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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Prairie Post Office: a book review

The Prairie Post Office: Enlarging the Common Life in Rural North Dakota. K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, history by Kevin Carvell. North Dakota State University Press, 2017, 102 pages, color photographs, maps and other illustrations.

Box 172, Rhame, North Dakota. That was my childhood address in Slope County. Our school bus driver was also our rural mail carrier, driving the route on gravel roads twice most days, and once on Saturdays. Our mailbox on the main road was mounted on a decorative iron piece that my father made in his GI Bill welding class in nearby Bowman. Somewhere I have a picture of my younger sister, age four, standing on that mailbox.

What takes me down this particular memory lane is my recent reading of the beautiful and interesting book, The Prairie Post Office, published last year by the NDSU Press, sent to me in Bismarck via, what else but, the mail.

This book describes in rich detail how the community post office is the linchpin of the rural town in which it is located. We all attend different churches and shop in different establishments (now frequently online). Many North Dakota towns do not have clinics or hospitals or even schools. But, what many do have is a post office. It is what remains in the town as its beating heart. Here neighbors meet and chat. Here the diligent postal staff sees to it that everyone in their respective communities receive their mail, no matter its importance. And the potential loss of these rural post offices causes tectonic shocks to reverberate throughout these communities.

The book opens with a top-notch history of the postal service in Northern Dakota Territory and North Dakota by the inimitable Kevin Carvell, of Mott, N.D. Thereafter the chapters include highlights of the public service that the post offices fulfills and the social, economic, and symbolic role of these places.

Each chapter is filled with photographs of the post offices and the people who keep them running, as well as citizens' thoughts on their local post office's importance.  The layout is pleasing and the writing compelling -- all the elements of the book make for a fine reading experience.

"As with areas elsewhere in the United State, rural North Dakota reflects the dynamics of change and continuity. . . . In our interviews, the prairie post office was referenced as representing and supporting this rural way of life. . . . Rural community members view the local post office as a symbol of social connectedness. . . .important indicators of the community's place in the body politic." (pg. 85-6)

When I finished this book, I found I had a strong desire to see a picture of that old-fashioned metal door with Box 172 stamped on it. Sadly, I learned in a phone call to the current Rhame postmistress that progress had built a new building in Rhame and the old boxes were gone. Where she did not know. She remembered me though, and I knew who she was. This is the link that bonds us as North Dakotans, as Americans. Here is a photo from the book that took me down this memory lane.

When I was first married, we lived in rural Dunn County. One of the most thoughtful wedding gifts we received was a good old-fashioned mailbox, the kind one can buy at Menards or Ace Hardware. Our routine, like every other citizen in the state, was to stop at that box each day and collect our mail. Oftentimes, we indulged in a long walk (about a mile, one way) to the mailbox. The elderly gentleman from whom we bought the place expressed shock at this, telling us that in the more than fifty years he lived there he never once even considered walking to the mailbox. In that time period, Jim took a part-time job as a rural mail carrier and often said that one really gets to know the neighbors by delivering their mail. When we moved to Medora, we rented a post office box, and the post office there was definitely a hub of the town. Medora still has those old-fashioned metal PO box faces as it happens and a colorfully decorated exterior of the building, complete with a western theme.

These days, here at Red Oak House, we have a red mailbox of Scandinavian origin mounted on the front of the house. I've seen these for sale at the Norwegian store at Kirkwood Mall. I'm on a first name basis with my mail carriers, sometimes handing them a popsicle on a hot August day. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Read this book and I promise you many happy thoughts about your connection to the prairie post office, the glue of our communities. Thank you to the authors and to NDSU Press for capturing this in a charming book.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Mother Daughter Date to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My daughter and I had a Theodore Roosevelt National Park getaway yesterday. She hadn't been out there since Labor Day and she described the day as "rejuvenating."

She loves the Bad Lands as much as I, and she is particularly in love with the wild horses who inhabit the South Unit of TRNP. She is a photographer and a member of the group North Dakota Badlands Horse. This non-profit organization publishes an annual guide to the horses and my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson, has had her photographs featured in the 2017 and 2018 guides.

Yesterday was a very monochromatic day in the park, with overcast skies, but not a breath of wind. There were very few other visitors and the entire loop road was open, something very unusual this winter as it has been closed most previous winters. In addition to seeing fifty horses, we spotted a few bison and some activity in the prairie dog towns. We also saw several hawks, six wild turkeys, lots of magpies, and two golden eagles perched on a clay butte. A bald eagle flyby was the day's finale.

The highlight of the day was that she got to see a stallion she'd never seen before, which is pretty remarkable considering all of the hours she's spent at the Park.

Here are some of Chelsea's photographs from the day. You can follow her work on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Wild Dakota Photos.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Wonder of Birds: A Book Review

Thank goodness for winter, a time here at Red Oak House for us to catch up on reading.

About a year ago, I bought myself the book The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future, by Jim Robbins (Spiegel & Grau, c2017). I tucked it away, waiting for an opportune time to read it. This week was that time.

Robbins, a Helena, Montana, native, is an accomplished and respected writer. He has written for the New York Times for more than thirty-five years, and for a variety of other magazines, covering environmental and science stories. He is also the author of the books: The Man Who Planted Trees, Last Refuge: the Environmental Showdown in the American West, and A Symphony in the Brain.

In this book, The Wonder of Birds, he wanders through a wide variety of locations, from wild places all around the world to a business that creates feather clothing and costumes of all varieties, the Mother Plucker Feather Company.

He writes of the transformative and healing powers of birds, something I can attest to from decades of birdwatching. "Walking across the broad sweep of grassy prairie of northern Montana day after day is an immersion into a starkly beautiful landscape. On the days I hunt I become a predator, and the experience touches some deep and ancient part of my psyche, a calm, though vigilant, deeply felt energy, providing me with the stamina to hike mile after mile along creeks and down one-lane dirt roads, all but oblivious to distances covered or the hours passed, consumed only with thoughts about in which patch of chokecherry, cattails, or thick grass the birds might be hiding."(pg. 104) My husband, Jim, recounts that he also has a greater ability to walk without tiring when in the wild than when he is at the YMCA, much like Robbins describes. Speaking for myself, I get bored walking around the track but can walk for miles on a hiking trail. The presence of the birds is a part of that.

Robbins meets with Cagan Sekercioglu, an associate professor of biology, who says, "Even if you just look for birds you'll see the best parts of the planet. Not just landscapes and biodiversity, but some of the last remaining interesting cultures."(pg.115)

Each chapter begins with a lovely pen and ink illustration by DD Dowden. The chapter devoted to ravens and crows is particularly delightful.
Illustrations copyright by DD Dowden, 2017
Again, from the book, "If we can learn how to move beyond the subconscious terror we all carry and the emotional numbing we take on to shield ourselves, if we can tap into the extraordinary power of birds and bottle this lightning, if we learn from our relationship with birds to fully understand our nervous system and the full range that we are capable of feeling and sensing in the world, we will find something inexhaustible and profound, even life-changing."(pg. 280)

In this, the "Year of the Bird," this book was worth every penny and a delight to read. I give it my highest recommendation. If you google the title, you will see that many other reviewers agree with me.

While you are at it, do check out this delightful issue of National Geographic magazine.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Secret Ministry of Frost

Jack Frost visited Red Oak House today.

Although this is a time of fallow in the yard, there is beauty everywhere, for those who pause to look. The hoary white bits coat everything and the air is still.

It makes me think of this poem, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Here are the first and last few lines.

"Frost at Midnight"

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. 

Last night, there was a luminous crescent moon low on the southwestern horizon. On the owl nest front here at Red Oak House, there is nothing yet to report. In time, I'm confident that there will be inhabitants. The feeders bustle with winter visitors and squirrels.

Our Red Oak tree was front page news this morning in the Bismarck Tribune, and I've had so many cheerful comments about it today as I've gone here and there. I'd like to see the city put in a sidewalk there, after this news!

My research took me again today to the State Archives at the Heritage Center. The capitol grounds are just as lovely with today's frosty coating. I wrestled with microfilm and found what I was looking for, departing with a sense of satisfaction. 32 cents and some time were all it took. That, and the dedication of the good folks who work there. Many thanks.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Writing Retreat at Annunciation Monastery

"Life's pulse is gained in the hollows, the intervals between must discern these spaces. This requires leisure, the chance to sit and contemplate, and the opportunity to respond to inner urgings.

If you can find a place to retreat, you can make a life where Tao will flood into you. Out in the woods, or in the mountains, or even in small villages where times are slow paced and the people sensitive to nature, there is the possibility of knowing the deep and the profound. Only when you have the time to accumulate an unshakable belief and faith can you glimpse the Tao in which there is restfulness and a natural sense of what is right." 365 Tao: Daily Meditations (pg. 142)

This past week I was immeasurably blessed by a personal retreat of my own devising at the Annunciation Monastery, on the southern edge of the campus of the University of Mary.

This place is filled with the presence of the holy and the sisters here are most assuredly living out the Benedictine value of hospitality.

I found space in which to read and to write. They provided me with a silent room and any meals I cared to attend, in the sun-drenched dining room. Every single one of the sisters was kindness personified: gracious, kind, funny, and interesting. The institutional memory here leaves me awestruck.

Several of the sisters have been here since the Monastery moved from St. Alexius in downtown Bismarck, relocating to what is now the Benedictine Center at the University, the first building here. In later years, the new monastery was built and they moved there. One sister told me that there were only dirt roads here and people thought they were crazy to move so far away from Bismarck.

Lay people are often confused that a place where nuns live is called a "monastery," as they tend to associate this word with monks and men. The definition that I find on the internet is a "house for persons under religious vows" and, yes, mostly "men". Here is an article on that topic if you care to delve deeper.

The renowned architect Marcel Breuer was engaged to design the first building, what he later called his "gem of the prairie." He designed the (now) Benedictine Center, a gorgeous building, the walls constructed from the area's native rock, with inspiring and open spaces and sightlines everywhere. Sister Gemma remembers Breuer well and speaks with great reverence about the stonemasons who built the building, lamenting that it has become so difficult to find someone who will do this sort of labor.

Some years ago, my friend Paul (born and raised in Bowman, ND) was visiting his father in Bismarck and I took him canoeing on the Missouri River. I'll never forget his expression of shock as we came around a bend in the river and I pointed out to him the University of Mary buildings on the bluffs above us and told him that Breuer had designed the first building. He knew about Breuer but had no idea that such a man had designed this building and in Paul's childhood home state. After we had taken the canoe out of the water and secured it to the Jeep, we drove up to the Benedictine Center and walked around. He took dozens of photographs and was in awe of the space.

Breuer insisted that no trees be planted around the building. Sister Gemma said that he would come to the site and just sit quietly on the prairie to get a feel of the landscape. To this day, architectural students come to the campus to study these buildings and future leaders have been very careful to design new campus buildings to incorporate elements of Breuer's original design, including the native stone.

Each day while I was there, I luxuriated in the quiet with no distractions of dog, and cooking, and cleaning, and such. In the first two days, I went to town for my yoga class and for some research at local libraries, as well as one personal appointment I could not reschedule. Thereafter, I canceled every temptation on my personal calendar and just stayed put. This was a luxury I was unwilling to squander.

The only bird I saw this week was one lone bald eagle, which flew overhead as I drove up the hill to the campus.

A storm and bitter cold blew in on Wednesday, just as forecasted, and, although I had planned to perhaps do some cross-country skiing here on the open prairie, I didn't even budge, except for a couple of walks in the biting cold along the river bluffs (I checked out the beautiful library nearby) and to poke my head out the door late at night to look at the stars. Orion shone there above, along with Gemini and the Pleiades. I looked into the valley of the mighty Missouri River whenever I had a chance.

Mostly, it was me, with an explosion of papers around my room, and my laptop. I limited my social media time. I went to evening prayer each day. I had coffee and a granola bar in my room in the mornings, only emerging for the mid-day meal. After lunch, I read the Bismarck Tribune in the Monastery library. When I came down with a cold early in the week, Jim and Chelsea brought out a humidifier and got a short tour. Shortest duration of a head cold I've ever had. Hmmmmm.......

Every day there was freshly baked bread or buns, along with a wide variety of delicious hot food.

This morning at mass, it came to me that it was interesting that I would begin my retreat on the Epiphany, and prepare to leave this afternoon on the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, returning to my ordinary life, refreshed and renewed, with a big chunk of the first draft of a manuscript written.

I arrived at my warm home to find my husband was making homemade chicken noodle soup in his new crockpot, complete with his homemade noodles. The Springer Spaniel won't leave my side. I made many new friends this week, wonderful nurturing women who I will visit again and again. I was am very blessed.

"...imagine! imagine!
the wild and wondrous
still to be ours."
Mary Oliver