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Bound Like Grass
A Memoir from the Western High Plains
By Ruth McLaughlin
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
I heard about the fire in winter, and three months later I travel the narrow highway east across the state. No traffic, only miles and miles of prairie hills, roughening at river breaks, and in long valleys stubble fields of last year's wheat. Through town after tiny town I slow, the highway tamed to a street, at last entering Culbertson just before Montana's seamless shift to North Dakota.
I continue east in slow motion toward the farm. This ten miles I've more than memorized; I feel my body tugged toward each landmark: the homestead shack, still sturdy, whose turnof-the-century occupant, Chicago transplant Paul Bisceglia, hanged himself. In the next field is a lone tree, huge now, that someone once had swerved around with a plow. Far from water, the tree has somehow survived. I feel the pull of worn fence posts, gray as bone, some misshapen. When I was small I imagined the ugly ones as fierce, staring at me. Now as I pass they seem subdued, merely old.
Beyond them, I think I see the first gleam of spring in prairie grass. I picture our small white house on its hill, long windows overlooking our land east and west, and south half a mile to the highway. Today is sunny with just an edge of winter in chill air. The sky overhead is blank, an innocent blue, so different from that day in January when my ninety-something friend in town heard on the sheriff's scanner: "The Alexander house burning up in snow."
Then I round the last curve and see on our hill just a blackened chimney in open air. I'm shocked at how complete the fire has been.
I turn north up the gravel road whose weeds scour my car's underside. Beyond the ruins of the house, a coal shed, two garages, and the upright granary remain. On other visits here I've looked for their decline. I've half-wished for the buildings to lean and collapse, show how to unfasten from this land. I've wanted to find a roof torn off by wind, linoleum curling up in corners of the house. Instead, the sturdy out-buildings have perpetuated the farm in my family's absence. In five years I've watched a single slow decay: down the gentle slope of hill past the long red barn, corral poles are loosening and shrugging down.
Our family had a ninety-seven-year fling here; now we are gone. Ten have been left behind, including six children, planted in two cemeteries.
I didn't think I'd feel so cheated while staring at the rubble of our house. But our farm was more than just a home. Our fenced pastures and oblong fields on slopes of hills seemed permanent, the end stage of this land: our family's destiny.
My maternal grandfather, the first of us in our corner of the state, told the story of his journey here as if it were ordained. My brother and I listened as we hoed his windbreak. Twice a year in summer, starting when we were small, Grandpa Hawkins drove Dwight and me from our neighboring farm to labor. We chopped at weeds that the disk couldn't reach, fireweed and Russian thistle smothering seedlings of blue spruce. It took five years of hoeing before the new trees that didn't belong here—vulnerable to wind and drought—outgrew the weeds that did. My grandfather refused to plant an ordinary windbreak, scrub Chinese elm and caragana, that didn't need a hoe.
Midmorning, he strode down the path to visit, overalls drooping on his small frame; he looked pleased with our chore. He recited how he'd stepped onto a ship in Sweden at age sixteen, arriving starved six weeks later in New York. He bought the first food he could find on crowded streets, fresh gingersnaps from a nickel vendor, and ate the entire bag at once, becoming violently ill. But he recovered, and found his way to Minnesota. In 1904 he boarded a train for North Dakota.
I liked the story's final chapter: how he got off the train and on again in Williston—too civilized—and at last found land across the Montana line that resembled his Swedish home, except that a dry coulee, instead of a creek, wound through it.
I heard my grandfather's unvarying tale of his long voyage here as a mantra: a recital of our family's destiny.
At the end of his story, Grandpa laughed, throwing back his head, blue eyes and gold tooth flashing, as if he'd delivered a giant joke. The laughter puzzled me. But now, stepping out of my car and crossing the prairie yard to teeter on the edge of our once-house, his laughter doesn't seem so strange.
Surely this farm, east of my grandfather's, was our family's destiny. Following failed homesteaders, my father was the first to make a living on the place.
Our farm's dirt roads are his, as well as the two coulees dammed for stock water, fringed by cottonwood, ash, and Russian olive. He stamped out fields north and west of our caragana and Chinese elm windbreak, alternating wheat and summer fallow, and fenced an apron of prairie pasture south to the highway and east and west to hills at the horizon.
My brother and I fled our destinies here in our teens. I wonder what I crave on all my visits. I used to enter the empty house and stroll through the kitchen with its silent cupboards, through the mint-green living room and into my little bedroom from whose wardrobe dolls gaped. In the closet of another bedroom, ghosts of my mother still hung: housedresses abandoned in the '70s when she at last joined the fashion switch to slacks.
This time an irregular small field is outlined by the foundation's concrete scar, and I revisit the rooms in memory. A till of shattered asbestos shingle overlays the burned house, like new soil. So far, nothing grows here in spring. Prairie grass has declined entrance; there's no caragana or Chinese elm, and of course no blue spruce. But I think that somewhere fireweed and Russian thistle have begun to imagine the blank soil beneath our burned house.
I identify something at my feet: glass from the kitchen light fixture, spun into a fantastic shape. I study the borders of the burn again, trying to reconstruct trash into a house, with air walls. At the far corner is my brother's room, through which a twisted metal bedstead heaves. In the living room beside the anchoring chimney is a skeletal couch. I peer beneath twists of drainpipe and stovepipe—except for shingle siding, only metal is in pieces bigger than my hand—and see the old Underwood, my mother's typewriter. It looks intact—with carriage, space bar, keys—as if equally blackened hands could settle here to write a letter, though the desk beneath has vanished.
For thirty years my mother typed weekly letters to me on the Underwood, and then on a tiny portable. The one-page letters commenced with weather: "It is so terribly dry here. Traeger's cattle keep breaking in as are starving." In a good year: "Grass so tall it waves in the pasture!"
I feel as starved as Traeger's cattle to understand my family's lives here. Why didn't my four homesteading grandparents flee following drought, deaths, and a broken marriage? What made my parents decide to stay, turning a blind eye to the region's recurrent extreme weather?
I see that just a few feet from our house there's no trash mess; the walls folded inward as they burned. I feel a tincture of childhood shame. The cramped house always seemed a reflection of my family, how we would shrink in on ourselves on trips to town, anticipating stares.
Our house was six small rooms with curtained doorways. My brother had to enter his bedroom through that of our parents. When my sister launched one of her mysterious rages, it penetrated to my top bunk, where I lay wishing that I lived in any other family and any other house.
Now I wish that the death of our house and family had followed a more dramatic course. If the house had blown up, scattering pieces in the windbreak trees and on the prairie, then years from now someone roaming this land might stumble on our durable remains. He would kick at the shield of oven door or finger the glinting saucer of the chimney's flue stop, and picture us here.
Beside me to the east and west, and south to the abrupt edge of highway, our hills seem the same: wind-dimpled, excited for spring. I'm half-surprised the prairie grass could manage a new season without our anchoring house.
Growing up, I thought these hills favored us. South across the Missouri River, my father's father nearly starved on land whose scanty soil discouraged grass and wheat.
Of course, a glacier had favored us. The last late Wisconsin glacier creeping from the north had halted just before the Missouri River: a thousand-foot-high shelf of ice. Then—as if fashioning a template for future immigrants—it departed. Boulders fell through rotting ice, fouling our fields, just as ten thousand years later, failing homesteaders left behind a litter of shacks and machinery. But the glacier in its long retreat released a gift of Canadian silt and clay and mineral-rich rock dust, gentling the debris into long hills to grow protein-rich prairie grass and wheat.
The glacier formed our hills, grass grew; three generations of our family spent a minute of history here, then vanished.
On my last visit I stopped at Grandpa Hawkins's farm three miles west, home to the blue spruce windbreak. My grandfather's log barn and chicken coop remain; pole fences are intact. But the new owner did not bother to keep chickens or milk a cow. He erected a cavernous steel machinery shed south of the house, dwarfing it, and making insignificant my grandfather's low sheds and barn.
The owner's wife greeted me at the door. She said mysterious things had begun to appear, as if dropped from the sky or heaved from the earth like the glacial rocks we picked and dumped at corners of the fields each spring. She'd discovered a turn-of-the-century Swedish dictionary in the attic, and a W branding iron that I'm certain was not my grandfather's, though no one else occupied his land.
There's no one left to ask.
Now my family's farm has a new owner. He lives miles away, our land only a patch on a quilt of farms he operates with giant machines. I glimpse one beyond the granary, a hulking yellow grain drill three times the size of our John Deere model nearby. Also dwarfed beside it are my father's sickle mower and the sharp-tined dump rake. The owner's machine, seldom used here, is like scat to mark the land as his own.
Our grain drill and slender mower will join the ranks of the dead past. All around the prairie on the tops of hills, along flanks of hills and overgrown in coulees, are rusted binders, plows, and harrows left behind by fleeing homesteaders. In my childhood the tools were only a curiosity, something to fix the eye on during snail's-pace trips to town: surely the machinery's owners had not thought their destinies were here.
Our farm's new owner without notice struck the match that burned our house. For five years he had ignored my sneaking up here, ignored the museum we'd left behind. High in a cupboard was the green plastic doughnut maker my mother used just once, forming doughnuts grease-laden and small. In my dim bedroom's wardrobe were bride and groom dolls in moldering dress, a wooden black baby with a sock shirt, and Dennis the Menace. On my last visit Dennis looked jaunty still despite the absence of an arm below the elbow.
At the far end of the burned rubble I spy the dull gleam of metal ingots—knobs from my mother's 1940s waterfall veneer dresser? I zero in on the location of the snowy-channeled black-and-white TV: gone. But alongside the tipped shell of the refrigerator is a nest of broken and grayed ceramic. I think of the vaporized TV and try to imagine what could have survived the fire: electric insulators? my mother's cracked ovenware, old as her marriage?
The fire must have been immense. The skinny cottonwood behind the house, a volunteer plant with roots dug deep into the open drain field, is blistered and limbless on the fire side.
I suddenly wish that I had been here, hungry as I am for a transforming event. That's how I pictured my parents' deaths and how the end of our farm would be: suffused with meaning, an alchemy. Like fire.
Not ordinary. Not as my father, alone in his little house in town, predicted last year, saying suddenly over the phone: "I'm just afraid when you call someday I won't be here."
I look toward our windbreak. The slender trees are dying, a few tangled together as if clinging to each other in death. I'm surprised. I had thought that the trees, small-leaved in anticipation of drying winter winds, summer drought, and moisture-robbing weeds, would last forever.
Then I hear my grandfather's laughter again. It hadn't mattered that he planted an impractical blue spruce windbreak, one that switched to dying the moment he left the farm: his replacement hadn't time—or grandchildren—to hoe, haul water in a tank from town, and shovel dikes to direct spring snowmelt. Now the rows of evergreen are gap-toothed, at least every other tree dead. But a handful of them tower raggedly, visible miles away.
I look down our footpath over which pigweed has flung bright tentacles, beyond the little white gate to the prairie rising and falling to its seam of highway. The highway is the same, cars appearing from a long way off, passing slowly with the elegance of animals. On summer nights my parents sat outside on kitchen chairs, counting cars east and west.
Beside me in the grass, or in the burned-out skull of our house, I hear a cricket's trill. We're all gone except for me and my brother, who ended up in California. He rarely visits.
I feel like a sole survivor, a twin to the ugly cottonwood, black-blistered. For years we ignored the tree, my father unwilling to nurture more than a front yard spruce. We waited for the tree to die. But it lived, and thrived on our gray bath water and dishwater from the kitchen sink.
At my feet is the grave of the dirt-walled cellar, a small room entered separately from outside, home to potatoes over winter. Pitched into it is the kitchen coal stove, white enamel skirts blackened. I take momentary satisfaction in the huge sound its crashing down must have made, stirring our farm to life again.
In summers Dwight and I were made faint by the odors of the stove's noonday meal—frankfurters cauterized in an oven dish, potatoes steaming. In winters we perched beside it when the road outside had vanished, a sweep of snow rising up to the barbed wire fence. We knew that the school bus would pass us by for at least a day. Back and forth our father tramped, carrying coal, his overshoes leaving a puddly mess on the floor. Dwight and I scooped melting snow from the linoleum and tossed it onto the stove to hiss, seeing whose pile could stay alive the longest.
Now I wonder why the new owner burned the house. The remains are dangerous if he decides to run cattle, which could topple into the open cellar. Did he want to put to rest all our ghosts? Was he tired of finding the tracks of my twice-a-year visits?
My old friend Edna said in town: "The fellow probably burned the place to keep bums out."
But I think we're all still here, wandering in and out of sheds and the grease-fouled truck garage, inhaling the granary's clean wheat scent. From the fenced pen in the pasture that once held weaner pigs, bristle-haired, squealing at our approach, I think I hear their voices carried on the wind. My hands still feel the slickness of the long manger pole inside the barn, burnished smooth by the milk cow's throat as she plunged her head over it into hay.
I turn to leave the farm again; once more I've managed to sneak onto this land with the owner absent. Then I see something in the rubble I can't place.
It's a slender bottle, old, perhaps a Hawkins souvenir saved by Mother. The bottle is sturdy, and survived better than I the conflagration of the house. "Duraglass" is embossed on one flat side.
I tip the soot-blackened bottle into my hand and glittery particles tumble out. A patent medicine hoarded by my grandparents? Another brand of the hope that brought them here?
Grandpa Hawkins's hope overrode the practicality of busting virgin sod to plant wheat. The prairie grass resisted breaking, fraying the strength of four harnessed horses. Grandpa chopped the ground with an axe to let the steel plowshare dig in, then it turned sod over in curls unbroken for a quarter-mile. He sometimes had to file a new edge on the share each night.
Borne on by glittery hope, the homesteaders did not stop to ponder the grass's resistance, its adaptation to drought and shredding hailstorms that wheat, oats, flax, and barley could not survive: long roots of native grass were bound to one another, intertwining.
Settlers in our county turned over 800,000 acres of virgin prairie— more than half the land. The work was done long before my fifties childhood, but one year when I was small the owner of a high pasture north of ours broke the sod and planted wheat. My father called the man "Eddie Sodbuster." For years, Dad spoke admiringly of how Eddie had busted sod, recalling it even after the man gave up farming and sold out. I never learned Eddie's real name.
Excerpted from Bound Like Grass by Ruth McLaughlin. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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