A LIFE

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By the time I was old enough to pedal my bicycle to the outskirts of our little Ohio town, the wildness was almost gone. I was the kid who only wanted to be out of doors, and I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged me. They allowed me to have a pair of homing pigeons and to till up a corner of our backyard to plant radishes, snap peas, and sweet corn.

 

My older brother was in little league baseball and my younger brother had already shown a love for music. I was not interested in either, so my parents drove me to a farm a few miles out of town and turned me loose on Eagle Creek. My dad worked long hours running a ready-mix concrete plant, so it was often my mother who chauffeured me into the countryside. She too had a job and sometimes she would simply sit in the car catching up on paperwork. Other times she would dress in dungarees and one of dad’s old work shirts. She tucked her pantlegs into her socks and we would tromp off along the creek bank. She was not much of a naturalist, but though she didn’t know the names of many birds, she would point them out to me, and the excitement in her voice made me know that those names were important. Occasionally I was lucky enough to capture a turtle or a snake and she would hold open the canvas bag I always carried and I’d drop it in. We’d keep it for few days and then organize another expedition to return it to its home.

 

Dad took me to wilder places. He claimed that Shank’s Quarry had been active when he was a boy. But I only knew it as a tiny, deserted, limestone quarry that had been full of water for decades, long enough for bluegills to begin to breed. We’d sit on the bank and watch dragonflies hover above our bobbers for hours. He also took me to a place we called the clay pits. To a small boy, it was massive, a maze of long, thin ponds with trees and brush growing up along the banks, the habitat for racoons, red foxes, and groundhogs. In fact, it was probably little more than a couple hundred acres that years before had been stripped of the clay that lay under Ohio’s precious topsoil to make terracotta drain tiles. The flat ground of northwestern Ohio was perfect for farming except for the excess water. In the history books it is called The Great Swamp. But the drain tiles transformed it from an intricate, swampy ecosystem into tens of thousands of acres of farm ground. By the time I was in high school, the native grasses were being poisoned to make room for corn and beans.

 

The clay pits were the first out-of-town place I pedaled to on my bicycle. Soon after I began riding there, small housing developments began cropping up in every direction. Tire and appliance manufacturers were building huge factories in my little town and the school system was bulging at its seams. As I look back, I see that the town was becoming a city and, as it grew, my domain was shrinking before I’d had a chance to explore it. Of course, my family was as culpable as everyone else, struggling to improve our standard of living and to claim our share of post-war era prosperity, but there was always the hint of regret in our home.

 

I roamed the matrix of ponds and spoil piles that was the clay pits. I learned how to cross the water where the muskrats made their dens, that a fox lived in the rusty gas tank of a derelict dredging machine, and that great horned owls nested in an enormous walnut tree surrounded by wild raspberry bushes. Inevitably, I came to the boundary of the clay pits and inevitably, I crawled through the fence and onto the neighbor’s land. It was that afternoon that my dad and I had a conversation that I have remembered for 65 years.

 

In those days, the town was still small enough that the neighbor who caught me on his property knew my dad. He made a phone call and Dad was waiting for me when I got home. My dad could be tough with the building contractors who were slow to pay for the concrete that was already stone-solid in bridges over the new interstate highway built around our town, but he was always gentle with his children. He was still in his work clothes, heavy tan pants and a short-sleeved work shirt with sweat soaking through at the neck and armpits. He sat me down at the kitchen table and tried to explain the concept of private property. There might be ten-year-old kids who can understand that concept, but I was not one of them. Sixty-five years later I still struggle with what he told me.

 

But I did understand that I shouldn’t have crawled under that fence. “You have permission to be on the clay pit’s ground,” he said, “but you don’t have permission to go onto the neighbor’s.” The neighbor’s land was like an ice cream cone, he said. “You can’t just take a bite of a stranger’s ice cream cone.” Even then, I knew that a woodlot or a creek bed wasn’t like an ice cream cone. It was more like the crisp air that I loved to breathe, the deep green grass of spring, Vs of waterfowl overhead, or the freedom to simply walk alone. It was like sunsets or starry nights. But I didn’t have those words back then, so I asked, “So where’s the land that doesn’t belong to anyone?” 

 

He looked at me and took a minute to shake his head. “There’s no such thing,” he said. “It all belongs to someone. It’s measured out with lines drawn on maps. Fences are built on those lines. That’s the only way it will work.”

 

Years later, I read a book called Measuring America. That book basically agreed with my dad. There were other ways to look at it, but two years after our war of independence, the first geographer of the United States, a man named Thomas Hutchins, embarked on a new way to measure the wilderness so that it could be sold. Ironically, his survey began in southern Ohio, two hundred miles from where my dad sat me down, and eventually covered the entire United States.

 

In 1950s Ohio, that reality of ownership and exclusion was taking hold in a big way. I sat at the feet of old men who knew our county when permission was seldom refused, where land use changed slowly. Those old guys rocked on their porches with gray-muzzled Irish Setters curled up at their feet and reeled out stories of those halcyon days. They had followed those old hunting dogs through semi-wild fields in search of pheasants, they had traveled to marshes along Lake Erie and watched huge wedges of ducks and geese banking against the wind and settling into their decoys. I had never seen a pheasant in Ohio and the marshes were being drained at an amazing pace.

 

When I was sixteen, I was gifted the very shotgun my dad had carried on those outings. It was an old, double-barreled Ithaca twenty gauge and I loved that gun. But by then the land had been irreparably changed, drained, and planted to corn and beans. The shores of Lake Erie were posted with No Trespassing signs and the water was poisonous.

 

As soon as I could drive, I headed to places where the concept of “more is better”, was still decades off. I went west to the mountains, to the seashores of both coasts, and to the hills of Arkansas. The fact that I traveled the interstate highway system that my dad had helped to build was not lost on me. As I passed Lake Erie, I could see the high-rise apartments that had gone up around the marsh where he used that old Ithaca shotgun.

 

Finally, I headed north on the very highway that likely created the wealth that allowed me to attend a university in the upper peninsula of Michigan. For those four years, I haunted the wild forests and waterways that I had read about in the books of Ernest Hemingway, but even there, I felt it slipping out of my reach.

 

By then it was 1970 and I was chosen to organize the first Earth Day on our campus. It was the first time that I was attacked by people who saw the world through different eyes and it solidified my belief that reason probably wouldn’t convince anyone to change direction. I decided that to show how deeply I felt, I would never have children or a new car.

 

When it came time to leave that college, I ensconced myself in the geography section of the university library and began a search for the place that was least likely to be developed beyond redemption. I pulled out soil maps, rainfall charts, and demography reports. It was also important to have an English literature graduate program somewhere close, and so I landed on Vermillion, South Dakota. That fall I entered an MA program where one of my favorite authors, Fredrick Manfred, was teaching. Vermillion wasn’t perfect because most of the land was already engaged in industrial farming, but the western half of the state seemed like a place I might end up.

 

The Missouri River divides South Dakota in half and has always been an important element of South Dakota’s identity.  The eastern half of the state was family farms moving toward industrial agriculture and the west was still native grass and sparsely populated. The entire watershed of the Missouri River drains parts of ten states and two Canadian provinces – 500,000 square miles. The first in-depth description of the river through South Dakota was part of the report delivered to President Thomas Jefferson by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806.  They cataloged a wild Eden of plants, animals, and birds. They described the river as a breathing, living thing, complete with numerous deer, buffalo, wolves, antelope, and grizzly bears. The water was often out of its banks and, though the floods created a diverse and lively ecosystem, that is part of what incited the US Army Corps of Engineers’ assault on the big river in the late 1950s. Their response to the river’s wildness was to contain and control it. They damned, channelized, and divert it to make way for “civilization” to come. Their activities encouraged all sorts of development in the Missouri watershed. The plan was to turn the native grasslands into irrigated farm ground and supply electricity to stimulate industry and fuel population increases on the ground that I had identified as the last best place on Earth.

 

The project had never worked very well and the Corps had come under serious criticism. By the time I began living a life immediately influenced by the Missouri River, most of the damage was done. America had created a huge drainage ditch in the center of the nation and a few people were beginning to asked if the expense and ecosystem loss was worth it.

 

Early in my course of study, the Corps of Engineers held a meeting of stakeholders to air grievances and to ask for suggestions on how to improve the plan for the Missouri River. Fredrick Manfred, my mentor, had been asked to comment from an academic and artistic perspective. Fred was the son of Iowa farmers who had been recipients of the Corps’s remaking of the Missouri. He had worked his family’s farm and was not an ivory-tower liberal. If anything, he leaned toward the 1970s establishment. Of course, I was interested in what he had to say to the forces of development and took a seat in the front row.

 

I endured hours of bureaucratic gibberish, complete with maps and graphs of the marvelous improvements that were planned for the river. There were projections of crop yields, electricity output, industrial opportunities, and steadily rising population and average annual income. The speakers could have been talking about the interstate highway that my dad had helped build and had chased me out of Ohio.

 

Finally, Fred rose to speak. He was a huge man, imposing in stature and intellect, and, through his dozen books, he had gained the respect of the people of the Missouri Valley. His connection to the land was etched on his long, calloused hands. The audience quieted as he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small stack of note cards. He smiled in a grandfatherly way that made the audience smile back. “I’ve been thinking for a long time,” he said, “about what the US Corps of Engineers could do to make this place where we live even better. Been thinking on it for 45 years.” There was some laughter. “Since I was a boy helping my family farm over in Doon, Iowa.” He looked down at his note cards and smiled as if he was recalling something in his mind. “The thirties were kind of a bitch.”

 

There was no more laughter, and when Fred looked up his eyes were sad. “The government encouraged us to plow up every inch of our little farm. How could they be so blind?” He shook his head again. “Next thing we knew, nothing was worth anything. Our reason for being there was gone.” He glanced down at his cards again, then slipped them back into his coat pocket. “The Corps was workin’ on the river,” he said. “Big old digging machines and barges. Going to build all these wonderful dams. Irrigate, stop the flooding and bring electric power to new people.” He shook his head and looked up at the expectant audience.

 

“I’m no scientist or engineer,” he said, “but I know boloney when I see it. The Corps of Engineers still has all that dirt-moving equipment and I think they should take it down the Missouri to New Orleans. They should get busy filling those barges and hauling all that good, black dirt back up here to prairie.” The room rumbled with nervous giggles, but Fred Manfred didn’t laugh. And neither did I.

 

In the early 1970’s I found a derelict farmstead of twenty-seven acres. The house had no water and no electric but the price was two hundred and seventy dollars an acre and it had been for sale for years. I had no money to put down but I had a job so the local banker bent over backwards to help me. He lent me the whole seventy-two hundred dollars and I was suddenly a land owner. In those days, South Dakota law allowed people to walk on any land that was not posted with “no trespassing signs,” I never posted signs on my twenty-seven acres.

 

A couple years later, high-input farming and industrialization chased me out of the eastern part of South Dakota. I moved west to the Black Hills, where I worked for a series of conservation groups and tried to write books. I didn’t spend much money and I had no family, so I put the greater part of my pay-checks into buying land. I didn’t post the two hundred and forty acres of Black Hills land that I bought with the proceeds from the sale of that first place. And there were never signs on the nine hundred acres that I bought next.

 

I had finally come to agree with my dad, all land had to belong to someone and the only way to assure that you can enjoy it is if you own it. I bought land so I could walk over it and enjoy seeing the pieces thrive and so I could keep the exploding population off if I wanted to, which I seldom did. Every year my land has gotten larger, though it has never been large enough to recapture the wildness of those days on Eagle Creek, there was usually enough public land and conscientious landowners to give a few species a chance to be what they once were. There were some good years.

 

But now I’m an old man. The ranch is now thousands of acres with a herd of hundreds of buffalo, a key component of a healthy Great Plains landscape. I’ve spent decades nursing my land back to a semblance of what it once was. The buffalo helped me. They made the land livable for a hundred other species that had been chased away by over grazing cattle for a hundred years. But now the mania of development has caught up with me again. The population of the Black Hills has nearly doubled since I arrived in the early 1970s. Rapid City now has a rush hour and the rolling prairie along my 30-mile trip to town is ugly with housing developments. The government and big business encourage this growth and somehow take pride in the rising numbers of almost everything, especially the increasing the human population. It is as if they believe that the natural law of a finite carrying capacity does not apply to people. What is never counted in that worldview is the loss of the crispness in the air, the deep green grass of spring, Vs of waterfowl overhead. The sunsets, the starry nights, and the freedom to simply walk alone.

 

I’ve never denied permission for anyone to walk on my land. It does my heart good to see people moving quietly across the landscape, see them marveling at the birds and buffalo whose habitat they are sharing. I love to see a family standing still on one of the rolling hills, looking at herd of pronghorn antelope moving across the grassland like a school of fish across a Caribbean tidal flat. I like it when they all stand still and look up at the white clouds careening through indescribable blueness.

 

But lately the ATV crowd has discovered my land and the public land that surrounds it. They show up on the weekends and begin roaring from horizon to horizon. Cutting deep gashes in the fragile grass that the buffalo and I have worked so hard to regenerate. They pull their ATV trailers from town with new pickup trucks that cost more than I have ever earned in a year. They are dressed in camo, or shiny red and blue clothes with helmets that were almost certainly inspired by superhero movies they watch on the television in their new houses, built on land that was once as pristine as the land that they now destroy. Sometimes they carry ghastly, black military rifles. I am a hunter myself but these are not hunting rifles. These are the artifacts of fantasy, collected to fill those gaps in lives that have slipped away from what is real.

 

There is a place on public land where they camp not far from my home. When I pass it on my way to and from Rapid City I slow for safety and to get a good look at the creatures who seem bent on destruction of the natural world. Their air conditioned mobile homes spread out, surrounded by barbeque grills and television antennas, on a growing area of compacted earth where grass no longer grows. I slow to a crawl to get a good look at this crazed enemy encampment. But when I look closely, I see that these people are very much like the person I might have been, if I had bought into the more-is-better, growth-at-all-cost philosophy disseminated by an economy and a culture out of control. These are workers who put in their forty hours and need relief from the rat races of their lives. They are searching for what I was looking for when I peddled my bicycle to the edge of that little Ohio town in the 1950s. They love the land like I do but they have given into humanity’s acquisitive nature and are loving it to death. It may well be the defining contradiction of all of our lives and the cause to total collapse.

 

So where is the hope?

 

It’s easier to identify where the hope is NOT. It is not in the labs of huge corporations, it is not in the words of sacred texts, it is not in tweaking of economic systems, it is not in the Sunday morning sermons, or in the oaths of individuals shaking their fists at the cosmos. For the most part, these things have only added to our sense of hopelessness. Humanity is in desperate need of a complete makeover, a reset that refuses to bow to our myopic instincts. Just what that makeover involves is impossible to say, but the need for it is obvious and ultra-urgent.

 

Solutions to our disregard for the planet that nurtures us are unknown, but it is undeniable that the responsibility is ours. If there are solutions, they can only be found in a rehabilitation of humanity itself, a reset orchestrated by groups of common people, with diverse life experiences and backgrounds, who understand human history and care about our future. Other gatherings held to reset the earth’s direction - the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Yalta and so on - afforded little voice to the needs and knowledge of common people and no credence at all, to the needs of other species. They were focused on the desires of the wealthy and powerful and blind to the future. They were nothing like the gathering that took place on a tiny but unique slice of middle America that runs along the Missouri River between South Dakota and Kansas, through Iowa and Nebraska. The gathering was called “On Common Ground” and the location was picked to stimulate the ideas of a grassroots cross-section of academics, naturalists, land managers, and other stakeholders.

 

For three days we huddled in a mostly vacant Girl Scout camp and considered each other’s thoughts and experiences regarding the decimation of our planet. We listened to presentations about people who are working to preserve and restore the vital connection between humanity and other realities. We talked late into the night about our experiences, perceptions, and beliefs. We visited a TNC conservation property, complete with a buffalo herd, where we were reminded that all the plants and animals in a pre-European buffalo pasture co-evolved and are vital parts of that eco-system. We participated in a controlled burn of grassland and learned that even fire has its place and that the old grass that we burned was nothing more than the corrupted product of the past. We learned that the important parts of perennial grass are underground, waiting for the old to be swept away, to make room for the new to emerge. As I stood in my fire-resistant suit, leaning on my shovel, watching the old grass burning as hot as gasoline, I let my eyes wander to the other participants in that unique convergence of humanity. They too leaned on their shovels, deep in thought, and I couldn’t help seeing those folks – men and women, young and old - as the roots that endure through the superficial conflagrations and push up through the earth to make the world whole again.

 

Credit: On Common Ground, Ice Cube Press

4 comments

  • Posted on by jon

    Dan O'Brien!
    You speak for many unsung heroes of the prairie and the wilds. Take heart, there are many more than you realize! It's just you don't hear about them because most are not braggards that wish to be in the spot light. But they are there and stand with you! Carry on and remain awesome!

  • Posted on by Lisa

    Thank you, Dan, for what you do. For setting an example. For leading the discussion. For seeing the reality. And, I hope, for not losing faith that, somehow, we can make the world whole again.

  • Posted on by KURT

    Dan, I really enjoy your writings. This one in particular hit home for me. Thank you for bringing back some fond memories of growing up.

  • Posted on by Christine

    Wow wow wow. I will be digesting these words for a good long while.

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