I have had a difficult time dealing with the upheavals of daily life resulting from COVID-19. Even though I am not actually sick with the virus, coping during COVID is hard. Everything seems so strange and so different. Sometimes I feel lost in an emotional sandstorm, blindly groping for familiar landmarks so I can get my bearings. But things are getting better. Occasionally, I have glimpses of clarity and understanding, moments when I can connect current experiences with familiar ones. The unknown is slowly becoming known. It’s happening gradually, organically, as all true processes in life do.
Here’s how one more piece of the puzzle fell into place for me. If, like me, you are struggling to make sense of all this, maybe my experience will be helpful to you. My wife and I recently rewatched Dances with Wolves. This movie was filmed in several remote places in South Dakota. Some of the locations include the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, and the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. We have never been there in person, but even onscreen, the sheer expansiveness of the landscape overwhelmed our senses. We both experienced a deeply emotional response to that scenery. It made us both wonder if there was something helpful we could learn from this type of geographical setting. So I started to do a little research on the Great Plains . . .
The Real Frontier
The Great Plains have challenged all who cross them and all who choose to stay. Some of the driest, most desolate country in the lower 48, it contains some of the few remaining areas in the US that still qualify as frontier. These days, the frontier is defined as a wilderness (often uncharted) having seven or fewer persons per square mile. Some statistics use two or fewer persons per square mile as the qualifier. In North Dakota alone, thirty-eight out of fifty-three counties qualified as frontier in 2018. In South Dakota, eleven counties have two or fewer residents. That kind of isolation is foreign to those of us who live in cities where we can have anything we want delivered at nearly any hour.
As a child, I spent time in Oklahoma and Colorado, so I am familiar with the sense of space on the Plains, and the sense of the smallness of one’s self produced by the giant bowl of sky and the endless horizons. It’s an incomparable sensation to feel like there is absolutely nothing between the square foot of earth one stands on and the edge of the world. But understanding the scope of the true wilderness, a frontier full of unknowns, seemed to require a trip to those very locations. Virtually, of course, and in my favorite venue: a good book.
I found what I was looking for in the book Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, by poet and essayist Kathleen Norris. In this work, Norris captures much of what I was struggling to put into words—my response to those wide-open spaces as it relates to how I (and probably many others) feel during these pandemic times. Norris spent her adolescent years in Hawaii, went to college in New York, and spent six years in New York City before making the unexpected choice to care for her grandfather’s farm in Lemmon, South Dakota. Three such disparate environments, climates, and populations offered a great study in contrasts, and as Norris discovered, plenty of space for personal growth.
Norris writes: “I was a New Yorker for nearly six years, and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into the silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.” Her term, “Plains silence” resonated with me in relation to this new, smaller, more insular world that is pandemic life.
She continues, “The High Plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them. Like Jacob’s angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.” Wrestling much these days? Yep, me too.
Empty Wasteland or Spacious Opportunity?
It was here that I began to see the connection between what we pandemic folks are living through and the geography of the Dakotas. “Dakota is a painful reminder of human limits, just as cities and shopping malls are attempts to deny them.” That thought-provoking statement really clarified the contrast in my pre-COVID life and today’s reality. And simply recognizing this contrast has helped me with coping during COVID.
While many think of the Dakotas as empty space to be traversed quickly and only if necessary, Norris observes, “More than any other place I lived as a child or young adult, this is my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance. The word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for earth and writing, and writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.”
In a move that shocked her New York friends, she “made the counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste. Like them, I had to stay in this place, like a scarecrow in a field, and hope for the brains to see its beauty. My idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change, and it has.”
Wisdom of the Locals
Nearby resident Terrance Kardong refers to the Plains as “a school for humility,” and offers these helpful observations: “In this eccentric environment . . . certainly one is made aware that things are not entirely in control.” In fact, he says that the Plains offer constant reminders that “we are quite powerless over circumstance.” Instead, he notes, “we’re supposed to have a beautiful inner landscape.”
And how does one cultivate this inner landscape? By noticing the little things still happening around us even in the most severe of climes. Kardong reminds us that “the so-called emptiness of the Plains is full of such miraculous ‘little things.’ The way native grasses spring back from a drought, greening before your eyes; the way a snowy owl sits on a fencepost, or a golden eagle hunts, its wing outstretched over grassland that seems to go on forever. . . . One might see a herd of white-tailed deer jumping a fence, fox cubs wrestling at the door of their lair . . . cattle bunched in the southeast corner of a pasture, anticipating a storm. And above all, one notices the quiet, the near absence of human noise.”
A Welcome Sense of Smallness
The visceral response I had to seeing those expansive vistas of golden prairie and mysterious lonely canyons onscreen reminded me that sometimes it is good to allow ourselves to feel small again. Not infantile or juvenile, but small in terms of scale. Our current insularity is an invitation to sink deeper into the “near absence of human noise,” examine our inner self, and above all, cultivate a beautiful inner landscape. All of these things are key to coping during COVID.
We all face choices and unknowns. Instead of panicking over what has changed, how can we each choose to embrace the space and stay present with ourselves and our families?
In these months of “Plains silence” what beauty will grow in the hearts and minds of those who recognize the opportunity presented by these figurative “wide-open spaces”? What pre-existing beauty will come to be recognized and valued? As always, I look forward to hearing your responses.
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