GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Long before Eric Sevareid rose to fame as a CBS newsman and commentator, he was a boy from the small town of Velva in northwestern North Dakota.
“In distant cities when someone would ask: ‘Where are you from?’ and I would answer: ‘North Dakota,’ they would merely nod politely and change the subject, having no point of common reference,” he wrote in his 1946 autobiography, “Not So Wild a Dream.” The state was, he said, “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.”
But maybe that was better than having big-league writers and photographers roaming the place and documenting the poignantly beautiful evidence of our decline.
The latest assault on North Dakota sensitivities comes from this month’s National Geographic magazine, and it has caused more yowling, from the Red River Valley to the Badlands, than a cattleman busy with a castrating iron.
It seems as cyclical as ‘hoppers and drought. Remember the Poppers? The New Jersey husband-and-wife academics, Frank and Deborah, riled farmers, ranchers, politicians and Main Street boosters throughout the Great Plains in 1987 by suggesting that the plains — including much of North Dakota — might profitably revert to unpeopled rangeland, a Buffalo Commons. Reaction? The Poppers reported having to hire armed security guards for some of their plains appearances.
In her 1928 book, “Beauty Spots in North Dakota,” Bertha Palmer scolded the naysayers and fault-finders of her day. “There is nothing wrong with North Dakota except that we need more optimists who will talk,” she wrote, according to a literary survey prepared for the State Historical Society. “We have everything desirable and worthwhile in North Dakota; mountains and plains, rivers and lakes, hills and dales, cities and open spaces, rugged acres and fertile fields. We have a history and a future. Let us concentrate upon the doughnut and not talk about the hole.”
Before we go further, a disclaimer: I am a North Dakotan, mightily fond of the Badlands and Turtle Mountains and Theodore Roosevelt National Grasslands and Sheyenne River valley, and employed years ago and now once again by the Grand Forks Herald. My father and two uncles, Norwegian immigrants, died here. My son and my grandchildren live here.
Twenty years ago, I left (so many of us seem compelled to leave, though not always for 20 years) to work for a newspaper in Minneapolis. I made several trips home to write about North Dakota, and I remember feeling defensive every time even as I recorded evidence of chronic decline.
I felt it again, the recognition of home, the affection and the defensiveness, as I read the lyrical opening scene of Arizona nonfiction writer Charles Bowden’s National Geographic report from North Dakota: “The robin’s-egg blue kitchen looks out on the brown grass of the empty plains. The gas stove lurches away from the wall, and, in the wild yard, the white bones of a deer bleach in the sun. Plaster fragments litter the floors of the rooms, and down in the cellar a galvanized wringer washer stands watch by the long-dead coal furnace. In the upstairs bedroom, a window sash has slipped and become a trapezoid framing the abandoned orchard to the west. Two old cars rust nearby, caressed by the moan of the wind. The stone footing of a vanished barn stares east at wheat and grass. Ghost towns stud North Dakota, and this empty house is just one bone in a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire.”
Gov. John Hoeven led the chorus of outrage, writing a letter to National Geographic editor Chris Johns to say the story was “way off the mark” and failed to put signs of decline in context. Citizens flooded the magazine and the state’s newspapers with letters of protest, though many counseled restraint. “It’s very easy to get defensive when seeing an article like this seemingly bashing our wonderful state,” Jim R. from Buxton, N.D., wrote on the Grand Forks Herald’s Web site. “But we need to be a little more objective and stop reading into things.”
In his letter to the magazine’s editor, Hoeven noted that North Dakota’s cities are growing “and our rural areas are finding new ways to create jobs and opportunities for our people.” The state remains among the nation’s leading producers of many crops, the western oilfields are booming and new industries are sprouting: ethanol and biodiesel plants, and wind farms harvesting that atmospheric moaning that Bowden found so mournful.
“There is a mood of optimism across the land,” Hoeven wrote.
A pained reaction
The furor surprised editor Johns and writer Bowden, who insisted they meant no “hatchet job” on North Dakota. “This article was not intended to be a profile of the state,” Johns told North Dakota reporters, and Bowden said he didn’t mean to be hurtful. “But it’s not possible to describe an abandoned farm or town without it being sad,” he said in an interview Monday on Prairie Public Radio.
In fact, Bowden did offer context in his report. This “sense of things ebbing, of churches being abandoned, schools shutting down, towns becoming ruins … exists amid a seeming statistical prosperity,” he wrote. “Oil is booming, wheat prices are at record highs.” He saw and appreciated the beauty of the place, too. “The ground itself reeks of life, the endless sweep of grassland and wheat fields, cattle feeding in place of buffalo. South of the Missouri River, the Badlands stab the eye with bands of color rippling through the eroded slopes. North Dakota is a rarely visited state and surely one of the loveliest and most moving. The land swallows anyone who walks out into it.”
So why such a pained reaction?
“Honestly, I think it’s because people here see it as ‘more of the same,’ another round of demeaning remarks about something that isn’t new,” said the Rev. William Sherman, 79, a retired Roman Catholic priest and sociologist who has written books about the prairie and its people.
“We went through it with the Buffalo Commons thing,” he said, and long before that a noted state historian documented what he called “the too-much mistake” as a defining element of North Dakota history. The early settlers established “too many towns, too many schools, too many churches, too many farms,” and they couldn’t all be sustained, Sherman said, especially in the face of great economic forces beyond their control: the Depression, farm mechanization, globalization.
“We know the reality of it,” he said, and periodic reminders by outsiders, especially if they seem condescending or ignorant of the hope, great striving and even heroic achievements some of those ghost towns and abandoned farmsteads represent, are neither helpful nor welcome. Yes, whole counties and regions are reverting to historic “frontier” status, with fewer than two people per square mile. But it simply is not fair, many North Dakotans believe — not polite — to characterize that as evidence that pioneer generations failed.
“I don’t think we should make so much of it” when an outsider visits and responds in a way that seems negative, Sherman said. Rather, he counsels a renewed appreciation for “the drama and beauty in the life we have here — the people, the land as seductive as the sea, the culture.”
Sherman came to North Dakota after a youth spent first in Oregon, then on the East Coast. “Pretty soon I fell in love with it, the vast, wide-open spaces,” he said. Teaching courses on the sociology of the Great Plains at North Dakota State University in Fargo, he introduced the land and people to students from elsewhere — including Twin Cities photographer Leo Kim, who several years ago published a book of North Dakota scenes and landscapes.
“Leo fell in love with the Great Plains, too,” Sherman said. “When he was a student at NDSU (in the 1970s), I took him along on a dozen trips onto the prairie so he could photograph German-Russian houses. He would come back, sleep in his car and wait for the light and composition to be just right.”
Talk about outsiders. Leo Kim was Korean, born in China, a world traveler who had lived in Macao, Hong Kong and Austria before coming to North Dakota. I wrote about him in the Star Tribune in 2000 as he was preparing to display 20 of his North Dakota photographs at a gallery in Bloomington. The pictures were black and white, often severe and all devoid of people, yet testament to their historic and continuing presence. “Somebody rolled those wondrous hay bales on a field. Somebody muscled that rough wood and wire into a cattle fence. Somebody carved those initials and the date, 1916, next to where a length of rope hangs from a peg on a barn wall.” (You can see examples of Kim’s photographs here.)
Like John Vachon, a Farm Security Administration photographer who roamed North Dakota in the 1930s and ’40s, an outsider who returned often to “the ecstatically magnificent Great Plains,” Kim understood that North Dakotans “welcome a visitor who has genuine interest in them” and appreciates the stark beauty of the land.
We make fun of it sometimes ourselves: the flatness, the apparent absence of landscape spectacle. “Welcome to North Dakota,” a state tourism billboard cheerily told visitors arriving from Montana years ago. “Mountain removal project completed!”
But Kim saw and captured the great, billowing clouds, as majestic as any mountain range, and the undulating seas of grain. He took the time to listen to stories about life in a sod house and hear a farmer explain the growing of lentils as he filled a plastic bag and called his wife for a recipe.
“Most people who have never been there think only that it is cold and flat,” he told me. “Then if they do go there, all they see is their preconceptions. But you need to look deeper.
“Under all the complexities of our world are the simple things: We eat, we work, we need fresh air. That’s what’s available in North Dakota. It is available everywhere — in Minnesota, in Austria, in China. But out here, the land and sky blend together, and at night you can almost reach the stars.”
Chuck Haga, a Star Tribune staff writer from 1987-2007, is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. He can be reached at chaga [at] minnpost [dot] com.