Next week will be the tenth anniversary of my column here in the Bismarck Tribune. The other day, one of my friends asked me what I would write if I could only write one column, at this juncture, in the fall of 2015, at the age of 60, and that one column had to represent my message to the people of North Dakota.
So here it is. I’m going to speak with unfiltered candor, with as much earnestness as I am capable of, knowing that what I say will probably offend some people, but not intending whatsoever to do so.
I love North Dakota. I was born here, raised here, and my heart has always resided here, even when I lived in really interesting other places. Although I resided in Nevada for 17 years, when people in other places asked me where I was from, I always said North Dakota—boldly and with pride. My mother still lives in the house I grew up in, and when I call her, I use the telephone number that has been ours since 1966. The fact that we are still a state with a single area code gives me great joy—and hope. I went away to college, and then pursued my career mostly elsewhere, but like so many others I always harbored a deep desire to return to North Dakota.
The climate here is challenging. Winters are long, raw, sometimes punishing. The wind is capable of blasting the crop and ripping the shingles off the roof—and sometimes the roof too. We are big on land and open skies, low on population density, lower still on the higher amenities of life. Nobody moves here from Seattle for the art galleries, boutique restaurants, independent film festivals, artisan shops, quaint independent bookstores, or bohemian culture—though the glimmer of such amenities has come to Bismarck and Fargo, thanks largely to people less than half my age.
I live here for three reasons. First, my mother is here. Second, I love the windswept emptiness of the land. Buttes, ridges, bluffs, coulees, badlands, plains rivers, and endless grass. Whenever I get out on a butte or into the shallows of the Little Missouri, I feel totally alive, in a way I feel nowhere else on earth. For reasons that don’t always make sense to me, my heart and soul and spirit only really sing out here among the cottonwoods. There are times when I wish it were otherwise.
Third, I like the people of North Dakota, especially the people of our small towns and villages. They have something that I find irresistible: self-reliance, gumption, perseverance, neighborliness, skepticism about experts and government; a spirit of overactive volunteerism, a profound work ethic and thriftiness, good humor about the challenges of life. A sense of modesty. Small “c” conservatism. Respect for the earth and the basic things it produces. An understanding of what we owe to our ancestors, who lived in tarpaper shacks and wondered if there would be potatoes enough to get through the winter.
We have been an agrarian people, a rural republic of family farms. We have been a land where people earned their living the old fashioned way, by dint of hard work, year after year, living on fumes and saving for the hard times to come. We have been a democratic place where there was more true social equality than anywhere else I have ever lived, and where the luckiest and most prosperous individuals lived much more simply than they would have needed to, because they did not want to put on airs, and because there was no telling when the long drought would return. We have been a place where people patched their clothes and darned their socks, handed dresses and overalls down from child to child, until whatever was still intact found its way into simple patchwork quilts; where people lived poor all their lives only to die land rich; where families skimped and sacrificed to send their children to college because they wanted more for their children than they had themselves; where people who couldn’t afford to add onto their homes still somehow found a way to build a new church rectory together. A place where neighbors spontaneously gathered to harvest the wheat of a farmer they don’t even like, in a single afternoon, because he had a heart attack. A place where the moment they heard someone has died, women all across the town or township began baking and cooking and writing their names on the cake pan with nail polish so they might have some chance of getting it back after the funeral.
As we text our way through the second decade of the twenty-first century, wallowing, even drowning, in abundance, those values are slipping away from us. Almost nobody, of course, wants to go back to the era of outhouses and horse plowing. But here’s my point: we are who we are because they were who and what they were. Our challenge is to find a way to cherish and conserve the best qualities of North Dakota’s agrarian heritage as we become a more urban, urbane, sophisticated, mobile, and up-rooted people. If we do not, we will be just like everyone else in the secular, detached, de-spiritualized, materialistic America that pulses around us.
The oil boom has solved some of our most serious problems, but it has also scarred our sacred landscape. It came too hard, too fast, and we did nothing to chasten it with a pace that would serve our higher, deeper values. There has been too little transparency in our state government. Some of our regulators have been better cheerleaders than they have been protectors of our water, air, and soil. Since the boom began, as a collective people, we have been largely indifferent to the sanctity and sustainability of our land. In fact, we have on average been insufficiently concerned with the safety and comfort of the people who live in the oil zone.
A gold rush mania infected us for a time, and it only diminished when the price of oil collapsed. Greed replaced stewardship. Like all winners of the lottery, we have been a little reckless. In the last ten years, in my opinion, North Dakota has become a much better and also a significantly worse place to live. The things that are better are truly gratifying. The things that are worse (incivility, crime, sex trafficking, dust, noise, ugly overnight industrial development, a complacency about spills, the unnecessary miss-siting of industrial facilities, the rejection of the idea that some few places are so special that we should tiptoe around them as we drill for oil, the smugness and arrogance of those who merely want to drill, baby, drill) are nothing short of tragic. In my opinion they have damaged the North Dakota character as well as the North Dakota landscape.
We are North Dakota, my friends—not Wyoming, not Texas, not Kuwait. We ought to be the class act of all that we do, the example to the rest of the nation of what former Governor Art Link called “careful, thoughtful development.”
We can do better. We must do better.
We must not betray the legacy of those hardscrabble men and women–the homesteaders, our great grandparents–who poured their toil and sweat and blood into this amazing improbable land so that we could be, in some essential ways, the most fortunate of all Americans.
That’s really all I have to say.