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Theoretically, the American bison at the Bronx Zoo could stampede north from their corral to a shallow enough spot in the Hudson River to cross, swarming through New York State, decimating lawns and forests and golf courses along the way, a herd metastasizing over the land, reclaiming its former territory: practically everything west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Sierra Nevada.
That is, since they live in the Bronx, the lone tongue of mainland New York City, these bison still inhabit the same continent they always have. If they were in island exile in the Central Park Zoo or Rikers, or marooned in Brooklyn or Queens somewhere, they’d have bits of sea between them and their home on the range. Probably the most common metaphor for the bison’s aboriginal Great Plains habitat is an “ocean of grass”—it’s unavoidable, and I use it plenty myself—but to put an actual ocean between these roughs and North America would be cruel. Whether it’s the salt or tides or the Plainslike vastness of it, the sea would seem to inflict a starker displacement.
It is August, hot and humid. The eleven animals I count are taking turns looking out through inch-wide gaps between the planks of their high corral fence. They resemble the tourists studying smaller zoo animals—the caged birds, bats, or rodents—but they are in fact ogling the scrap of range that is their own during grazing hours. Their famous figure is enchanting: the thick skin, thick fur, thick shoulders, thick footfalls, and thick dry snort. After several seconds one bison moves away and another presses an eye to the fence, or if the first dillydallies the second feints a charge, stirring a puff of dust. Even penned, they keep a herding tradition, ganging up near the fence or toward the cinder-block dugout at the back end of the corral. They’re built like woolly brown baseball players, heavyset with nimble lower legs, surprisingly unsluggish but definitely not lithe runners like the zoo’s cheetahs and gazelles. I wouldn’t want to play catcher as one charged home.
Of all the animals here, the bison look most ill at ease, restless and alien in a dirt pen no bigger than the zoo’s carousel (children here ride praying mantises and grasshoppers instead of ponies). They don’t seem exotic enough for a zoo, seem to demand more space. Somehow, the bison’s summer-shed fur dangling this morning looks like a T-shirt half torn off in a fight—it is the Bronx, after all—and the agitated tails sweeping city houseflies away remind me of broken windshield wipers with the rubber blades whipping pointlessly.
Buffalo clearly aren’t as charismatic to most visitors as they are to me. Except for the two guys in khaki Wildlife Conservation Society shirts fixing the guardrail I am leaning against, I am alone spying on the bison from above, from a zoo parking lot off Fordham Road. Earlier, I barely glimpsed the Bengal tiger rolling on its back like a house cat before I was stampeded by day campers. (“Matthew! Concrete! Stop playing around!” “I am on concrete.” Pause. “Matthew! Fully on the concrete!”) Here there’s no competition.
In a way I feel we’re kin, that I’ve become like the zoo buffalo peering back at the range through the fence boards, as I read about Plains history and go back to explore places I never appreciated as a kid in South Dakota. I ended up living in New York City not by any design but by chance, following my college sweetheart to Brooklyn. Now in island exile in Manhattan, I felt the urge to take the 6 train back to the mainland to see these city cousins of the bison in Wind Cave National Park, the purest herd in South Dakota.
New York has a large population of human refugees from East Backwater, Square-State, each with his or her strange story of getting here; every so often I meet someone at a Brooklyn party or through friends or work who grew up in Beatrice, Nebraska, or Elko, Nevada, or Lone Wolf, Oklahoma. The Bronx Zoo’s buffalo herd arrived similarly piecemeal from the last remnants of their species that had survived out west. Shortly after the zoo opened in 1899, it acquired bison from a Wyoming ranch via a Massachusetts wildlife advocate; from one of the Kansas buffalo skinners who had helped cause the virtual extinction of the bison but who later captured and raised a few on his ranch; from the Page Woven Wire Fence Company in Michigan, which had taken the animals on tour to demonstrate the strength of its fences.
Up the hill from the bison, I sit down to ruminate outside a plywood-fenced construction site without any gap to peer through. COMING SOON: MADAGASCAR! EXPERIENCE UNIQUE, EXOTIC HABITATS! a sign promises. THE NEXT BEST THING TO BEING THERE. I’m unable to fool myself into thinking I’ve left the Bronx. (As I sit there, one construction worker inside the fence bellows at another, “You’re a what-the-fuck kind of guy!”) The tiny, corralled bison herd and their pitiful pasture cannot truly conjure the grassland Plains of my imagination. I’m not sure it’s the next best thing to being there. In fact, it is the leaves of grass in a Walt Whitmanish sense—the visitors, the whole bubbling scene—that make up the richest expanse at the zoo, as in New York at large. “Sensational Kids” and Ming Yuan Chinese School students from Queens with their Bluetoothed teen counselors. Tourists sipping Fla-Vor-Ices and Capri Suns. College girls asking if the wagging tail of the one-humped camel means it is happy.
I still dream about South Dakota, of course. Beyond traveling and reading, that’s another way to plumb a place one knows intimately. On a night not long ago I was standing on the western bluffs above the Missouri River, looking across at the bluffs on the other side. They were much more rocky and dramatic in the dream than they are in waking life, with towers of swallow’s-nest sandstone and piles of boulders as if this were farther west. It was a calm day, mercifully windless, typically sunny.
The Missouri River cuts a backward solidus through South Dakota’s middle, dividing the state into West River \ East River. I was born East River, spent my early adolescence West River, and graduated from high school on the river, in Pierre. Then I left for the East Coast, except in my memories, studies, and dreams. The Missouri follows the foot of where the Laurentide Ice Sheet stopped during the last ice age, and consequently marks the boundary between a flat, Midwestern glaciated landscape (East River) and rolling grasslands (West River). By coincidence, the divide between East River and West River is roughly parallel to, and then crosses, the hundredth meridian of longitude, which marks the threshold of average rainfall, about twenty inches per year, that is sustainable for cropland agriculture. In short: East River farms, West River ranches. Transitional landscapes like this witness a frisson of species called an edge effect, a vital generative meeting of landscapes and also human cultures. In a sense, this dream view was like the Great Plains in miniature, West and Midwest, both and neither.
All of a sudden my dream-self noticed a large chunk of rock break off the eastern bluffs and fall toward the shore. From the distance across the river, this lurch of decay, a geologic time-lapse, was oddly silent. I thought of the time I was driving past a school and saw one of the letters on its sign fall off—What are the chances? We usually see the eroded cliff, the gap-toothed sign, but never the midnight moment when the glue that holds the world together finally lets go. In a staid place, a touch of dynamism or decay.
In fact this moment was even more momentous. After a beat, other boulders started to fall, and sandstone fragmented and cracked and tumbled down to the riverbank. A thought struck me: It was an earthquake. (This was a night in early 2010, when temblors hit Haiti, Chile, and Baja in close sequence, so that must have been the Freudian “day residue.”) We are not known for our earthquakes, for good reason, but even unconscious I thought of the New Madrid earthquake of 1811. In the seismic zone around the borders of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas—seemingly as unlikely as South Dakota—a massive earthquake struck in December 1811, and another couple of jolts followed in early 1812. Supposedly, chimneys crumbled in Maine and bells rang in Washington, DC, but the most indelible image from that quake was that it produced a sort of inland tsunami that made the Mississippi River flow upstream for a while.
The reversal of a river is a catastrophic, even apocalyptic, event. The definition of down vanishes, along with faith in a predictable world. Now a place I know so well and have such strong ideas about was different in its very compass and gravity.
Soon, in the dream, the water levels before me began to inch up, and I realized what was happening. The Oahe Dam, just upstream of Pierre (if there was an upstream anymore), was preventing the water from flowing north, so I was standing on the bed of what would soon be a reverse reservoir. I started scrambling up the bluffs.
This book is a chronicle of some currents in the ocean of grass. At its center is the narrow channel of my own life, which touches every other narrative here at least glancingly. I had an atypical, sometimes lonely upbringing in South Dakota, shaded by secrets and a general sense of not belonging in the place where I was from. I left as soon as I could, moving to Massachusetts and then New York, but could not truly leave the Great Plains, its culture, or its mythology behind. Yet there was something alienating about the history I was always taught, of vanishing bison and a vanishing Indian race, of a single influx of agricultural pioneers in the nineteenth century and the development of a culture that endured long enough to exclude me. There was only one downstream.
As the book progresses, I move from my own story to the stories of some of my ancestors and relatives on the Plains, and from there to a new personal mythology of the place, a collection of stories I’ve found on journeys around the region—travels both literal and imagined. I’ve read bunches of books about the Plains and visited places that struck a chord. Some of the stories here are not strictly about knowing the physical and historical Plains—the Bronx Zoo bison and a dream-time earthquake, for starters. Some, like my own, begin on the Plains and end elsewhere. Others begin elsewhere and end on the Plains. Like any portrait of a place, this is idiosyncratic and biased and certainly not comprehensive, but it’s true and complete in its own way. I’ve come to understand the Plains as a particularly porous landscape, where plenty of strangers and exiles have had great influence. In fact, I ultimately realized that I belong to that country precisely because I don’t belong there: The currents in and out, the streams and storms and contamination, define the ocean of grass.
This is also an attempt to rewild the Plains, to use an ecological term: to reintroduce extinct, exotic, or forgotten species and stories to the prairie. Ultimately, through a distinct collection of currents, this is how I navigate home.
My dad and I were driving home, from Rapid City to Pierre, tunneling east 180 miles through the huge glass brick of Plains sky, which dulled the light on a June afternoon so that the edges around the horizon were a hypnotic white. Now that I’m long gone from South Dakota, I would describe the mixed-grass prairie out the windshield as golden and singularly majestic, an ocean of fiber and rich carbohydrate, a subtle ecological masterpiece; back then it looked like dead brown straw.
The emptiness of the Plains can strike a puny human either way: as profound, or profoundly tiresome.
I had had a lifetime of drives like this—OK, sixteen years, but my lifetime—and I found the trip punishingly boring, endless. The only solace was my rightful every-other-cassette on our little sage-colored Tercel’s stereo to override three hours of tape hiss outside, waiting for the album, any album, to start. That’s what the Great Plains sound like, whether you’re standing still and the wind is whooshing ceaselessly through grass and the clouds are careering almost audibly in the big blast of sky, or you’re driving fourscore-and-ten miles per hour and your tires are somersaulting and your windshield is plowing up its own wind: It’s tape hiss, or that moment after you’ve dropped the needle on a record and it has yet to find its music. That sound, drawn out over hours, or years.
At the end of our drive this day, the tape would be eaten in the deck, the needle scratched roughly over the record.
Rapid City was our regional watering hole, home to a mall with more choices than J. C. Penney’s and Kmart; to the airport from which I flew to Portland, Oregon, three times a year to visit my mom; and importantly to a punk rock scene and a real record store, Ernie November. I had accumulated a few dozen seven-inch records and cassettes and about eighty CDs, which I arranged and rearranged on a small wooden shelf, either alphabetically or by date of purchase, or even by the color of their spines. It had taken almost a decade to assemble this humble library, since I’d first heard Mötley Crüe at the hardcore age of seven.
We left the Black Hills and passed the pinkish moonscape of the Badlands, then turned off I-90 onto U.S. Highway 14. The first town there was Quinn, hardly a town at all, with a single-digit population. I remembered the two of us stopping there late one night six years earlier, when I was first moving in with Dad after that hard summer of my parents’ custody fight over their only son. Dad’s twenty-year-old bronze Dodge pickup had overheated hauling a load of our boxes, so we stopped at the Two Bit Saloon, a real false-front Western bar and the only business in Quinn. While we waited for the engine to cool, I sat on a vinyl stool and drank a plastic cup of orange juice, feeling alien being ten and in a cowboy bar.
The halfway point on our trip was Philip, named for Scotty Philip, one of the visionaries of the late nineteenth century who saved the American bison from extinction, preserving a remnant of this landscape’s iconic species. But that’s the thirty-year-old Plains scholar in New York City talking, not the bored-to-tears sixteen-year-old. Scotty Philip was a prosperous rancher, one of the first white men to live in western South Dakota—then the Great Sioux Reservation—by virtue of being a “squaw man,” brother-in-law to Crazy Horse, no less. I’ll get to his story here by and by.
The last real town on our route was Midland, a colorless Plains village with a Main Street, a rodeo ground and a football field, a few gray-green trees. Its distinguishing feature is the hot artesian well water trapped between two solid layers of rock underground; when tapped, it spews out under its own pressure like the steam from an overheated radiator. There is a latent fury in this monotonous landscape, ready to unleash a tornado or a shrill blizzard or a boiling, sulfury geyser if punctured. The place can turn nasty, can turn on you in a way that feels targeted and predatory but is actually enormously indifferent.
In seventh grade, I’d had a social studies teacher from Midland who told us that athletes there had to race each other to the showers to get the first water; anything after that was scalding. Ms. Hueber had a husky voice and a Billy Ray Cyrus haircut, which led us students to the snickering conclusion that she was a lesbian. I wondered if there was some code I could use to telegraph her that I was cool with it, that I knew lots of lesbians, including my own mother.
At last, in the middle of the afternoon, Dad and I descended the shale bluffs into the Missouri River valley and home into Pierre (pronounced “peer”). The state capital boasts a population of thirteen thousand, a natural gas “flaming fountain” beside the rotunda, and a single high school whose mascots are the Governors and Lady Govs (we’ve never elected a lady gov, in fact). Dad and I turned onto Pierce Street at the white skyscraper of the grain elevator and pulled up at our yellow stucco house, a century-old farmhouse surrounded by half-century-old GI Bill Levittown boxes, now fading and undesirable. Our house’s stucco and foundation were cracked. Thin plastic shutters had replaced the old-fashioned kind beside our windows, and they, too, continually cracked and blew off in the wind.
Stiff and yawning from the drive, I walked to the side door to wait for Dad to unlock it. We locked the house only when we left town; the front key didn’t even work. The door was already ajar. We hadn’t shut it tight, and the damned wind had blown it open.
I climbed the stairs two at a time to my room. I reached toward the bulb to turn it on, then spotted the black shoelace that usually hung from the pull chain, fallen and coiled on the carpet. A half dozen Delta Airlines UNACCOMPANIED MINOR buttons were pinned along the spine of the lace.
My room was a fun house, with low walls and slanted ceilings that I had painted pumpkin orange with green trim. The carpet was a red-white-and-blue tin-soldier design the previous owners had installed for their boy in the 1970s. Built into the walls were a bureau and shelves I’d converted with paint from Old Glory to pumpkin patch. Being in the top corner of an old house, the room required plastic film over the windows in winter, and it was probably best I wasn’t there for the oven summers—Dad didn’t “believe in” air-conditioning. I slept on a mattress on the floor inside a kaleidoscope of clashing souvenirs I had vigilantly cataloged in my memory. Now some shapes were missing.
“Dad,” I called loudly but calmly, “I think you better come up here.” It was a surgical theft: my CD library, a few seven-inch records, and the portable CD player that had been plugged into my parents’ old silver Sanyo stereo receiver. It must have been somebody who knew me, but it couldn’t have been somebody I liked.
There was a perverse sort of vindication in being robbed. This was why I was going to leave South Dakota as soon as I got my diploma. This place was so hostile: the drives that clamped my skull in boredom (we had yet another drive to an airport coming up for me to fly to Portland); the wind that never, ever stopped pushing me back; the billboard that said, WE SOUTH DAKOTANS REJECT ANIMAL ACTIVISTS, and all the times at some Kozy Korner or other when I’d eaten potato salad and french fries because they were the only vegetarian items on the menu; the fact that I had never kissed a girl and the worry that people thought I was queer in one way or another—Lord knows what they would have said or done if they knew Mom actually was; and now the theft of the few valuable things I owned.
The next day I came down with a fever of 103 degrees. I had to leave soon for Mom’s for the summer, but I was disoriented in my fun house, overheated in the 90-degree days of June. I wasn’t getting to hang out with my friends in my last days at home, and I wouldn’t be around to solve this crime. The fever and Tylenol gave me a strange sensation like I was hearing two people argue through a wall, barking unintelligibly at each other. I had bought a tinny, frantic punk CD called Destroy What Destroys You in Rapid City, and since it was all I had left, I sat on the lumpy antique couch and listened to it over and over on Dad’s stereo, which was untouched in the burglary. The music was seemingly 78 rpm; it only echoed the barking. I could never stomach that album or Tylenol after that week.
I began to assemble a catalog of loss for the insurance company, and began to guard my memories of songs and liner notes and facts as belongings that couldn’t be stolen. I was never sure I’d noted every single album because I’d keep thinking of one more to add to the list. From then on, when I bought used CDs, I left the price tags on the jewel cases (jewel cases!) to remind me of the times and places I acquired them, constructing a little fort of memory around each one. Partial list in hand, I flew west to Portland.
Ritual de lo Habitual
My third CD ever; censored cover (Tipper Gore era), with First Amendment cleverly replacing a nude painting; Dad bought used from Ernie November when he had a work trip to Rapid City; surprised me.
Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine
Fourth CD ever; $7 at a pawn shop in Hot Springs, SD, circa 1992, sixth grade; impressed by the “Head Like a Hole” video and the “industrial” genre.
self-titled 7-inch (“Idle Hands,” “Battering Ram,” etc.)
$3; amazing show at tiny JJ’s Rose Arcade in Box Elder, SD; guitarist Lint actually talked to us afterward, and I (wearing a yellow Jujyfruits T-shirt over a purple rugby shirt) told him I liked his leather Operation Ivy jacket.
40 oz. to Freedom
$5; bought because I liked the cover; realized I had heard it between bands at a ska-punk show; a couple of years later, singer OD’d and they got popular.
Magnified Plaid (MxPx)
Evangelical friend Peter sold to me for $5; he had a thorough Christian rock collection; he once asked about the rainbow ribbon pinned to my backpack, said his apostate bisexual sister in Denver had told him it was a symbol; “They can’t own a rainbow.”
Watershed CD, ostentatiously literary punk band whose guitarist and bassist were the writers Wells Tower and Al Burian; show happened to be going on when I was visiting Rapid City; October of ninth grade; I learned the word mantra from “Clocked Out.”
Per my parents’ custody agreement, I flew west toward Denver or Salt Lake City and on to Portland, or east toward Minneapolis to fly west to Portland, and then I flew back, east from Denver or Salt Lake, or west from Minneapolis, into South Dakota. I saw green-and-white Rocky Mountain peaks drop to seared August grasslands with spiderweb-thin fencerows and specks of black Angus and the smudge of dust behind a pickup truck on a gravel road. I saw, in January, square sections of Midwest farmland like white dominoes with farmhouse dots; as I flew west from Minnesota into South Dakota the land got drier, the farms got bigger, and the dominoes turned gradually from double-fours to double-ones; and finally around the hundredth meridian and the Missouri River, it got too dry for farming and the dominoes deliquesced into ranch land. We hunkered in that drab stripe of no-man’s-land between the fertile Middle West and the spectacular Mountain West. With the distance travel brought, I also saw the dry, conservative culture I was growing up in as opposed to the culture in Portland, which seemed much closer to the left-wing values both of my parents taught me: antiracist, feminist, environmentalist, brightly artistic.
Those airplanes—and the frequent-flier miles and UNACCOMPANIED MINOR buttons accrued while jetting away from the dimpled, dun Plains and bumping back toward them in thirteen-seat prop planes and half-empty jets—refracted my perspective on the region in a way I’ve come to understand as essential. Through a tiny multipane oval, the Plains land spreads out to the horizon as a giant, flat disk—a record, say, Side B—and you can see something of the big picture of how water flows, where roads go, where are clustered what few inhabitants the place allows. Yet probably almost anybody who is reading this has flown over the Plains states and would agree that the bird’s-eye view is limited—It’s so barren and dull, and at night there are almost no lights! What is out there?
Even speeding across on I-70 through Kansas, I-80 through Nebraska, I-90 through South Dakota, or I-94 through North Dakota without leaving the truck stops and rest stops is not much better for seeing the Plains as a real place. At least, though, in a car you can glimpse the A Side of the record, that ever-changing winged sky that plays over the region. And then driving a bit slower on smaller roads, and walking around, and growing up in the culture the grassland created, the worm’s-eye view: That’s the rest of the A Side perspective, but one that’s sometimes as limited as flying above it, whether you love the place wholeheartedly or resent it, as I often did.
It was common for punk rock bands to release split seven-inches, with a couple of songs by one band on Side A and by the other on Side B, potentially drastically different. It’s impossible to listen to both at once. It’s also impossible to see the Plains from the ground and from the air at the same time, but by leaving and returning you turn the record over and over, even after you’ve left seemingly for good.
So, taking off and landing. Homesteading and pulling up stakes. Paradoxical as it sounds, I’ve come to understand that coming and going are perhaps the only things native to the Great Plains.
That August I flew back to Pierre. My list won me a large check from the homeowner’s insurance, something like $800, probably more than I’d paid for my collection. The police had not found any evidence. The night before junior year started, my own band, Stickman, opened for Hellbender at the red-carpeted Pierre Elks Lodge, where we’d begun hosting punk rock chautauquas the year before. There being a paucity of teenage amusements, we’d ordered up an anarchist subculture native to London or New York—or, at that time, Berkeley and Gainesville—and we assembled it ourselves as if it were a premade house ordered from the Sears catalog (at a younger age, I had yearned fruitlessly while scanning the pages of guitars and drum sets in the back of the J. C. Penney catalog). In fact, as I realized after coming east, our ragtag gatherings were truer to the punk ideals and blueprints than the scenes many of the bands we loved came from. It was impossible to be a poseur or a wannabe in Pierre, because there was no hierarchy or history or code to tell us what to pose as or want to be: If you showed up, you were.
In Stickman I played bass guitar and sang bouncy, earnest punk songs like “The Mighty Lobsters of Maine Revolt” and the quasi-communist “Potluck Society.” Today I swell a bit with pride thinking about the latter one, as if a little brother had written it—how as a sixteen-year-old I couched my own leftist punk ethics (from each according to her ability…) in terms of a South Dakota church-basement dinner: And even assuming a few don’t contribute / The wealth is abundant as long as we share / Plenty of shelter and plenty of food / In the absence of greed there is plenty to spare.
Before the show, I shot pool with Hellbender in a room beside the Elks Lodge bar. They were from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but lately lived in Portland. I’d miraculously hung out with the bassist and drummer there (I’d written the band letters, and they wrote back) for an afternoon when I first arrived at my mom’s house in June. Portland had refreshingly calm days, towering trees, rock festivals, STRAIGHT BUT NOT NARROW buttons—crucially, a lack of fear about the secret of Mom’s sexuality and an abatement of the loss that fact implied.
Al Burian (the bassist) and I had walked down a moss-trimmed sidewalk in a hip quarter of Southeast Portland, and I explained how harsh the climate was on the exposed, treeless Plains. From this distance, I could start to see that harshness as noble and romantic in a way that I couldn’t back home. Life in South Dakota had a poetic heft. Al nodded knowingly. “So there’s nothing to keep the elements at bay.” I kept mulling over the sophistication of that phrase, at bay.
Over billiards at the Elks Lodge in Pierre, amid the awkwardness of a teenager conversing again with his twenty-five-year-old heroes, discussing record thefts and their tour, I asked, “So, do you guys have any extra copies of that first album that I could buy?”
They all laughed ruefully, and the guitarist, Wells Tower, said, “Those things are long gone.”
I mail-ordered what I could. One band from Gainesville sent me a free split seven-inch with a note that said, “Sorry about your CDs.”
A few weeks later, I went to Capital Pawn, a dingy stucco storefront on Main Street where a leathery proprietor sold hot VCRs and pairs of woofers boxed to fill a car’s trunk. I clacked through his box of scuff-cased CDs, working to spend the insurance check. Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Dakotamart sold only major-label alt-rock garbage or at best some heavy metal. I was only half surprised to find four CDs that were unmistakably mine: a split album of the Rudiments with Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Urban Dance Squad, and the Vampire Lezbos. With the possible exception of the Bosstones, nobody else in Pierre could have owned these. I felt a nervous thrill in solving the crime and then anger that the cops hadn’t already done so while I was gone. Who knew what had already been sold? Pretty quickly, though, the seller’s code (17348-8), written to this day on the jewel cases’ black bindings as a reminder of all this, led the Pierre police through a couple of intermediaries to the three young culprits and most of the missing discs. Maybe the wind had initially blown the door open, and they were stoned, drunk, or tweaking on meth and just walked in. Maybe I was wrong about the drugs and they just didn’t like me.
Greg was a pudgy kid with glasses. He was about thirteen and lived three blocks away—also with a single father. I knew who he was only because his older brother had been in my General Music class in junior high and was best friends with my friend Seth. Greg’s brother and I had played Nirvana songs together on school-issue classical guitars. The second thief, I had never met or heard of, though I guess he came to Stickman shows. He was also named Josh. I later heard he went to juvie for a meth offense.
The third kid was probably fourteen, a pale redhead named Aaron whom everyone called “Beater” after some fictional masturbation incident. When I was in ninth grade he was in seventh, and we had gym class at the same time. He was even less graceful and sporty than I was. Sometimes he sat on the benches because he hadn’t brought athletic clothes. I cringe now at the meanness, wish I could say I never called him Beater. I wonder if he remembered me from that time, if that raced through his tweaking head when he was loading my record collection into a paper bag. Or maybe he knew me only as the singer and bass player of one of two local punk bands.
A couple of years later, Beater joined in an epidemic of suicides, a preternatural and horrific meteor shower that struck Pierre in the late 1990s. I don’t remember whether he shot or hanged himself or what. My senior year, a New York Times reporter and photographer came out to our school in the “gullet of the Great Plains” to try to explain our slow calamity in an article titled “In Little City Safe From Violence, Rash of Suicides Leaves Scars.” The only explanations seemed to be the abundance of guns (though a few were hangings), the anxious atmosphere of a one-industry (government) town headed by a rather authoritarian governor, and the fact of being “remarkably isolated, ringed by a vast, grassy moonscape and bracketed by the Bad River and whistles of water with names like No Heart Creek, Whisky Gulch and Tall Prairie Chicken Creek.”
We all found this description a bit overwrought, to say the least. If teen suicide is a fatally shortsighted act, a failure to recognize that this too shall pass, then the urban journalist’s perspective was almost fatally farsighted, an airplane that never actually lands. Yet both the teens and the journalist were onto something: Life as an unattractive, poor teenager in a cruel town is truly unbearable, and conversely there was something poetic and almost supernatural in our humdrum lives, the artesian wells waiting to burst—Beater—that strangers could see better than we could.
How to reconcile these two perspectives, the cracked windshield of an old car cruising Euclid Avenue and the telephoto lens? Side A and Side B? Superstition and investigation?
“Superstition vs. Investigation,” reprinted from the Red Cloud Chief of June 13, 1890, is a xeroxed printout the Catherland boosters give to tourists in Red Cloud, Nebraska. It is the text of Willa Cather’s high school graduation speech.
Willa was one of three graduates, the only girl, and she indisputably fit the description punk rock, avant la lettre. I could scarcely have imagined a classmate or comrade who was so hardcore. She glowed with a ferocious genius and individual sensibility. She blazed around her little Plains town of five thousand, attaching herself to grown-ups who had wood to feed her mind’s fire: French-German Jewish neighbors with a library of European art and books; the founder of Red Cloud, former Nebraska governor Silas Garber, and his elegant wife, Lyra; an old slacker British store clerk who shared with her his love of Latin and animal dissection; a host of less-educated European immigrants (Bohemians, Norwegians, and others) who lived and told great stories; the theater companies that, like touring punk bands with fur coats and lapdogs, came to play at the opera house.
Everything I did as a sour, ambitious adolescent in Pierre in the 1990s, Willa outdid in Red Cloud in the 1880s. I, too, scouted for culture, though I wouldn’t read her work until I went east to college. I was enchanted by my dad’s Mennonite anarchist friend Michael Sprong, who stayed on a cot at our house when he came to Pierre to lobby the state legislature for the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center and who gave me dubbed cassettes of radical punk and hip-hop and old copies of a Christian anarchist zine, A Pinch of Salt. I went to the Rawlins Municipal Library after school to read Rolling Stone and discovered Harper’s, which was oh so much smarter. I became pen pals with Al Burian from Hellbender—he of at bay—who put out a funny, cerebral slacker zine, Burn Collector.
I dressed like an old man, sporting polyester polo shirts from my mother’s father in California and from Value Village. Willa dressed like an old man in 1880s Red Cloud—infinitely more badass. She cropped and shingled her dark brown hair and wore a starched shirt, suit, and tie with a bowler hat. She had a babyish face and gray-blue eyes and looked like an iconoclastic Oliver Twist.
Her graduation speech, which she delivered in the Red Cloud opera house as a sixteen-year-old, is high-flown and abstruse; it’s also hard to make sense of without knowing her frictions with her town. Perhaps her mother convinced her to wear at least a skirt for the occasion, or maybe she just went up there in pants and anarchist hair and rocked it. The speech begins, as any adolescent pronouncement should, “All human history…,” and grows from there. She disdains the superstition of the ancient Hebrews, who “delved into the mystical and metaphysical, leaving the more practical questions unanswered, and were subjected to the evils of tyranny and priestcraft.” The Greeks, by contrast, “allowed no superstition, religious, political or social, to stand between them and the truth, and suffered exile, imprisonment and death for the right of opinion and investigation.” Sadly, history sank into the Dark Ages, when the “Earth seemed to return to its original chaotic state, and there was no one to cry, ‘Fiat lux.’… All the great minds were crushed.” Superstition had conquered. But the philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon rekindled the lux of investigation by proposing scientific experimentation in the Novum Organum: “Thus we went painfully back to nature, weary and disgusted with our artificial knowledge, hungering for that which is meat, thirsting for that which is drink, longing for the things that are.”
At sixteen! In the hinterland, the “parish,” as she would later call it! Willa had a command of all Western civilization, of Latin and natural science. Here I thought I was courageous when I wrote a school research paper on the hypocrisies of American Protestant churches defending slavery before the Civil War and then condemning it, silencing women before suffrage and then ordaining them. I proposed implicitly in this essay that a similar shift might occur in the church’s treatment of gays, but kept secret the fact that my mom fell afoul of the current doctrine, not to mention the mores and prejudices of South Dakota. Willa was likewise marshaling her grand argument toward an unspoken quibble with her fellow townsfolk. (That she, too, would later probably fit the category of lesbian was not yet an issue, despite her dressing in drag, since that category did not yet exist in Nebraska.)
The fact was, she had gotten hold of a set of doctor’s tools from a dead uncle and had developed an enthusiasm for dissecting animals, to the sniffs of more proper Red Cloudians. She fancied herself an apprentice doctor, and she followed a couple of local doctors around on house calls and even dosed a boy with chloroform before his leg was amputated. She had taken to signing her name “William Cather Jr. M.D.”—though her father was Charles, not William—and her friends called her Willie, Will, or Billie. On her own, she apparently killed, dissected, and embalmed stray cats and dogs and maybe other creatures. She filled out an “Opinions, Tastes and Fancies” survey in a friend’s scrapbook with the data that her favorite amusement was “vivisection” and her idea of perfect happiness was “amputating limbs.”
Instead of sneaking around researching and reading, even timidly consulting a conservative minister as I did on my project, Willa fired her message point-blank at the squares. Except that she didn’t outright mention her vivisections in her speech. After her synopsis of Old World darkness and light, she spoke in the abstract about a male alter ego. “Scientific investigation is the hope of our age, as it must precede all progress; and yet upon every hand we hear the objections to its pursuit. The boy who spends his time among the stones and flowers is a trifler, and if he tries with bungling attempt to pierce the mystery of animal life he is cruel,” Willa complained. Then she revealed “his,” and likely her, ambition: “Of course if he becomes a great anatomist or a brilliant naturalist, his cruelties are forgotten or forgiven him; the world is very cautious, but it is generally safe to admire a man who has succeeded.”
Her expansive mind ridiculed the small minds of Red Cloud right to the faces that shielded them. It doesn’t get any punker than that. I was a relative milquetoast confronting Pierre, trying to invent messages like “Potluck Society” to challenge and blandish at the same time. Willa socked it to them.
But Willa Cather didn’t become a great anatomist or a brilliant naturalist; she became a great and brilliant novelist. When she lived among those who knew only Side A by Superstition, she confronted them with Side B by Investigation. When she moved away, first to college in Lincoln and then to the East, Cather evidently found Investigation, that empirical bird’s-eye view, to be insufficient on its own to represent the Plains. Her artistic triumph would be to overlay her epic visions on these very townsfolk’s lives to the degree that biographies of her often read like the end credits of a movie (Ántonia Shimerda was Annie Pavelka, Dr. Archie was Dr. McKeeby, Marian Forrester was Lyra Garber…). The classics of literature and philosophy she read as a teenager in her “Rose Bower”—her wallpapered attic bedroom about half the size of my pumpkin-patch fun house—would be fused in her fiction with that drafty bedroom itself. Even her graduation speech would be delivered, by another male alter ego, Jim Burden, in My Ántonia. “I thought my oration very good,” Jim says. “It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered.” Afterward, Ántonia tells him, “There ain’t a lawyer in Black Hawk”—er, Red Cloud—“could make a speech like that.” And there wasn’t.
The Nebraska of Cather’s novels and stories is a romantic place where a falling out between two businessmen over the Nebraska Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (a “great leader” to one and a “great windbag” to the other) triggers a young person’s existential vertigo, a tragic loss of the belief “that there are certain unalterable realities, somewhere at the bottom of things.” In her fiction, suicide is as common as it was in Greek tragedies, or in the Pierre of my high school years: Ántonia’s father shoots himself in the barn in winter, and his body stays there frozen for four days before the priest and coroner can get there; eventually the villain of My Ántonia, Wick Cutter, gruesomely shoots his wife and himself; one tramp throws himself into a wheat thresher, another into a town’s standpipe; when his hogs die of cholera, a farmer garrotes himself with binding twine and the spring action of a bent stick; a pretentious, effeminate teenager robs his employer and lives large in New York City for a week before jumping under a train; a stroke victim who had to leave his post as second violin in a Prague orchestra only to play second fiddle to his mean, thrifty son in Nebraska breaks his violin and pulls the shotgun trigger with his toe, Kurt Cobain–style.
These stories have the quotidian dignity of being rooted in real people but also the archetypal resonance the New York Times projected on Pierre’s moonscape suicides in 1998. I think back and remember this guy Jeremy who sat behind me in social studies class when I first moved to town and flicked my ears and called me “skater fag,” then drew a map showing me how to get to Beckwith’s, the local bike and skateboard shop. He was a handsome jock who had grown muscles and a mustache before anybody else and consequently had carte blanche around the junior high for a while. His was a hanging, I think with a belt. There was James, the pothead who sat at my lunch table in junior high with all the long-haired headbangers wearing black T-shirts, and who later shot his ex-girlfriend, the hottest headbanger girl, and himself. I also remember Ryan, who was in my homeroom class when we watched Channel One News, during which another friend and I made juvenile, provincial jokes about “Tutsi-rolls” and “Hutu stew” as Anderson Cooper reported the faraway genocide in Rwanda. I can’t remember if Ryan laughed at us, but he was so kind and mild I couldn’t believe it when he shot himself. Then there was Aaron, “Beater”—I felt responsible for his death more than any of the others. There is something gained by stepping back and turning them into epic tragedies, valiant but failed struggles against a pitiless landscape or a hidebound culture. But there is also something exploitative about doing so; we were just kids.
Cather was a quintessential plainswoman; she moved from Virginia to Nebraska at the age of nine in 1883, struggled against it until she left at age twenty-two, and it defined her all her life. It’s significant that her character’s name in My Ántonia is Jim Burden—what many of us who leave the Plains carry. Cather’s coming and going, I think, allowed her finally to balance the individual dignity and truth of the land, of Superstition, against the bird’s-eye objectivity of Investigation, which she’d championed so stridently as a punk rock girl.
After I left, landing ultimately, like Cather, in New York City, I often went back to visit places where I lived as a child and to explore new ones. In Red Cloud, Nebraska, I slept in a tent at an RV park, a pilgrim in this literary Bethlehem, with the roar and clang of a demolition derby as an evensong. I’d seen the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie and the stained-glass windows she donated to Grace Episcopal Church and her little Rose Bower with the sloped ceiling. I did and did not want to see the sparkling scrim of art over it all, or to imagine her as a punk rocker, a constructive rebel perhaps lonely in her hungers. Were her and her friends’ DIY theater productions like our Elks Lodge shows? Cather turned out to have two sustained (if not sexual) relationships with women as an adult out in Pittsburgh and New York. I wonder how those proclivities shaped her view of Red Cloud, much as I wonder if any of Pierre’s suicides were gay. Was she silent and alone behind the punk exterior? Did she take the loneliness of this great, mythic landscape and turn it inside out, into bluster and self-regard?
Even back then, after her brash defense of Investigation (and vivisection) to the Red Cloud audience, young Willa backed off a bit and restored wonder to her equation. I imagine her bold but still girlish voice taking a pause after asking about vivisection, “Ah, why does life live upon death throughout the universe?”
Then she finished, “The most aspiring philosopher never hoped to do more than state the problem; he never dreamed of solving it…. Our intellectual swords may cut away a thousand petty spiderwebs woven by superstition across the mind of man, but before the veil of the ‘Sanctum Sanctorum’ we stand confounded, our blades glance and turn and shatter upon the eternal adamant.” A less than punk rock note to end on, but anyway, amen. Amen, Willie.
Not long after my sleuthing at the pawn shop, I sifted through a soiled paper bag holding most of my CDs at the police station and took them home. One of the thieves had hidden the loot somewhere out in the moonscape, in the wind and elements (not so beauteous and mythic then, were they, Writer?), and had fetched it when the cops came. There was one CD in the bag that wasn’t mine, a grunge album called Dirt, along with plenty of grunge and dirt that wasn’t mine either.
Later, Greg’s probation officer asked me to meet with Greg, so the delinquent could face his victim. Dad dropped me off at the granite courthouse on Capitol Avenue one fall afternoon, and I walked in the front door with a pit in my stomach as if I were in trouble. I already knew in a vague way that my perspective gave me an intangible privilege Greg didn’t have, even if our material privilege as children of single fathers on the poor side of town was comparable. My dad had an Ivy League education and worked as a legal aid lawyer for little money, more or less by choice. I had seen quite a bit of the outside world. I knew this too would pass. Greg and the other two thieves didn’t have the books, the band, the travel, or the distance, lacks most painfully exemplified by Aaron’s eventual suicide.
The hallway was much dimmer than outside, the floor tiled in institutional fashion. I turned a corner and saw Greg sitting in a wooden chair, looking to my eyes a little haughty. But I wasn’t angry, or at least I felt guilty being angry. The probation officer asked me to sit down. Greg and I didn’t shake hands.
“Is there anything you want to say to Josh?”
Greg looked down and to the side. “Yeah, I wanted to say I’m sorry for taking your CDs and stuff,” he said. “ ’Cause I know you like music. If somebody did that to me, I would have been mad.”
I couldn’t tell if he was sincere, or if it changed anything. I don’t remember what I said in reply. Maybe I just nodded and left, kept it all at bay, flying away again in my head.
Ritual de lo Habitual
Intact, except for broken jewel case lid; once the nude cover art was reinstated, the First Amendment version became more collectible.
Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine
Lyric sheet glued shut by water; didn’t listen for years until the beeps of a dump truck in reverse gear brought to mind “Something I Can Never Have.”
Excerpted from Ghost Dances by Josh Garrett-Davis Copyright © 2012 by Josh Garrett-Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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