This morning a documentary film maker came to the ranch to visit with Pops and I about what makes our community special and to try to get to the root of why the people who chose to stay or come home to farms, ranches and small towns in Western North Dakota are so passionate about this lifestyle.
He asked us what it is about the landscape that inspires us.
He contemplated what it’s like to watch a community you know so well boom and bust and boom and bend and mold and grow in front of our eyes.
He wanted to know about our roots.
And in between the lighting checks, the questions about the economy, the oil boom and what it was like to be a child surrounded by all this wild space with an unspoken expectation to get gone someday, he wondered what it was that brought us back…
I have many answers to this question:
The promise of a sunrise over a landscape that grew me.
The need for the wind in my hair.
The hope that my children might be born to dig in this dirt and smell the first rain of the season.
The fact that I was planted here
That I belong nowhere else…
How do you say these things? How do you explain reasons to a stranger that you have not understood well enough to explain to yourself?
I thought about the question and kept quite as my father looked into the camera and told this story.
About his mother’s father.
His grandfather, Severin, tall and lean from the fjords of Norway.
A husband and soft-spoken, good-natured, father of twelve who made a living with his family plowing fields and raising a few farm animals for milk and meat.
In those days when farmers like my great-grandfather were sectioning off land and turning up dirt in the more fertile landscape north of the Little Missouri River, there were major cattle operations still present that would use those acres to drive a herd of hundreds across country to the big operations in the badlands to the south.
And so the story goes, and it isn’t a long one, that Severin woke one morning to find his cattle missing. My father is quick to point out here that the quantity of cattle raised by Severin’s large family likely consisted of only five to seven milk cows—not a large herd worthy of the drama of a Western novel and apparently not significant enough for the cowboys to take notice or any action to sort them off from the herd.
But no matter the numbers, they were Severin’s cattle and he was determined to retrieve what had mistakenly and nonchalantly been taken from him.
So the tall and soft-spoken Norwegian homesteader from the clay-packed fields of western North Dakota (the man who rode his bicycle 93 miles over North Dakota prairie from the train station to his homestead) took off that day, with a big stick in his hand, to begin the 7-mile walk over rugged buttes, under the hot sun (or maybe the relentless wind, to this story there is no season) to find his cattle, to sort them off from the herd that tried to own them, to turn them around and bring them home.
To the land he laid claim to.
The home where his son raised his family.
Where his grandson has raised his.
Where his great-grandchildren are likely to return.
My father laughed as he completed painting an image of a man from another time.
A time when you gave everything inside of you not only to belong somewhere, but to survive there.
Severin’s blood pumped through the veins of my grandmother just as it moves with every heartbeat inside the body of the man who raised me.
Inside my body.
The one I can’t seem to move off of this place, not because the land is mine…
but because it is me.
My grandmother is the young girl in the middle with the bow.