minutes later there’s a turn onto a side street, and then you’re weaving through the narrow streets and the slender houses by Grand Forks' Riverside Park, where every building seems to stand as if its joists are pinned shoulder-tight in anxiety.
Or perhaps that’s your anxiety, projected onto the buildings: you still have a job talk to give, after all.
Featureless—that’s how William H. Gass derides Fargo, just an hour’s drive south of Grand Forks via I-29. (Gass was born in Fargo but notes that he was only six weeks old when his family decamped to Ohio.) He compares the North Dakota landscape to the space where he wrote his early stories: “a dining table, featureless as Fargo.”
But a wooden dining table has its grain, evidence of its heartwood-deep patterns. Texture and topography exist, if you’re patient and willing to look.
After all, patience makes you susceptible to surprise. In a good way. During the first semester of your gig, December advances suddenly and the facilities crews already have plowed the snow into immense bulwarks twice your height. You’ll tell your students that the pocked features of the mounds—all pitted snow and gravel and brown-black from exhaust—would make a perfect lunar surface for a stop motion film.
You’ll think of Gass, how landscapes are featureless only if we refuse to detail them with contradictions. You’ll think of how Thomas McGrath prophesies the Dakota winter in “Beyond the Red River,” when he invokes the “winter lion, / body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.”
The sky above you is hazy, the clouds grey ribbons. It resembles steel wool, abrasive and cool. The temperature hovers around zero and the cold wires in your marrow.
Before returning you to the red-brick buildings of campus, your future colleague drives you toward the outskirts of the city, points to the blue edifices of the North Dakota Mill. It’s the only state-owned mill in the United States, you’re told. A vestige of prairie populism, your future colleague tells you.
You wind down the window. The air’s so brisk it stops in your throat yet still you can taste it all: the pollen of spring, the bite of winter, the musk of snow mold, the yeastiness of chaff and grain.
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