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A Beauty That Is Plain

Article excerpt

The Midwestern landscape is abstract, and our response to the geology of the region might be similar to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in museums. We are forced to live in our eye... . - Michael Martone

ONCE, when I was describing to a friend from Syracuse, N.Y., a place on the plains that I love, a ridge above a glacial moraine with a 40-mile view, she said, "But what is there to see?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. Land, sky, and the ever-changing light. Except for a few signs of human presence - power and telephone lines, an occasional farm building, the glint of a paved road in the distance - it's like looking at the ocean.

The landscape of western Dakota is not as abstract as the flats of Kansas, but it presents a similar challenge to the eye that appreciates the vertical definition of mountains or skyscrapers, that defines beauty in terms of the spectacular or the busy - hills, trees, buildings, highways, people. The Dakotas can seem empty by comparison.

Here in Perkins County, S.D., the eye learns to appreciate slight variations, the possibilities inherent in emptiness.

It sees that the emptiness is full of small things: grasshoppers in their samurai armor clicking and jumping as you pass. This empty land is full of fields that are full of wheat, rye, oats, barley, flax, and alfalfa.

Acres of sunflowers brighten the land in early summer, the heads looking up expectantly. By fall they are as droopy as sad children, waiting patiently for the first frost and harvest. There is variety in the emptiness; the most prosaic pasture might contain hundreds of different grasses and wildflowers, along with sage, yucca, chokecherry, buffalo berry, and juniper.

The empty land is busy with inhabitants, many of whom may be seen only by getting up close: bullsnakes, rattlers, mice, gophers, moles, prairie dogs, weasels, foxes, badgers, beavers, jack rabbits, cottontails, coyote, antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, grouse, prairie chickens, pheasant, meadowlarks, killdeer, blackbirds, lark buntings, crows, seagulls, owls, hawks, and eagles.

This is not a human busyness, however, and along with the largeness of the visible - too much horizon, too much sky - this essential indifference to the human can be unnerving.

We had a visitor, a friend from back East who flew into Bismarck, N.D., and started a two-week visit by photographing the highway on the way to Lemmon. "Look how far you can see," he kept exclaiming, trying to capture the whole of it in his camera lens. He seemed relieved to find a few trees in town, in our backyard, and did not relish going back out into open country.

One night he called a woman friend from a phone booth on Main Street and asked her to marry him. After less than a week, he decided to get off the plains. He said he liked us, but was never coming back. He and his fiancee broke off the engagement, mutually and amicably, not long after he got home to Boston. The proposal had evidently been a symptom of "plains fever."

There is a way in which a person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky. The beauty of the plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance. What seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and exhalted state.

The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant that rises and falls beyond melody, beyond reason or human expectation, but perfectly. …