I’m told by people from other states that North Dakota is a “fly-over” state, as opposed to a destination state. People fly over, looking down at fields and pastures, or drive across the state on I-94 at the posted 75 mph, not really bothering to look. Nobody comes to North Dakota, unless they’re coming home. And you know what? That’s all right with me. We North Dakotans like our prairie home pretty much just the way it is.
North Dakota is my home; I was born and raised here, got my BA at the University of North Dakota, and reluctantly left to get an MA in Lawrence, Kansas (where my “accent” was laughed at by all the other linguistics students. Apparently I sound more like Lawrence WELK, than Lawrence KANSAS). Actually North Dakota has two major accents: Norwegian, and “German from Russia” (not to be confused with German from Germany). We also have a small group of Icelanders, and in the west, a group of Ukrainians. Their architecture, traditional religions, and food add a, dare I say cosmopolitan?, touch to the state. After a move to Nevada, where I stayed for 12 unforgettable years, with entirely new landscapes and a lot of life’s ups and downs, until I decided it was time to go home.
People who read about our winters here ask how anyone in their right mind would want to live in a state that has snow from October to April (in good years). My answer is, it’s home, and that’s what most North Dakotans say. I could list statistics like most of the durum wheat in the world comes from North Dakota (that Italian pasta you’re eating? Made from ND wheat!); how we have more four-year colleges (and graduates) per capita than any other state; how our state is always in the top five safest states lists, usually at the top. But that’s not why I love my state. I could never live in a bustling city. I like clean air, and elbow room. I like people saying “hello” or “good morning” when they pass you on the street, even if they don’t know your name. I like knowing all my neighbors, and who to call when I have any problems. I’ve heard of “Minnesota Nice,” but I think “North Dakota Nice” is nicer (OK, I’m biased).
I’ve also heard that we have no scenery, and I’m reminded of a joke. Ole and Lena went to Colorado (Ole and Lena figure in most North Dakota jokes, just as they do in Minnesota, but outs are Norwegian and theirs are mostly Swedish), and when they returned, Sven asked them what they thought about the scenery. “I don’t know,” said Ole. “You couldn’t really see it with all dem mountains in da way!”
The plains have a subtle beauty all their own. In late spring, when the grass moves with the wind, you can see why settlers called their wagons “prairie schooners;” the grass does move with a current like the sea. Even the National Forest here is a National Grassland. When flax is in bloom, there appear to be beautiful blue lakes, albeit oddly square, across the state. In the prairie pot-hole regions of central North Dakota, the wetlands, you’ll find teeming wildlife, including waterfowl of all kinds, and small animals you might not even see unless you get out early and stay very quiet. Beavers, mink, and other small former victims of trappers share the land with deer and antelope, not to mention a garden of wild flowers, including orchids like yellow ladyslipper, and a rainbow of penstemon varieties. Turtle Mountain, a glacial remnant in north central North Dakota, rises like a fortress over the prairie, and is home to the only state forest in the state, as well as one of the four reservations located here.
West of the Missouri, there are the Missouri breaks, an area of stream-filled ravines and buttes, green in the spring, and golden by late summer. Keep going west and you’ll reach the badlands, a geologist’s dream of stratigraphy exposed by thousands of years of winds. There you’ll find bison – both “domesticated” (ha! Like you can domesticate a buffalo!) -- and running wild in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Mule deer and antelope thrive, despite predation from mountain lions. The bighorn sheep are hard to spot because they’re good at hiding, and can nimbly hop up the side of a butte that no human would try to climb. Prairie chickens, pheasants, wild turkeys, ruff grouse, and other birds dot not just the west, but the entire state. Watching this land change with the seasons fills my heart. And believe me, you haven’t seen a sunset until you’ve seen a prairie sunset.
My writing reflects my home, I hope. We are a small state in terms of people, but a large state in terms of land, ancestry, micro-environments, history, and myth. I try to incorporate landscape and myth in all my work. My first book, Spooky Creepy North Dakota is a collection of ghost stories, mysteries, and myth and legend from across this state. My fiction in progress attempts to include the land and the weather as characters, or at the very least, a constant presence throughout the book. And a good dose of nice, too.
Lori offers an autographed copy of Spooky Creepy North Dakota to one lucky person to comment here during her week.