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Wednesday, December 28, 2022
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"Ever and Always I Shall Love the Land" Inspirational North Dakotans: Ruth and Clell Goebel Gannon, and their home, "The Cairn"
|The Cairn, photo by Lillian Crook|
Although I can no longer untangle when I decided to learn more about Ruth and Clell Goebel Gannon, I credit my friend, Ken Rogers of Mandan, for piquing my interest to the point at which I started collecting their books and admiring their prose and poetry. Ken and the inimitable Kevin Carvell of Mott, who quite possibly has one of the largest privately owned collections of North Dakota books. Hence I have chosen to research and write about both of the Gannon's stories, and others of that time, including one Paul Southworth Bliss, the Gannon's friend and fellow poet (another fellow to whom I've devoted an inordinate amount of my time). Certainly, the number of Gannon books on the shelves in my home is revealing as well.
While the editor of the Bismarck Tribune, Ken Rogers frequently wrote about the Gannons. During my years as a librarian, I knew of the Gannon Art Gallery on the Bismarck State College campus as it was located in the same building as the "old" library (that building was bulldozed some years ago, but the Gannon Gallery is now in the LEA building on the BSC campus).
|Clell Gannon painting at the BSC Library|
|Clell and Ruth Gannon|
Vernacular architecture is also of great interest to me, particularly North Dakota buildings using locally available materials. More on that later in this essay. Finally, I am intrigued by the cultural milieu in North Dakota during the years of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl -- this stems from my heritage as the child of a child of those hard years in rural Slope County, from my direct experience with so many of that generation who survived that time and who, in a plainspoken manner, told those stories all the rest of their lives.
Clell might be more well known to the general public, but however intertwined their lives were, Ruth led her own remarkable life. Born in Colorado, she was educated in Kansas, North Dakota, Virginia, and Mexico City. She arrived in North Dakota in the 1930s, worked at the ND State Library, where the state librarian, Lillian Cook (I know, right?!) took from her own salary to help pay for other employees' expenses (as an aside I'm guessing that the salary for educators and librarians, however exemplary their credentials, was as comparatively low then as it is now). Later, Ruth, who was educated in biology and zoology in hopes of becoming a nurse, was an instructor of English and Spanish at Bismarck High and (then) Bismarck Junior College (BJC's first location was at Bismarck High). She retired from BJC in 1972.
Although I can picture the romance of the lives of these prairie people, what may very well be my favorite episode in the life of the Gannons is found in the North Dakota Historical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1926. Price seventy-five cents, and then published at the State Historical Society of North Dakota at Grand Forks. A Short Account of a Rowboat Journey from Medora to Bismarck, by Clell G. Gannon, tells of a 13-day river expedition of 350 miles taken in June 1925 with his friends, George Will and Russell Reid, in a boat they built and christened the "Hugh Glass." Writes Gannon, there was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology, and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich.... The geology of the Bad Lands region is intensely interesting. Erosion, wind and the burning out of lignite beds are agencies constantly at work sculpturing new and intricate forms.... Altogether our journey had been a most delightful one, and our experiences along the river are those that will live with us always in memory. We hope, in the not distant future, to again make the voyage except that next time we shall embark at Marmarth and take at least a month for the journey.
|Clell Gannon near the Ice Caves in the Bad Lands|
Ruth and Clell were married in December 1932. An account in the Minot Daily News reads, "The marriage took place at 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon, in the First Presbyterian [Bismarck]...the church was decorated with Christmas greens, and lighted tall white candles. The Rev. Mr. Johnson escorted his daughter to the altar...she wore white organdy with a short veil of tulle caught in a cap with a sprig of orange blossoms, and her bouquet was of pink rosebuds...Russell Reid was best man, and Harold Schafer served as an usher." In 1953, Ruth received a Ford Foundation fellowship for travel and study and this is the time when she and Clell and their two young sons lived in Mexico City.
When the Gannon Gallery was dedicated, Harold Schafer and George Will (son of Oscar H. Will of the Bismarck-based seed company) made remarks. According to my notes, the Will home was a gathering place for many of these folks, including Reid and the Gannons. Clell was born in 1900, in Nebraska, and traveled with his family in 1908 in a Model T Ford to take up a homestead one mile east of Underwood, ND. Clell's father lost the farm during the Great Depression, at which time he became the Underwood postmaster. Clell graduated high school in 1918 and then attended the Art Institute in Chicago, where his idol was N.C. Wyeth, a book illustrator, commercial artist, and muralist. As a student in Chicago, he worked as a waiter and an usher at the Chicago Opera. Homesick for North Dakota, he returned and found work with the Soo Line Railroad, where he worked from 1922-1938. During the 1920s, he roomed at a Bismarck boarding house run by Mrs. Peter Reid and became a close friend of her son, Russell Reid, who later was appointed director of the ND State Historical Society. At that time, the State Library and the SHSND were in the same building, and soon Clell and Ruth were dating. During the years of the Depression, Clell wrote for the Federal Writers Project, contributing to the WPA-era guide to North Dakota. Later he worked as a commercial artist for the Provident Life Insurance Company in the downtown Bismarck building, a short stroll from his home. For nearly eight years, he was unable to work due to tuberculosis and was in this time (the 1940s and 50s) a patient at the San Haven sanatorium, where he wrote articles for the in-house newsletter and bemoaned that many other patients did nothing but play cards. Clell drew a map for the Greater North Dakota Association, for the pamphlet, "North Dakota: Land of Opportunity," (as described in North Dakota History, v. 76, no. 1 & 2, 2010, pg. 32) and created much of the cover art for the Oscar Will & Co. seed catalogs. These works can be seen at the ND Heritage Center. And I know that my Slope County grandparents and parents received the Will Seed Company catalogs. Clell also painted some of the historic-themed murals in the Burleigh County Courthouse, an Art Deco building built in 1931. According to Ruth Gannon, "the painting in the third-floor courtroom was not painted by her husband, but had to be touched up by him because it just didn't look like North Dakota." Clell's paintings, reflecting his preferred realistic style, are found in the Courthouse entryway and lobby, and in the BSC Library. Clell writes, "I have had all the resources of the state historical museum and library at my disposal. No effort has been spared to make the mural historically correct. In painting the dedication of the territorial capitol the weather bureau was consulted to ascertain the kind of weather in Bismarck on Sept. 5, 1883. The records disclosed fair weather, clear skies and northern lights at night...If there is any merit in them it belongs to those who made the painting of them possible, particularly to George Will and to A.C. Iseminger, Russell Reid, the officials of the Soo Line who arranged for my leave of absence, and to scores of friends to whom I shall ever owe a debt of gratitude for their interest." Bismarck Tribune, Artist Describes Scenes Painted for Vestibule of New Courthouse, July 18, 1931. The paintings were later restored and can be seen today by visitors to the Burleigh County Courthouse.
The Gannons were very civic-minded and were members of what was dubbed Beta Stanzas, a poetry society located in Bismarck (there were other named "chapters" of the North Dakota Poetry Society at that time in varying locations). During this time, their paths crossed with Paul Southworth Bliss, who was living in Bismarck while he worked for a Depression-era relief program, traveling and writing his own poetry, and a member of Betz Stanzas. The Gannons hosted Beta Stanzas gatherings in their home which included Bliss, and exchanged letters with him, some of which survive in Bliss's papers.
October 2, 1935
Mr. Clell G. Gannon
Dear Mr. Gannon,
In visiting the Bismarck Library the other day I had a real thrill for in the poetry section I found your "Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres". I liked every bit of it including the title, binding, and general format of the book and especially the poetry--although the illustrations were a close second.
May I say that I think you have done a great deal for North Dakota in pioneering as you have done in home building out of native stone. In my opinion 80% of farm housing and of course much of the urban, is inadequate in one way or another. There are so many things that can be done to provide adequate, beautiful, healthful homes and appropriate furnishings that it is a shame everyone is not doing something you have.
I have recently taken some pictures of housing including native stone--I was one of the first to take pictures of your house as it was being constructed...I visited the Dikotah Pottery at Dickinson Sunday night and Mr. Zook and his wife showed me around. I contemplate a set of dishes with the Bliss brand on it, this brand consisting of a scoria lily motif....
Very sincerely yours, Paul S. Bliss
Clell writes back to Bliss, using the Gannon's handprinted stationery, with the bison skull motif.
October 16, 1935
Mr. Paul S. Bliss
Bismarck, N. Dak.
We, too, were much interested in [the dishes] and if their prices are not too high would like to consider some purchases.
That November, Ruth writes to Bliss, continuing their correspondence on pottery and architecture and prairie life and Bliss's new volume of poetry, Spin Dance. My immediate purpose in writing this note, without waiting for Clell to answer, is to ask of you a favor. It's this: Clell and I have read your "Spin Dance"--borrowed from the library (and like it!)--and as Clell has several times expressed the desire to own the book I would like to get it for him for Christmas.
Ruth goes on to arrange for a signed copy to be delivered to her friend in the offices of the ND Supreme Court so as to keep the gift as a surprise to her husband.
These letters bring me to the other reason I'm captivated by the Gannons, their rock home in the heart of Bismarck. Their son, Grael's, inherited the house and died in Bismarck in February 2023. His words best describe their family home:
The new Gannon house was named "The Cairn" -- cairn being a Scottish word meaning a manmade mound of rocks, usually used as a monument or marker of some kind, though sometimes just the result of physical doodling by bored shepherds. This was appropriate as the outer walls of the house were of stone masonry comprised of small granite and other field boulders gathered around the area. Clell and Ruth and many of their friends made a hobby of collecting these stones. Ruth has said that she thought they had accumulated enough stones for three houses, but when the walls went up there still weren't enough. The original house was rather small with a really nice, large living room including a large fireplace made of the same type of stones as the outside walls, including some nice pieces of petrified wood. The pretties stones of all were chosen for the fireplace, but lacking the scouring action of outside air and weather, they soon became rather dull looking. The masonry was done by a tall skinny old geezer named J.D. Anderson who drove around Bismarck on an old Model T chassis flatbed truck.... Clell got the plans for it from a US Department of Agriculture brochure and the two of them worked it out. It has always worked quite well except that sometimes it doesn't draw properly and smokes into the room. The living room ceiling has large lengthwise exposed beams for rustic effect. The huge solid wooden front door has hand made ironwork taken from iron from the old Dakota territorial statehouse which burned down in the early 1930s, a fire which could be clearly seen form the Cairn as there were then no buildings between the Cairn and the capitol grounds. I believe some of the same iron was used to make the andirons for the fireplace.
Apart from the very nice living room, there was a master bedroom opening directly off the living room, a very small kitchen on another side of the living room, a small bathroom, and a small laundry room at the back of the kitchen. Also a concrete full basement under abuot two thirds of the house, which quickly became a storehouse for all manner of family memorabilia and other odds and ends, including art and printing supplies. Clell had somewhere found an old Pearl job pres, very narrow, and with a foot treadle to operate the flywheel. He also acquired a font case and several font trays and several fonts of type, most of it the Berhard Light Gothic design--a very plain tin sans serif type....With this equipment Clell and Ruth did a little home publishing over the years.
The land on which the Cairn was built was just on top of a long hill on the north side of Bismarck on Mandan Street. [now 912 N. Mandan Street]
Clell had inquired who owned the land and learned that it was owned by the Mellons of Pittsburgh. Clell was told that they probably would not sell it but it wouldn't hurt to check. He did and was asked to make an offer. The Mellons agreed to sell two adjacent city lots for sixty dollars apiece. These lots had the usual frontage measure but were very deep, running at least two thirds of the way through the block. A few years later Clell purchased a half lot on the north side of the other two, this half lot for seventy-five dollars. The prices were going up! It is hard to imagine city lots with water and electricity going for that kind of money. Clell said that if he had had foresight he would have borrowed enough money to buy the whole hill, which became a fashionable residential area immediately after World War II, contrary to its windswept hilltop reputation of earlier years--Gannon's folly! Clell and Ruth were avid gardeners. He tried to use native plantings as much as possible, including an experiment in planting the whole large lawn to North Dakota buffalo grass.
A story in the September 17, 1935 Bismarck Tribune trumpeted "Bismarck's Native Stone House Attracts 400 Visitors Sunday: Gannon Housewarming a Success: Novel Residence is Result of Long Planning." More than 400 persons signed the guest book at the novel home. It's walls are of native rock gathered from the fields in ten to fifteen miles of Bismarck and from the ranch owned by Mr. Gannon's father at Underwood. For three long years every time they were out for a drive, the Gannons would bring home a rock....After the room arrangement had been determined, Bruce Wallace, an architect, drew up the detail plans and put on a roof. Besides Mr. Young and Mr. Wallace those artisans who had to do with the construction of Bismarck's most unusual house were Robert G. Aune and Fred Anderson.
According to a letter from Paul Bliss, the lead stonemason was Mr. J.E. Young, who lived at the Bismarck Hotel. I know this because Bliss followed up on his promise to send photographs of the home as it was under construction. Wonder where those photos are?
Last fall, I had the distinct privilege and pleasure of a visit with Jenny Yearous, a curator at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, who carefully showed me Clell's work, which reflects his development as an artist (Jenny's hand in blue gloves shows up in my photos). He began drawing when he was eight and began writing poetry when he was fifteen. Eventually his studio was in his home, the Cairn. Many other SHSND staff have been generous with their time in patiently assisting me to access the Gannon papers and photographs within the collections. Yearous told me she has a special fondness for the Gannon collection and this was clear to me in our time spent together. One Gannon painting is on public display in the ND Heritage Center, cleverly tucked into a grain bin next to Will Seed catalog cover art.
I am able to write about the Gannons because their work, letters, prose, poems, and art, has been carefully archived, chiefly by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Clell's paintings can also be seen at Bismarck State College, both in the Library and the Gannon Gallery, and in the Burleigh County Courthouse, all a short drive from the home they dubbed "The Cairn." The Bismarck Historical Society has also preserved stories of that time and books by the Gannons can be found in libraries to this day. I am grateful to all whose work preserves this North Dakota history and enriches our lives to this day. The digital archives of the newspapers of North Dakota, including the Bismarck Tribune, are a rich source of information for any who wishes to learn more about these prairie people as is the online source Digital Horizons. One can read online more current information on The Cairn in a 2015 issue of Prairie Places
If you are still reading this essay at this point, maybe, just maybe, you need to get a life. Go watch a sunset. Take a hike. Go hunting or fishing. Take a river journey. Paint. Plant a garden. Write poetry. Read a book. Play cards with friends. Watch a movie. Drink a glass of wine. Go to college. Look at the stars and Northern Lights. Cook a meal. Wash dishes. Take a hot bath. Volunteer somewhere. Visit a museum or art gallery. Build a house. Shovel a neighbor's driveway.
The Gannons left a remarkable footprint on North Dakota. And designed and built a marvelous house in Bismarck, of native prairie stone, where in the basement they operated Cairn Press. That home stands still, not far from my home. Beta Stanza of the North Dakota Poetry Society was organized informally in 1936 at Bismarck, North Dakota, under the inspiration of Paul Southworth Bliss, regional director, and Grace Brown Putnam, president of the North Dakota Poetry Society, with sincere interest but without literary pre-requisite, the members come from occupations of teaching, nursing, farming, housework, and the office. Meetings held once a month, except in summer, are devoted to discussion, study in technique, constructive criticism, and the writing and reading of original verse.
The Badlands Call by Clell Gannon
Land of a thousand voices
Beckoning unto me,
Land of the zigzag valleys
Shadowed in history.
Land of a thousand coulees,
Pastures without the bars,
Land of a weird beauty
Under a million stars.
Ever and Always I Shall Love the Land a book of poetry by Clell Goebel Gannon, a lifetime member of the North Dakota Historical Society, was published by his widow, Ruth, in 1965.
The Gannons published a number of books:
Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres
Lines for the New Year
The Christmas Trail
Ever and Always I Shall Love the Land
Clell's illustrations appear in many publications, including Furbearers of North Dakota.
His illustrated map of North Dakota can be seen at the ND Heritage Center.
Visit the ND Heritage Center, the Burleigh County Courthouse, and the Gannon Gallery at BSC in person. My gratitude to all the staff for their assistance and patience with me as I wrote this essay. Photos I took of the collections during my visits are used with permission (while I am a freelance writer, I derive no income from my essays). In the words of Clell and Ruth, "scores of friends have helped me along the way."
Digital Horizons a rich resource of images, documents, videos, and oral histories depicting life on the Northern Plains.
Rogers, Ken. The Spirit Moved Him. Bismarck Tribune special, June 1997.
North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State, American Guide Series, 1938.
Johnson, Roy P., Bismarck Artist Captures Prairie Beauty: Triumphs Over Adversity, Sunday Fargo Forum, November 1961.
|Clell Gannon, camels on sandpaper with gilt stars|
|Clell Gannon woodcut|
|Clell Gannon, for Will seed catalog cover|
|Clell Gannon, early sketchbook|
|Clell Gannon, early sketchbook|
|Clell Gannon woodcut|
Ever and always, I shall love the land.
Monday, November 21, 2022
by Clell Gannon
Land of a thousand voices
WildDakotaWoman will be on hiatus until sometime in 2023.
Friday, November 11, 2022
"The other morning when the scorching sun had shot the mercury up to the hundred mark, we got to reminiscing with one of Minot's real old timers, and gleaned some interesting old-time stories that we will now pass on to our readers. We got to talking about 'pigs'. Thirty or 40 years ago Minot had a lot of pigs, but many of them were 'blind pigs'. Why they ever called them 'blind pigs' we never could tell for from time immemorial one could buy enough liquor in North Dakota to swim a horse if he had the price. North Dakota has always prided herself on having been a prohibition state ever since she was admitted to the Union in 1889, but it seems that enough of our electors 'drink wet and vote dry' to head off every effort to legalize the sale of hard liquor.
But we are getting just a bit off the subject. In the early days they had pigs here [Minot] that were pigs. Old timers will recall the 'hole in the ground,' a dugout run by the late Al Campbell down near the G.N. racks. Al believed in advertising, for a big sign on the roof read: 'Drink while you live, for you'll be long time dead.'
Well here is a real pig story: Attorney Carl Aurlund was a young man when he came to Minot, and he engaged in the mercantile business. In those days merchants traded groceries to farmers for most any products they had on the farm. One day a farmer traded Mr. Aurland a litter of young pigs for some groceries and the merchants having no suitable place to keep them made arrangements with Jack Powers to keep them in his barn, until he could otherwise dispose of them. Mr. Aurlund's friends saved him the trouble. One night every last one of the pigs disappeared and as was the custom in those days, they undoubtedly graced the table of some of the 'boys' who were in the habit of nabbing up every pig they could find and preparing a feast of roast pig."
Ward County Independent, July 16, 1936. Front page, above the fold.
Reading this has me in mind of two things. In reverse chronological order:
First, the Beatles song Piggies, written in 1968. If you listen to the song, YouTube might lead you to Rocky Raccoon (which mentions North Dakota). But that is entirely up to you. I do recall later reading about what happened in California in that time period when Charles Manson's madness swept over the news (he who claimed that the Beatles songs were a part of his evil and incomprehensible plans). My parents talked about this and tolerated that their children were listening to the Beatles. I do also recall with complete clarity the moment I heard Beatles hits when we were living in Texas in the late 1960s. My parents were more inclined to listen to Bing Crosby and the Sons of the Pioneers and Elivs, but, of course, their children were going to listen to Three Dog Night and the Beatles.
Second, a story from when I was a little girl, about three or four. This would have been when my father had gone before us for his deployment in Okinawa and we (my mother and her, than, four children) lived on the farm. My uncle drove into our Slope County farmyard with his pickup. My mother greeted him and someone lifted me and my younger brother into the back of the pickup, onto a burlap bag. The bag wriggled and the squeals of the piglets on their way to market made us scream out with laughter and fear. I remember my Grandma Lilly and my mother and my uncle laughing at the prank.
Eventually, my knowledge of pigs was informed by my teacher in El Paso reading to her class the classic E.B. White book, Charlotte's Web. Each day she would read a chapter and I tell you what, I could not wait for that time each day. Later I read Charlotte's Web to my children. Some pig!
This picture on Bullion Butte taken in 1966 shows my uncle in his cowboy hat, my Grandma Lilly in the blue dress, my younger brother standing next to her in the red cowboy hat (some pictures show me wearing one and some him -- I guess we each had one), and my mother (far right). And that pickup is the very one that held those piglets in the burlap sack.
|Front page. Note the INSANE FARM MAN CAUSES EXCITEMENT just below the pig story.|
Tuesday, November 8, 2022
When I was a kid in Slope County, the rattlesnakes on our place were abundant. The snakes slithered their way from the den on the rocky hills surrounding our place to Deep Creek, back and forth, on a route that frequently took them through our yard. My late mother could kill rattlesnakes with the best of them. Mother kept a hoe in the trunk of her car and on the ready near the doors of the farmhouse. I have many memories of her slicing rattlesnakes into bits. I also watched her sister, Junette, kill a few rattlers with particular fury. My father and his brother, who was visiting from Mississippi sometime in the early 1950s, got the bright idea of catching rattlesnakes, dumping them into gunny snakes, putting them into the car, and driving to Reptile Gardens in the Black Hills to sell them for extra cash. My uncle and my mother told many true stories about the racket those snakes would make in the car. My mother was terrified that her children and grandchildren would be bitten by the rattlesnakes as we roamed about the Slope County place. We certainly encountered many, but, by some miracle, none of us were bitten. Mother also kept geese for a time, because she knew that the geese would fight off the snakes. Once, Mother looked out to see her grandson on the swing in the yard and below him was a snake. She went out there and scooped him up and all was well. My mother was a nurse at the Bowman Hospital and one fall a man was brought in who had reached into his combine to clear out a clog and been bitten by a rattler. He almost lost his arm. When we baled hay, my father would dump the loose hay with the farmhand into the trailer where his kids waited to stomp the hay down and we would watch with a weather eye because now and then the tines of the farmhand would pick up a rattler that my father wouldn't see. We bailed out a time or two as the rattler came down with the hay. My brother, Thomas, would go up on the hill directly to the south of the place, which we called The Little White Hill, where there was a den. He would hold a pipe of some kind at the opening of the den and the sound of the rattlers would come right up to where we stood. Or rather -- jumped out of our skin. I also remember many times when rattlers were encountered on Bullion Butte, including at the spring on the south slope. I've roamed the badlands countless hours, and have many times encountered rattlers. But I know how to be watchful. Once, late in the fall, on the Killdeer Mountains, there was an enormous rattler out in the sun. Once, I saved my husband from a bite on the Petrified Forest Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Once, when I was a summer camp counselor at Badlands Lutheran Bible Camp, on a hike in the buttes, there was a little boy sitting on the sandstone rocks, dangling his feet. I looked over and saw a rattler just under his feet and I scooped him up and moved him away to safety. A few years ago, my two sisters and I were hiking in the badlands and came upon a rattler. One of us screamed, one jumped, and the other fell down on the trail. The next day when we hiked up Bullion Butte, my younger sister stayed closely behind me. Unlike my mother, I have never killed a rattler. But I do always carry a walking stick and I do watch ahead on the trail and I do take care where I put my hands and I do listen.
But, today, the best thing I read was about rattlers. In The Hillsboro Banner, July 3, 1925.
Rattlers cause terror.
"The last of three rattlesnakes that escaped from a circus at Courtney was killed last week by L.O. Larson and Louis Randolph. It marked the end of a reign of terror which had gripped the town for nearly a week. One snake was found dead the day following the reptile's escape and another was found dying."
Saturday, October 29, 2022
Theodore Roosevelt's Birthday Shenanigans: I Wander the Northern Bad Lands of North Dakota 27 October 2022
I don't even need a map. Just point me west. It wasn't until the next day, after I was home again, that I realized that -- serendipitously -- my retreat had taken place on President Theodore Roosevelt's birthday.
What I knew was that I needed to go. Go. Go. Go. Away to the Badlands. So I went. To the northern Badlands. To Dunn and McKenzie counties.
Where I saw snow. Snow on the Killdeer Mountains.
The Killdeer Mountains which at one time were part of a proposal for a huge Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's true. If you don't believe me, read it for yourself in the book At the Open Margin.
The Killdeer Mountains where the last grizzly bear in North Dakota was shot long long ago.
Highway 200 where long long ago I saw a Snowy Owl. Not the first Snowy Owl I had seen, because we saw them on the Slope County farm where I grew up, but the first in a long while. This would have been sometime in the late 1990s when my children were young.
Then, because I can and I do not need a map, I drove on back roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, mud roads, until I found Highway 85 and again headed due north. I wanted to ground-truth what I had been reading about and hearing about Highway 85. I wanted to see for myself the new bridge and I wanted to see for myself what the traffic is like these days in "the Bakken" through the northern Badlands. I wanted to know. I wanted to see. I wanted to hear. Or, more the truth: I wanted to not hear. I wanted to not see. I wanted to not know.
And I can say this about Highway 85: It does seem a little safer now for drivers. It does seem like the now industrialized landscape has calmed just a bit. There are more roads than ever before. There are more signs on ranch roads reading: "No trespassing, no oil traffic." There are still flares in the night sky. It does seem a little safer now for wildlife. It does seem a little more like there is an acknowledgment that Highway 85 cuts through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. It does seem a little safer for travelers to take the turn into the park and get off the damn highway.
And so, there I was. In the North Unit. With almost no one else, just as I expected in late October. Just bison. And birds. And quiet. So, I drove to the campground. I wanted to know if the campground was as quiet as I remembered. Despite Highway 85. Despite the Bakken. Despite the new bridge. It was a fairly still day. And it was quiet, perhaps quieter than when the old metal bridge was there. Just me and the Little Missouri River.
And when I arrived at the Oxbow Overlook, just as I had told myself, if I would just keep going and not stop for every bird, every deer, every bison, every view, every memory, there would be no one else there. But the bighorn sheep. The bighorns where I have come upon them countless times.
"North Dakota is fairly privately owned, but there are a lot of gems across the landscape when you get out and start looking around at our public lands [emphasis mine]...." Jacob Lardy, land management specialist with the ND Department of Trust Lands (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022, pg. 23)
"In summer, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department documented for the first time bighorn sheep ewes leading their young through a wildlife crossing that runs under U.S. Highway 85 in western North Dakota. The trail camera photograph is significant because wildlife literatures suggests ewes are less likely to use an underpass because they don't feel comfortable, fearing predators might be hiding in the passage. Yet, the photograph shows adults leading young safely through the crossing and instilling in the latter that the underpass is indeed safe. Plus, it keeps them off the busy highway, where a number of vehicle-bighorn accidents have been documented in the past." (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022)
My day's partial birding checklist:
- Sharp-tailed Grouse
- Ring-necked Pheasant
- Swainson's Hawk
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Black-billed Magpie
- American Tree Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco
What I know I have learned from my elders. I have learned from dozens of field guides still on my shelves. I have taught myself. I have learned from more people than I can list. I have taught my partners. I have learned from my siblings. I have learned from scholars and I have learned from idiots. I have taught my children. I have learned from friends. I have learned from being on the ground. I have listened. I have dreamed.