Landscape as Poetic and Sacred Architecture

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.

                                                            Dakota a Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

More recently, German architect Gottfried Semper wrote the book The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) and about that time, the U.S. and Canadian Homestead Acts were passed. Thousands of people, including my ancestors, came to start new lives and prove their land claim. Unknown to those homesteaders, Semper’s four building techniques (the hearth, walling, roofing, and terracing) were essential to more than rudimentary shelter. The principles also applied to establishing communities, building houses of worship, and implanting a culture of respect for a place that was sometimes bountiful and unforgiving.

Long before President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition through this region (1804), fur-traders and indigenous peoples built structures that sustained life. Each preserved sacred sites and held a deep reverence for this area. The natural evolution beyond survival mode brought building designs that reflected vernacular traditions and the practical realities dealt by the harsh extremes of bitter winters and blistering summers.

Now these descendants of homesteaders– like me, whether we live in small towns, big cities, or maybe still live on “the home place,” continue that fierce love of the land and the dome of sky overhead. It has inspired writers and poets like Willa Cather, Tom McGrath, Ted Kooster, Larry Woiwode, and Kathleen Norris. Here, I’m frequently reminded the curvature of the earth is all that stands between me and infinity.

Section Line Communion

The Abbey’s sanctuary
transforms before me. A gravel
road carpets the center aisle.

Dust
of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.

Grain
the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.

Shelterbelts
form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.

Pelicans
in pearled vestments
circle their vaulted blessing.

The Profit Mountains
piled on the prairie
offer an altar in the sunrise.

Acknowledgement: This article originally appeared in Faith & Form, Vol. 49 No. 3, 2016 (faithandform.com) and is reprinted here with permission.

Thanksgiving Comes Full Circle

Gentle Reader: This has been a premature Christmas. Traditionally, decorations begin in this house on the first Sunday in Advent. Certainly NEVER before Thanksgiving. But this year is unusual since my home will be featured in today’s Holiday Home Walk—a fundraising event sponsored by the local Symphony League.

A year in the planning and 7+ weeks in the execution, today is the day and everything is set and staged to its glory. There is a light dusting of first snow on the ground. As I walked around the house dawn was breaking, I stopped to turn on the Christmas music. The first carol was Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel . . . Oh My!

How powerfully the gift of grace overcomes when we least expect it. All together in a swirl it is both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Weather Report: Lost and Found

Gentle Reader: Got a sec? Yes, I know you are busy but give me 4 minutes for a Thought for the Day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Fall is a very busy time in North Dakota. Everyone shifts from enjoying our summers of 15 hours of sunlight to getting back to business. We are coming out of a very busy 2 months and getting caught up both in the office and at home. Life has been–do this, do that. To-Do lists. Do you notice even in our small talk how often we ask people how or what are they doing? Sometimes I think we are better classified as human doings rather than human beings.

Pause for a moment to consider the distinction between DOING and BEING. What if we re-think all that busy-ness and our need to DO things? Inside my kitchen cupboard door—all yellow and cracked, is this clipping: “I do not love you for what you do, but who you are.”

What if we create a To-Be List? BE creative, BE courageous, BE happy, and BE a stand for something. This list does not have required elements in order to happen—they are not about the pursuit of anything. They are simply choices.

Look closer at Shakespeare’s famous quote–especially the last part:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

By choosing, we create what we choose. I choose a perfect life. I choose abundance. I choose peace-ful. There are no required criteria to fulfill these. Once I choose it–it exists.

Next time you see a friend, don’t ask how they are but ask instead: “Who are you? What is amazing in your life? Please take the time to tell me.”

Quietly humming: “Do be do be do . . . “

The Long Green Line

Gentle reader: After 6 inches of powder fell today there has been a lot of chatter about snow removal equipment and tractors of various sizes. I was reminded of this converastion of almost 25 years ago.

I had taken my daughter, about age 5, to the clinic for the usual URI. The pediatrician on call that day was the locally famous and well-loved, Dr. Pieter Smeenk. That particular day he was wearing a toy John Deere tractor clipped to his necktie–as only a clever pediatrician would do. The conversation ensued as follows.

Mom to Daughter: Look, Dr. Smeenk has a John Deere tractor too!

Dr. Smeenk to Daughter: Do you have a big green tractor?

Daughter, shyly: Yes, it’s really noisy.

Dr. Smeenk: What does it sound like?

Daughter abandons her coyness, proudly fills her lungs and says loudly: Bup, bup , wheeeeeeee . . . BUMP , BUMP, BUMP, WRRROOOOAARRRRRR!

Dr. Smeenk: Oh My!, that sounds like a diesel engine with an gasoline starting motor!

Mom: Yes, indeed. It’s a 720.

Finale (after much giggling and laughter):

Daughter says matter-of-factly to Dr. Smeenk: Grampie says naughty words when the big noise doesn’t go.

Blessings Abound

Gentle Reader: The table is set.  Tom is bathing in the sink and will be cooked on the Weber rotisserie grill—regardless of the ambient temperature (yes, the snow shovel is close by). A few things have been prepared in advance like Drunken Cranberry Fruit Conserve (port and rum) and Parmesan Thyme Crackers.

Today’s advance work includes Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Lime Crema, prep for Potato and Parsnip Mash, and Jumbo Mushrooms Stuffed with Dressing. Tomorrow morning it’s Swiss Chard and Chevre Chipotle Spread.  I’m in my glory and Tom will make his debut about 4:30pm.

Most importantly, we will have a family gathering to enjoy the assembled food and each other. We celebrate a life swimming in blessings and friends and family with whom we are united in spirit. We send you our boundless love. This is a time we remember Our Source and loved ones who have taught us how to be thank-full!

Like Sands through the Hourglass, So are . . .

Gentle Reader: Here in North Dakota we have the privilege of four distinct seasons which clearly helps her citizens mark time and the passage of years. Still the days drip, drip, drip through that hourglass and evaporate at an alarming speed. While we attempt to pack our lives full of dreams and aspirations, too often we find ourselves living for some future mystery like, “once I get ____, I’ll be happy/successful/fulfilled.”

Consider the reverse. Living in the past is nothing more than rewinding the DVR and wastes today while watching the re-play. “If only I could do _____ over again.” Mourning the loss of time in squandered lives is also about as productive as shoveling smoke.

Being a 9-year survivor of breast cancer, my concept of time has simplified. The notion that “every day is a gift” is one of the more profound realizations one can absorb and has become my mantra. The recent news about a friend’s serious illness has her cohorts reeling from the shock. I, among them, find myself reflecting again on the intrinsic value of each day as more than just a commodity or something to be managed and plugged into my Outlook program.

In the current issue’s editorial Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, wrote,

“My guess is that whatever we think we’ve lost we never had, that waiting to find it again is as stupid as expecting trout to rise to the same dry fly two days in a row, and that life is best lived between the lost and the found, just this side of hope and on the other side of nostalgia.”

Distilled to its essence, all we have is today.

My “Fiddler” Moment

Gentle Reader: I was just about to toss the last two fading, pistachio-green, spider mums plucked from wedding bouquets when I recalled the entire wedding panorama as a whirlwind of activity and vignettes of poignant moments. While I have many mementos to recapture those moments, these mums rewound time– past that week –back to her going off to college, recovering from a brain tumor, getting her driver’s license, school projects, brownie scouts, tricycles, first steps, and a first tooth.

She was married in that same prairie place where I discovered her first tooth, where I carried her through my pregnancy while taking care of the trees and the land. Now she and her husband plant a Wedding Tree and take care of that North Dakota land . . . and their marriage.