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. 


  • Posted on by Glenda

    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.

  • Posted on by Jane Hovland

    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.

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