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Zaleski: Jenkinson listens to cottonwoods

Zaleski writes about Clay Jenkinson's new book, "“The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota.” He writes, "It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking – and highly readable – reveal and critique of a state that has struggled to define its cultural identity from the beginning."

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If you claim North Dakota as your home state, Clay Jenkinson’s new book is a must read. The state’s premier humanities scholar and historian offers a sometimes harsh but mostly clear-eyed assessment of the state’s culture, history, contradictions, unique beauty and endemic hypocrisies. “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota” (Koehler Books 2021) is not merely a love letter, but rather is a brutally honest examination of the hows and whys North Dakota came to be the place it is today. It’s not the fluff of chamber of commerce pitches or tourism brochures. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking – and highly readable – reveal and critique of a state that has struggled to define its cultural identity from the beginning.

Jenkinson’s narratives search for the spirit of the state. He celebrates sacred landscapes and rural values that have been and are at risk because of modern production agriculture, industrial energy development and a non-existent conservation ethic. He exposes the subtle and overt racism that taints the state’s relations with Native Americans. His is a loving look at everything from roadside folk art (the Enchanted Highway’s metal sculptures) to sacred Native places (remote Medicine Rock) to the extraordinary beauty of the Little Missouri River corridor. His essays comprise a touchstone for debate, disagreement and a roadmap to a new vision.

Jenkinson has been to the places he writes about. He knows the land, especially the lands of the west. He has visited decaying small towns. He has seen up close the economic benefits and the damage in the Bakken oil play. He understands welcoming the boom, but decries the casual dismissal of protecting land and water and the appalling disrespect for pristine vistas in the Badlands. Jenkinson illuminates the reality of farming and ranching with this gem: “The hypocrisy of farmers and ranchers who sneer at the welfare state and cheerfully cash their farm program checks is palpable, but it does not cause the recipients to lose any sleep.” The state’s ag sector and political class are loath to embrace that truth.

The author’s compelling narrative tapestry explores North Dakota as a place, a feeling, an identity. He identifies North Dakotans as “accidental” or “naturalized.” Read the book to learn who you are. Read it to engage the author’s heartfelt blueprint for the future, when he writes: “We all have to fall in love with North Dakota in a new way.” But mostly read it to immerse yourself in what I believe is the best analysis of a state that historically has had a hard time looking honestly at itself.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company . Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

READ MORE FROM JACK ZALESKI
Columnist Jack Zaleski writes about the status of the Republican and Democratic Parties in North Dakota.

Opinion by Jack Zaleski
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is author of a new history of Forum Communications Co. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
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