2015 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Taylor Brorby
Taylor is an essayist living in Ames, Iowa. His work has appeared in Orion, the Northern Plains Ethics Journal, High Country News, The Huffington Post, among others. His chapbook of poems, Ruin: Elegies from the Bakken, is published by Red Bird Chapbooks, and he is currently editing the country’s first anthology of creative writing about fracking, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, through Ice Cube Press.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars–Walt Whitman
Sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs were freshly extinct and the western half of North America buckled and folded like sea waves, sediment splintered as wind, ice, streams, and rivers shaped and broke the soil, creating the Rocky Mountains. The sediment slid down the eastern slopes of rough rock, was carried across the land through river and stream channels, and set down like seeds in North Dakota. Throughout Montana, Idaho, and South Dakota, volcanoes spewed and belched embers into the air. Wind swirled and deposited ash among the mud and silt from the infant Rockies. Bit by bit, sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone settled amidst the emerging prairie. Plants blossomed and wilted as flesh and sand and bone and rock continued to press and crush across the millennia, coloring and contrasting different strata throughout the Badlands. Still, today, with annual rainfall of fifteen inches–most rain coming in downpours–water continues to shape and nourish the landscape of western North Dakota, quilting the prairie with grass.
From afar it looks huge: acres of wheat bursting through the soil, reaching towards the sky, vast and intimidating. I am eight and am enveloped in a sea of golden husks. Stiff and strong, they prick my face as I lie down. The sun is shining and a few clouds dapple the sky. I close my eyes and hear the rush of the wind as it streaks through the amber waves of grain around me. This is my America: quiet to most but insanely alive. I sit on the coarse soil. Some clumps of dirt give way to my weight and collapse into dust. I think of how unique this is; how I am the only one doing this in the field behind my house. I never see anyone else run and disappear in an ocean of wheat. While lying down I feel like a fox, unseen and easily able to surprise anyone or thing that comes my way. In the earth that crumbles there are worms, above me insects hover and hawks look for any field mouse who dares to mistakenly leave the safety of his burrow. I tend to think this field is chaos. It is, isn’t it? I mean, from afar the reason I love running through it is because its hugeness invites me to; just like a lake, it begs to be disturbed. But from down here it’s ordered. And this field is ordered: rows upon rows sewn into the broken earth, trusted by the farmer that his measly seeds will break through the earth yet again and bring in a bountiful harvest. I’m thankful for something as ordinary as this field: it brings me into the business of the bees and worms and grain constantly growing and changing and depending upon each other in the way that I long to depend on others–in a necessary way to let life keep on going.
In 2013, the North Dakota Attorney General, Wayne Stenehjem, created a plan to set aside eighteen Extraordinary Places in the state. Worry over the rapid and rampant development of shale oil in western North Dakota caused some residents to fear for their favorite geological features.
Pretty Butte, one of the eighteen, is bricked on the border of Montana and North Dakota. Solitary and rugged, the butte rises like a ship’s sail on the horizon. Located dozens of miles south of Beach, North Dakota, Pretty Butte is the natural skyscraper in this uninhabited land. No road to Pretty Butte appears on a printed map.
In July, sweet clover carpets the prairie in golden regalia, creating an ocean of yellow. Badgers, jack rabbits, rattlesnakes, deer, sage grouse, and pronghorn antelope navigate among the wash of a lemon-colored landscape. Coumarin, a vanilla-scented compound, gives clover its characteristically sweet smell, draping the dusty and dry prairie in a baked perfume.
In childhood I never knew about Pretty Butte, traversing through the North Dakota Badlands on family vacations to and from Billings, Montana, along Interstate 94. Like other gems of the prairie, Pretty Butte is far from town.
I decided to travel to Pretty Butte, seeing this Extraordinary Place for myself. Growing up amid stories of Lewis and Clark, George Catlin, and Theodore Roosevelt I believed myself to be a hearty pursuer of beauty in a broken landscape.
Extraordinary is a relative term. In flyover country the scenery is often painted dull yellow at best and labeled drab brown. Ocher, sienna, and sepia stir little in many people’s imaginations, reminding them of vintage family photographs shut away in shoeboxes in tucked-away corners of closets. It makes sense that few people covet the land of the northern Great Plains.
Near Pretty Butte clover ends and bentonite begins, a layer of clay commonly associated with coal, though the color varies from black, to ash, to bone-white, to grey. Subtly in hue is the speciality of the land surrounding Pretty Butte. At times, driving along Old Highway 16 feels something akin to the lava rock of Hawaii, where bends in the broken roadway reveal sweeping strawberry red scoria and onyx colored coal. Cottonwood trees mark rain-fed gullies and dry creek beds awaiting a summer slosh of rain. For miles the only sign of development, apart from the roadway, are rusted weather vanes marking former attempts at farming and ranching among the bad lands of western North Dakota.
When Melville stood on the banks of the Mississippi, gazing into what would become the Breadbasket of the continent, he stood stock-still in wonderment. The grass, he said, the grass is a mightier ocean than my Atlantic.
On the prairie, ocher and sienna snap against a curtain of cobalt, creating a tapestry of tones, dancing across a line of sky. In a world of roots, there is security in color. Yet in my deep core there is a yearning for a rootedness to place, a place where sage floats and the sweet scent of bluebell whirls during afternoon hikes. The prairie of my childhood imbues my body.
Clip, clip; trim, trim. Americans cut, mow, fertilize, design, and imagine their yards, their own minature kingdoms of grass. Ribboned throughout neighborhoods from Phoenix to Chicago, Atlanta to Bangor, Kentucky Bluegrass mats much of America; a grass that fits the framework of a one-size-fits-all lawn model.
When ships hauled Europeans to the New World, many brought Kentucky Bluegrass seeds and introduced it into the soil of North America. Centuries later, when grass became “managed,” we zoned and qualified roots based on aesthetic appeals, forgetting that there are more colors than green in a tapestried landscape.
Sage swirls in my nostrils amid dry dirt, the texture of baking flour. I squint from the top of Pretty Butte, gazing into Montana, Indiangrass brushing my sun-warmed calves. Indiangrass, what the Lakota called “red grass with fluffy light-colored end,” swings atop the crown of Pretty Butte, ungulates like ripples across a lake. I grab the grass, run my dirtcoated hands along its weathered stock to the crown, where, like a firework, frills explode outward, giving the grass weight against the prairie wind that seeks to snap it to the soil.
Grass whispers on the prairie. Early in the morning, when I dream in the Badlands of western North Dakota, voices of sage, big bluestem, and switchgrass swirl in my ears, dance in the drums of my canals, and, as they finger their way over scoria and clay, head east across the Great Plains.
Grass contemplates growth. Before unfurling towards the sky, prairie grass shoots down deep roots, securing itself to the soil, sowing itself to the land before emerging.
The prairie, forever expansive, cannot be taken in; no camera picture recreates the grandeur and scale of the patchwork of grass. The prairie washes over you. The prairie, like the ocean, defies human perception. As a child, I ran towards the horizon, sprinted over the flowing hills, and through muddy creeks, trying to reach the line that was forever present and constantly elusive. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I could never find it, but it seemed right under my feet, somewhere.
North Dakota contains nearly one-third of the nation’s National Grasslands. In western North Dakota, before the roughhewn palette of purples and pinks and grays and browns of the Badlands, the grass undulates and pulses, ripples and roils, whips and waves against a canvas of gold and brown and blue. The grass, when flicked by the wind, snaps against the sky. If I went hiking with you, showed you Indiangrass, Sideoats grama, Junegrass, Buffalograss, and Foxtail barley, would you care? Would you imprint their images upon your mind and recognize the necessity of a community of roots, and stalks, and stems?
And I wonder, too, if there isn’t a lesson to be learned in the prairie. A lesson against verticality, that highlights expansiveness. Bluffs, buttes, mesas, and trees imprint outlines against a billow of sky, furnishing vantage points in a fibered world of foliage. But the prairie proves too large for the eye’s desire of height; sweeping against rugged rock, grass must be appreciated from the ground, where roots anchor sturdy, sleek stalks in crevices of clay and stone and dirt. A square-yard of prairie holds 150 miles of roots, weaving, coursing, meandering like a river of pleasure, searching and securing grass in a land of wind.
Perhaps this is why I return to the prairie: While climbing and stumbling among the grass and scoria, sage and clay, I long for a place to call home, a place to return to that does not bear the burden of a fast-moving world, a place where I can stumble and trip over clover and gaze in wide-eyed wonder at flowers, where I can forget my own needs and wants, and root myself to the land I love.