Sunday, January 10, 2016

Seeing This Place with New Eyes

By nature, Plains people share what they have with neighbors. It is how we survive and thrive. This opportunity for readers and lovers of ideas to explore and discuss our common landscape and the stories it generates is a gift. Each of us brings original perceptions to a collective experience. Our differences strengthen or weaken bonds necessary to make life good in a hard land. This group offers a venue for us to learn who we are because we value life on the Great Plains.

Over a billion years ago, a collision of tectonic plates in the Precambrian period initiated our current geological status. The Black Hills and the Eastern Wyoming and Central Texas uplifts make evident usually hidden metamorphic and igneous rock deep below us. Following the massive impacts that created the continent we recognize, reoccurring shallow oceans deposited layers of limestone, shale, and sandstone that wind and water carved into the geography we awaken to each morning.

The natural forces-- collision and erosion--that formed this land also shape the people who live here. Throughout time, this region has experienced ethnic, religious, political, economic, intellectual, and social impacts that affected its development every bit as much as that first crash of continental plates did. While two or more independent units melding together create a new form, erosion wears it away bit by bit to unveil hidden realities. Just as nature constructs and deconstructs, our selected texts will examine these pileups between humans and nature, cultures, and ideologies. Working much like sand and wind, authors’ words will shear away layers of confusion to reveal core truths that help us answer Wallace Stegner’s question, “Where do I belong in this country? Where is home?”

 Kiowa/Puebloan author and poet N. Scott Momaday further guides us with his wisdom, “A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning. It gives origin to all things.” Our authors gift uswith tales in which landscape plays an integral role. As readers, we learn how existing on this ancient seabed adds complications to our lives. Stegner states that writing about this arid country west of the 100th meridian requires new insights. “Perceptions trained in another climate have had to be modified. That means we have to learn to quit depending on perceptual habit.  Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see. Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them. Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them. And our fourth, unfortunately out of our control, was to train an audience that would respond to what we wrote or painted.” He’s thrown down a gauntlet, a challenge to this book club to find meaning by looking at our world through others’ words.

Plainsong, Empire of the Summer Moon, and the memoir A Strong West Wind deliver multiple genres through which to view the western third of Kansas, eastern Colorado, western Nebraska, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Each writer examines the emotional and physical impacts of place on those who make a life in its dust. Their craft validates Cather’s statement that “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” While we read, we peel away strata, striving to uncover our common experience.

People who write about the Great Plains and its inhabitants acknowledge that an endless horizon paired with unpredictable weather that can produce howling blizzards to raging tornadoes and moisture sucking droughts possesses as much if not more power than any towering mountain range or surging sea. These bards know the real magic of this place manifests itself in the shade of a porch on a hot afternoon, in watching dusk silhouette rows of red cedar, in discovering a meadowlark nest in an old buffalo wallow on the prairie, or in seeing a community unite to overcome nature or human induced trouble.

 Enjoy this opportunity to steep deeply in words about a place you call home. Relish the collisions and the unpeeling of layers to find our truths. Momaday probably says it best: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. I believe he ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.” Inhabit this space and delight in it.

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