Dakota: 1st in a series


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I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been thinking about what I wanted this site to be.  It is an outlet, to write.   It seems natural, then, to explore the places I’ve been, the places  I’ve lived.   Somehow the search for self is also reflected in our geography, and for me, that also means that geography, wherever I’ve been, is also a spiritual geography.

Dakota is a place, where I heard it said, it is easy to find God because there isn’t all that much else out there.  Sweeping prairies are accented by an ever changing expressive sky.

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The sky is ever changing and it became clear to me that here in this Dakota sky, God truly shows Himself to be an artist. One moment the sky can be the clearest blue with no clouds; and then the sky will darken and ominous clouds come from nowhere, and the wind, which never stops blowing, will suddenly barrel out of oblivion carrying with it hailstones the size of apples, driving rains that make driving impossible, showing Mother Nature at her moodiest self.   Then the sky at night with the stars so numerous, so bright and so close it is as if you could reach up and touch God Himself:

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(photo taken by Randy Halverson)

It is moody, it is ostentatious, it is powerful, it is serenely beautiful.   It is empty, yet full of life. I saw my first bald eagle in Dakota. There are antelope, white tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and hawks. The state bird is the meadowlark, which has a song like no other. The prairie reflects emptiness like a reflection of my lowest moments. Stars like diamonds fill the emptiness like my most joyous moments.  Sunsets like the light that is my soul; so many colors, none the same.

The prairie changes colors in the fall.  It was a surprise to me, this land with few trees; I was surprised the first time I noticed.  I was used to the ostentatious display of color in my native Minnesota. The prairie puts on quite a show. Green fades to reds, fades to gold, fades to yellow, fades to brown.   Laura Ingalls Wilder once said that the prairie and the sky constantly changes; no day is the same, and she was right.   Although she and I had to leave to write about it, because for me, I could never get used to the isolation, there is something about Dakota that gets into your heart and stays there.  Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography put it like this:

A monk does not speak lightly of the soul, and Kardong finds in the Plains the stimulus to develop an inner geography.  “A monk isn’t supposed to need all kinds of flashy surroundings.  We’re supposed to have a beautiful inner landscape. Watching a storm pass from horizon to horizon fills your soul with reverence. It makes your soul expand to fill the sky.”

To Dakotans, weather is everything.  Especially rain. When is it going to rain? is the most asked question.  Rain is integral to everything–water for the cows, water for the grass that feeds the cows, water for the crops.  Drought years, which can span 3-5 years in the worst, spawns a kind of hopelessness and the land becomes as rough and lined as the ranchers’ faces who have survived there for generations.   I worked in a ranch supply store for a year and when it rained, we couldn’t keep rain gauges in stock.   Constant talk about the rain fueled many conversations between the cowboys who hang out socializing while they shop for fence and ranch supplies.   These are tough people, good hearted people who don’t take crap from anybody, who are suspicious of newcomers, who have an insecurity about where they live and this explains the suspicion when someone from somewhere else moves in.  What are they doing here? is the natural question.  If you’re a professional, like a teacher, the general thought is why would you come all the way out here?  If you were any good, you’d be living in the city.   Gossip reigns supreme in the small town, and more than once I heard about the exciting life I was living when in reality I was really not living such an exciting life at all.

The Natives form another color on the prairie; a people of such beauty and generosity I was never more honored to be around.  They embody so much more than the “poverty porn” that is shown to the world.  There are gatherings, give-aways, done a year after someone passes to honor their life.  Whenever I went to a gathering on Rosebud, there was always a lot of food, laughter and conversation.  Music, and dancing.  The first week I was there some of them put on a dance demonstration for the new teachers. I remember sitting there hearing the steady beat of the drum feeling the emotion well up in my heart I knew not from where.  They are belonging;they are the stewards of the land, they are the ones we ignore; we are the colonizers, they the colonized–but there is a spirit that lives among them that has never died.

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Dakota.  I think about it on days when the city becomes too crowded, when people push in too closely; I crave the isolation at times, when I seek the face of God.  This great ocean of grass that shines and ripples in the wind, that has a whispering music of its own, where land is joined to sky in a marriage that is tempestuous and where neither could not be separated from each other like soulmates.  This is my Dakota.

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” 
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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