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.
of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.
the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.
form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.
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.