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Published January 08, 2009, 12:00 AM

Winter on Plains stark, striking

In this part of the country, we endure winter for about six months and dread it the other six. And given the lack of topographical variety in the landscape, it can be tempting to give in to a self-deprecating stereotype and declare it all a dreary, wintry wasteland.

In this part of the country, we endure winter for about six months and dread it the other six. And given the lack of topographical variety in the landscape, it can be tempting to give in to a self-deprecating stereotype and declare it all a dreary, wintry wasteland.

I admit that as a transplant to North Dakota with roots in the hills of eastern Tennessee, I have been tempted to take a similarly dim view of the area’s landscape, regardless of season, grousing at the unmitigated flatness of the Plains.

Yet, something seems to be changing. I recall my many visits to the farm outside Gary, Minn., where my in-laws live, most recently to celebrate Christmas. That area, which lies 60-plus miles northeast of Fargo, is home to soil that runs black like coffee and lies flat as glass.

My times out on the farm are the occasions when I get my best look at this region’s countryside. And I find within me an awakening, an awareness of the unique aesthetic, even artistic, qualities – so to speak – of this part of the world even in the hard chill of winter.

Most striking is the sheer vastness of the Plains, the cold and snow lending their own unique flavor to this expanse. There is a haunting, lonely beauty to the Plains. And, at certain moments, it evokes in me a vague, undefined longing.

“In a weird way the vastness makes you feel nature and your relationship to that, and I think it’s absolutely related to the sublime,” says Rusty Freeman, vice president of curatorial at the Plains Art Museum and, coincidentally, a fellow Tennessee native.

Sublimity is that sense of awe one gets when faced with one’s relative size to the surrounding universe, says Freeman, and it’s an artistic concept that goes back to the 18th century.

“It’s both terrifying and attractive at the same time,” he says.

Complementing this effect is the predictable, repetitive winter landscape that mimics the Midwestern pattern of life. Parallel and perpendicular roads form an ever-extending grid, telephone poles one after the other stretch into the distance and fields of snowy white reach forever.

Repetition “has a way of sort of calming things; it has that potential anyway,” says Kent Kaplinger, artist and associate professor of art at North Dakota State University. He says it can organize an artistic work and give it rhythm. And it has a similar visual effect on the land.

But the beauty of winter can also be found on a smaller scale. Grady Carlson, an artist and art teacher at Moorhead High School, finds it in the “little abstract shapes” of various objects as they push through the snow. And he points to the “very organic, beautiful, sensual shapes” formed in the snow by the wind and elements of winter.

Yet, the beauty is not only visual; it is also conceptual. There are beautiful ironies on these plains. The winter falls so hard, so bitter cold that it can look as if the whole world is gray and dead. Yet, beneath that blanket of snow lie fertile fields that will teem with life in the spring and feed thousands upon thousands.

And as I drive my little minivan on that endless gray grid of roads, I find little remote churches, small towns and farmsteads that stand on the winter Plains as a testament to a people tough enough to carve out a life despite the elements swirling around them.

Back on the farm where my wife (and her father before her) grew up, you also see one of the beautiful contradictions that dot the region, as a warm little home sits amid the cold vastness.

Like so many others, it’s been warm enough to let a family live and grow and to play host to countless holiday get-togethers. It’s even been warm enough to make a southern boy feel at home in the North.

Beautiful.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at smercer@forumcomm.com

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