I just finished a book called Ghost Dances – Proving Up on the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis. (The link above is to the author’s website and contains a nice little video promoting the book). “Proving Up” refers to homesteaders “improving” the land and gaining full title to it under the law. I found the book fascinating because, although it is largely a memoir of the author’s upbringing and experiences in South Dakota, it is deeply connected with his sense of place, and even though he rebelled against its rural nature as a teenager, a thread of pride in where he’s from runs through the entire book as he relates each personal story against the vast backdrop (sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical) of the Great Plains.
The book is almost an autobiography, and yet the author is somehow not the main character. The landscape (along with its complex history) is the main character. I think this shows the power that the Great Pains can have on people who come to know it. It is “fly-over” country for many, “drive-through” country for some, but for those who have grown up here, or have experienced it during a formative time of life, it grows deep roots inside you like the native grasses it nourishes.
“In the years since I left home, . . . I’ve burned tank upon tank of ethanol-enhanced gas traveling to prairie preserves from the Canadian Prairie Provinces . . . to the New Mexico Dust Bowl . . . and the Kansas Flint Hills. . . . None of them quite fulfils my tabula rasa fantasy. There’s always a farmhouse or a paved road on the horizon to break the spell. Only the expanses of the National Grasslands system begin to suggest what a great American Serengeti park or a Buffalo Commons might look like, minus the tourists. . . . It can be a soothing land, apparently unhaunted by outcrops or the protruding bones of the past.”