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January 14, 2017


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Dan's Writings ›  



We live in a land…

We live in a land of accidental monuments. Mostly, they were erected in the beginning of the last century and were not intended to mark the passage of great events. They were intended to be the beginnings of something. They dot the landscape in the form of leaning or tumbled down buildings surrounded by tree groves dying of thirst. Sometimes there are moldering corrals of rotten boards brought in by trains that no longer run. Sometimes the county road that once led to them is still passable. Sometimes those roads have been overtaken by what was pushed aside to construct them. Often there is only a depression that marks the root cellar where precious vegetables were stored for the few years that the dream survived.

The story of the monuments that haunt this land is long and complicated. It involves immigrants, droughts, blizzards, and Federal Government programs that ignored the nature of the land. It is a story that has been romanticized in every medium and whose true impact has been largely ignored. But there is not room here to tell that story. It is too sad to squeeze into a few paragraphs. The story I want to tell is simpler. It’s a couple dozen lines about last night.

Twenty years ago we built a cabin. With a little help we buried a water line and electric cable from an existing well to a concrete foundation we’d formed and poured and finished in the warmth of a couple spring days. On that foundation, we built a floor and laid up fresh milled logs that joined together in a nifty way that sealed the wind on the outside and the clean, fresh pine smell of the new wood on the inside. We nailed shake shingles on the roof, plumbed the bathroom, and installed the finest windows and doors we could afford. When we finished it was new and bright and as full of promise as a yearly colt. We were young and assumed that mortality was real.

Bear Butte was framed in the backdoor by design and from the tiny front porch you could see the finest sunsets in the world. It was a clever human structure that stood defiant in a land of constant wind, crushing snow, and violent fluctuations of temperature. But from any window, if you knew just where to look and if you looked closely, you could see the monuments of other human structures that once stood just as defiant.

It’s been twenty years and the cabin still stands but the promise has faded. There have been complications and no one lives there now. But last night, on a rare visit, those shake shingles kept an icy rain off my back one more time. The old wood burner strained to care for me like no one has cared for that cabin in years. The wind came up around mid-night and I could feel it slipping through the joints that had been so tight when the wood was yellow with youth. I rose to stoke the fire and it dawned on me that every dream of the future is new and unique. I came to realize once again that I am a creature of The Great Plains and, perhaps more so than any other place on earth, that time is the sandpaper of life and our monuments are built by the unsuspecting.

This essay by Dan O'Brien was originally published in November of 2005. 


Jane Hovland

January 19, 2017

Thank you, Dan, for reminding us of our monuments of the prairie. I am thinking of my grandfather, born 125 years ago, and his father. Both were North Dakota homesteaders who had monuments of their own—unplowed prairie land, a vague hill worthy of its own name, and a sod shelter.


January 19, 2017

How timely this post is! Last week I traveled to New Mexico with family for a long weekend. As we traveled and I saw, once again, the remains of farms, homesteads, etc., I commented that I always wondered as I passed these monuments to our history what story each place secretly held. Thank you so much for these similar thoughts.

jim newton

January 19, 2017

Nice thought on a bright and wintry morning. A dream of mine is to build a cabin like that at the south end of my property so that some day, when I can no longer maintain my residence high in the Black Hills, I can still have a place where I can come and experience all that I love about the area— especially in winter.


January 19, 2017

beautiful phrase: “our monuments are built by the unsuspecting”


January 19, 2017

Thank you for the lovely picture and meaningful words on this very foggy
day here in Wisconsin.
Please continue to share your reflections. Some days they keep me going.

Laura Culley

January 19, 2017

Once again, you’ve shared a string of words that when connected in your unique way, sketch a picture painted with profound thought and deep introspection. Thank you.

Linda Clark

January 19, 2017

What an evocative writer you are, Dan. This piece has painted pictures in my mind this morning here in MA where winter appears to be passing us by, pictures I enjoy in place of the missed experience of snow, cold, and those perfect days of crisp air and clear blue skies. Keep these pieces coming, please.

By the way, I’d been thinking to suggest you offer buffalo robes and, lo and behold, now you are! While beyond my budgetary restraints, I am glad to see them for sale. I hope they sell well

Chuck Beatty

January 19, 2017

A beautiful reminder of our impermanence, Dan. Here in Cuyahoga Valley NP our monuments take the form of stone foundations full of dried leaves, daffodils and crocuses where none should be and non-native tree lines running through the forest—marking old boundary lines.

We are all just passing through and the world will continue without us long after we are gone.


January 19, 2017

My grandparents built a cabin and barn in the LImestone area of the Black Hills in 1909 and the cabin has started collapsing in the last couple years. It is a beautiful monument to their tenacity and will always be home to our family.


January 19, 2017

My father grew up with his brothers a thousand years ago homesteading a large piece of Minnesota pine forest, dotted with a dozen small lakes and interconnecting streams. The main cabin still exists and another family shares the shore of Star Lake and weaving their dreams among the pines. When I visited years ago I managed to find the cornerstones of an old barn that kept a black and white group of dairy cows from the howling winter cold. The stones were set in concrete and on their surface bore the scratched initials of my dad and his brothers. They are gone now but linger in memories like this one. Thanks Dan for shaking it to the top once again.


January 19, 2017

Six years ago, my husband and I moved from North Carolina to Wyoming. We had been horse packing in WY for over 20 years, and had fallen in love with the beauty of high desert, Rocky Mountains and magnificent wildlife. But as we made up our minds where to live, we drove across our great country camping and taking backroads for five years….often for months at a time. Having grown up on working farms in the east, we were saddened by the fallow fields and forgotten hopes lost in the gray, weathering houses and barns. We carry a beautiful memory of a huge, weathered barn in western Kentucky surrounded by hundreds of blooming hollyhocks. Those flowers are keeping the memories of better days. Thank goodness there are still some of us caring for the land and dreaming new dreams. Keep up your great work Dan, Jill and crew!

Bruce Green

January 19, 2017

Yes, we are all “passing through”. As Stan Freberg said many years ago, “we are all just penciled in”. ?

Robert Torkelson

January 19, 2017

Great article. Really brings back memories of my youth.


January 19, 2017

I like to see cabin and read your writings.
Sad because we are selling our 100 year old farm
had 100 year old barn restored 2 years ago. IOWA.
Holstein cows were milked there by my father and 3 brothers.
memories, brings them to me when I read what you wrote.

Roxanne Fox

January 19, 2017

You made me melancholy, so now I will go visit a camp house deep in a giant cypress swamp built sixty years ago, still up on stilts to keep the rising waters out. I read all the wall carvings of those before me, inspect the treasure mounts old and new, imagine how hard their life was and be ever so thankful of all I am today. Thanx Dan for reminding me.

David Curtiss

January 19, 2017

I enjoyed your writing. We city boys galloped on our bikes through temporary monuments and walked to school by climbing over back fences rather than use roads and sidewalks The last time I saw the house where I grew up, it was becoming a monument that very poor people of different backgrounds than mine called home in a Los Angeles slum. Yet, the idea that “time is the sandpaper of life” remains for all of us. I wonder if the bookcases my parents built in our old living room still exist.

Sharon Wysocki

January 19, 2017

It was heart warming to read this essay and folks’ comments. I am a conceptual artist. I have left small art pieces in these “monuments” through southern Arizona and New Mexico. I have placed, photographed and documented over 270 art pieces in such “monuments.” RocknW Art Studio, Tucson AZ

Cheves Leland

January 19, 2017

Thank you, Dan. Your words bring the plains and land alive. I’ve never seen them and hope to one day. The structures here in the lowcountry are different in some ways, but evoke the same sort of bittersweet thoughts and memories. the ancestors and those who came before had hopes and dreams and stories we may never know, but I imagine their energy surrounding us as i walk the land they knew long ago. Thank you.

Mark Holloway

January 19, 2017

Great article!!

Bill Hager

January 21, 2017

Your words are the perfect remedy for the sand paper of life. Thanks, Dan.. “Long Live the Great Plains”
Carolyn Behrens

January 21, 2017

A great reminder of how precious is the place in which we live.

Se Gove

January 22, 2017

This country-born and bred girl…half a continent from the plains, those beginnings, and sunsets thanks you. Fifty years away from home and serving others in need. The space of places is calling me to return…your words come from one who hears w/the heart.

Tom Mc Church

January 22, 2017

To be able to paint a picture with words is a gift, please keep sharing you gift.


January 23, 2017

Such a heart-warming story, thank you for sharing. It is a dream, for me, to stop by and share stories and coffee. Blessings.

Carrolyn Downing

January 24, 2017

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the Great Plains. I live on a small farm in Kentucky but have been drawn to the Western Plains for many years, is it possible I was there in another time?

Rayson Tupper

January 29, 2017

Thank U… Amazing read …

Rich Borquist

February 01, 2017

reminds me of “Equinox”, one of my favorites, as the setter snuggles up against me. Thanks.

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