Archive for November, 2007

Hard Times and Good Times in North Dakota

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

“There’s a house on my block
That’s abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
Long time ago
And they took all their things
And they never came back”

-“House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits

Southeast of Noonan, North Dakota, a handful of miles from Saskatchewan and Montana, there are an increasing number of farm homes that are shards of a previous society. They haven’t seen a coat of paint in decades and the tall grasses around them hide rusted hulks of farm implements. Most are without panes of glass and some are without doors.

At one place a great horned owl had taken up residence in the south- facing upstairs window. It is doubtful that the cottontail, venturing out at twilight, whose spoor laced the feral lilac hedge, can even see the raptor that watches from the former bedroom.

What might be described as hard times have suddenly become good times for the horned owl.

At another place, near a thick patch of what the locals call “buck brush,” we discovered two gravestones leaning in the tall, dry grasses. One simply said, “Our Beloved Baby, Born 1909, Died 1911.” Hard times one might say, but sunsets come and go and no one laments their passing. But like all babies, this one was “beloved,” and that alone gave rise to my lingering while the wind, oh the constant wind, gave the yellowed grasses their last dance before the coming of winter’s snows.

In this landscape of stubbled wheat and barley fields, the empty and sullen homes are testaments of former times. Without the plow and scythe these homesteads become woodland islands. The tireless winds favor limber stemmed bushes over taller trees. However, here and there are tall cottonwoods climbing into the big Dakota sky. These have become pulpits of sorts for the red-tailed hawk. Without the occasional fire to keep the woody ones at bay, even the potential of a prairie-takeover is unlikely.

Many of the farmsteads were showplaces in their time. The kind where the black and white daguerreotype images show the family standing outside, with the women, dressed in their humble finery, sitting in the dining room chairs. The men looking awkward dressed in their Sunday best, stand stoically behind. They don’t smile. Did they already know that in the coming years only the house would remain?

I cautiously entered a home relic that bore two levels and an attic. I stepped across the sagging floor from the old kitchen into the living room. An upright piano slumped against the crumbling, plaster wall. I stood in front of it and wondered about its life as a household merrymaker.

“Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me;
I come from Alabama, with my banjo on my knee.”

Or was it a Sunday hymnist?

“I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.”

Perhaps the piano was a cheerful Christmas caroler?

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to sleigh in a one horse open sleigh!”.

Or a dirgemaker after the death of a beloved child.

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee”

Why, I wondered, would a family leave so suddenly as to abandon a piano? Like the attraction and security of a Paleolithic campfire, the piano was the focal point for many human gatherings. The piano could have provided an escape from the tireless moan of the ever-present winds.

The decrepit keyboard was covered in dust and debris. Most of the ivory coverings from the keys were gone and the C chord was frozen, as if depressed by a phantom hand. No longer was this a lively home, as its soul, born from the folks it sheltered, has long departed.

Above the piano, a slab of plaster hung precariously, held to the wall only by the glues of wallpaper. The wallpaper on the plaster resembled a tattered book with four pages of various patterns and hues. I wondered if the family changed the wallpaper to deal with the monotonous landscape.

When one of the floorboards creaked below my weight, I retreated, leaving many story-echoes unfound.

The conversion of old homesteads to patches of unkempt shrubs and grasses is a clear reminder of the resiliency of wild places. The genius of this land favors craggy plums, buck brush and Indian grass.

The old houses will melt into the landscape, and host a new group of music makers, like meadowlarks and bobolinks. The forced geometry of crop rows and right-angled farmhouses gives way to the wonderful chaos of unrestrained nature. And for countless other species this is indeed the good times.