Published by

Lillian Crook

A retired librarian, Lillian Crook is an Army child but completed her junior high and high school education while living in North Dakota’s Slope County, where her parents retired to her mother's family farm and ranch. She completed a bachelor's degree in English from Dickinson (N.D.) State University and a master’s of library science from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and was an academic librarian at DSU for 26 years. She later worked for Theodore Roosevelt National Park as a museum technician and volunteered for TRNP in many capacities. She is married to Jim Fuglie, is an avid reader, gardener and birder and enjoys hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, photography and writing, is the mother of twin daughters and loves yoga. She and Jim run Red Oak House Books and Publishers from their home. Lillian is the founder of Badlands Conservation Alliance, a grass-roots voice for wild places in western North Dakota. Bullion Butte is the center of her universe, and she is happiest when floating the Little Missouri River. Her blog,, consists of random thoughts on wild places and musings on life in Red Oak House of Bismarck. She can also be followed on Twitter @WildDakotaWoman. She takes heart from one of her favorite writers, Terry Tempest Williams, who wrote, "If you know wilderness like you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate."

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Winter Olympics Hiatus

I’m gaga over the Winter Olympics.

My family and friends know this. I have been for decades. I like the Summer Olympics, too, but the Winter Olympics, for me, are the pinnacle. Perhaps it is because I live in the north country and have dabbled in many of the sports, downhill and cross-country skiing as well as ice skating and curling.

I clear my calendar for those weeks inasmuch as is possible and binge watch, all projects on hold. I’ve downloaded the NBC Olympics app on my phone and I’m good to go.

This year, four events will make their debut: speed skating mass start, mixed doubles curling, big air and mixed team alpine skiing.

I have many vivid memories of Winter Olympics past and even occasionally watch the Olympics channel our cable provider offers. Who can forget the moment when Neil Young appeared in the Vancouver closing ceremonies? My husband teases me about my admiration for Evan Lysacek.

Because of this passion, my blog will be on hiatus most of the rest of February.

Happy watching.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Wild Lands In North Dakota: A Red-letter Day In North Dakota History

Today was a red-letter today in North Dakota history, specifically N.D. conservation history.

This morning, at the Bismarck Public Library, the film “Keeping All the Pieces” was released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation. Presented by Jan Swenson, BCA executive director, and Mike McEnroe, of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, this 15-minute film dramatically captures the critical stage we find ourselves in with respect to the Bad Lands landscape and the future of this hauntingly beautiful place.

Jan Swenson (left) and Mike McEnroe introduce the film "Keeping All the Pieces," released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Jan Swenson (left) and Mike McEnroe introduce the film “Keeping All the Pieces,” released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.

Many North Dakotans stepped up for interviews in this film, sharing their deeply felt personal perspectives and concerns. In the months leading up to this release, Swenson and McEnroe have shown the film in communities across the state to more than a thousand interested parties. Now the film is out there for everyone to see. I urge you to watch it and to share it with your family and friends.

From the flyer available at today’s release:

“The Badlands are in crisis. Ninety-five percent of the Little Missouri National Grassland is open for oil and gas development. The future of the Badlands should be a decision made by the people, not the oil industry.”

This landscape is the heart of my personal geography, my sense of place. I grew up in rural Slope County, in the southern portion of the Little Missouri National Grassland. Jim and I have been working on these issues for decades, with BCA and other organizations, and in his entries on his blog. Together, on our own, or with friends and family, we’ve spent countless days and nights in the Bad Lands, camping, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, star-gazing, birding and hunting. As Swenson says in the press release for this film, “We do this now or we lose our Badlands.”

Also on my mind are two publications that were released some time ago, documenting the lands worth saving and calling for more permanent protections. The first was “Badlands on the Brink: North Dakota Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River Proposal,” published by the Teddy Roosevelt Group of the Sierra Club in May 1993. I hope to have a link to the pdf of this proposal in the future to post on this blog, as copies are difficult to locate.

The second is a document that I contributed to, along with Jan Swenson, Bart Koehler, Kirk Koepsel, Carol Jean Larson, Larry Nygaard, Mary Sand, Wayde Schafer and Webster Swenson. “Prairie Legacy Wilderness: North Dakota’s Citizen’s Proposal for Wilderness on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands” is a proposal by the North Dakota Wilderness Coalition, a broad variety of N.D. citizen organizations, made up of people who believe that the remaining fragments of wild lands in North Dakota are deserving of lasting protection. It was published in February 2008 and is available on the Badlands Conservation Alliance webpage by following this link.

What is important in this issue to remember is this: In the early 1970s, 500,000 acres of the Little Missouri National Grassland qualified for wilderness designation, By 1993, when “Badlands on the Brink” was published, only slightly more than 150,000 acres of potential wilderness remained. By the time “Prairie Legacy Wilderness” was released, less than 40,000 eligible acres remained wild.

“If we the public are not engaged, we likely will not like the results 10, 20 and 30 years from now.” Jan Swenson, BCA Press Release Feb. 1, 2018

Please get involved in these discussions. View the film. Join a N.D. conservation organization that is actively working on these issues. Make your voice heard for wild North Dakota lands to endure for the enjoyment of future generations.

My heartfelt thanks to Jan Swenson, Mike McEnroe and everyone else who contributed to the making of this fine film. I will confess that when I was shown an early version of this moving film, I shed tears.

“… where Nature can heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
John Muir

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — ‘The Prairie Post Office’

“The Prairie Post Office: Enlarging the Common Life in Rural North Dakota.” K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, history by Kevin Carvell. North Dakota State University Press, 2017, 102 pages, color photographs, maps and other illustrations.

Box 172, Rhame, N.D. That was my childhood address in Slope County. Our school bus driver was also our rural mail carrier, driving the route on gravel roads twice most days and once Saturdays. Our mailbox on the main road was mounted on a decorative iron piece that my father made in his GI Bill welding class in nearby Bowman, N.D. Somewhere I have a picture of my younger sister, age 4, standing on that mailbox.

What takes me down this particular memory lane is my recent reading of the beautiful and interesting book, “The Prairie Post Office,” published last year by the NDSU Press, sent to me in Bismarck via, what else but the mail.

This book describes in rich detail how the community post office is the linchpin of the rural town in which it is located. We all attend different churches and shop in different establishments (now frequently online). Many North Dakota towns do not have clinics or hospitals or even schools. But what many do have is a post office. It is what remains in the town as its beating heart. Here neighbors meet and chat. Here the diligent postal staff sees to it that everyone in their respective communities receive their mail, no matter its importance. And the potential loss of these rural post offices causes tectonic shocks to reverberate throughout these communities.

The book opens with a top-notch history of the postal service in Northern Dakota Territory and North Dakota by the inimitable Kevin Carvell, of Mott, N.D. Thereafter the chapters include highlights of the public service that the post offices fulfills and the social, economic and symbolic role of these places.

Each chapter is filled with photographs of the post offices and the people who keep them running, as well as citizens’ thoughts on their local post office’s importance. The layout is pleasing and the writing compelling — all the elements of the book make for a fine reading experience.

“As with areas elsewhere in the United State, rural North Dakota reflects the dynamics of change and continuity. … In our interviews, the prairie post office was referenced as representing and supporting this rural way of life. … Rural community members view the local post office as a symbol of social connectedness … important indicators of the community’s place in the body politic.” (pg. 85-6)

When I finished this book, I found I had a strong desire to see a picture of that old-fashioned metal door with Box 172 stamped on it. Sadly, I learned in a phone call to the current Rhame postmistress that progress had built a new building in Rhame and the old boxes were gone. Where she did not know. She remembered me though, and I knew who she was. This is the link that bonds us as North Dakotans, as Americans. Here is a photo from the book that took me down this memory lane.

When I was first married, we lived in rural Dunn County. One of the most thoughtful wedding gifts we received was a good old-fashioned mailbox, the kind one can buy at Menards or Ace Hardware.

Our routine, like every other citizen in the state, was to stop at that box each day and collect our mail. Oftentimes, we indulged in a long walk (about a mile, one way) to the mailbox. The elderly gentleman from whom we bought the place expressed shock at this, telling us that in the more than 50 years he lived there he never once even considered walking to the mailbox. In that time period, Jim took a part-time job as a rural mail carrier and often said that one really gets to know the neighbors by delivering their mail.

When we moved to Medora, we rented a post office box, and the post office there was definitely a hub of the town. Medora still has those old-fashioned metal PO box faces as it happens and a colorfully decorated exterior of the building, complete with a western theme.

These days, here at Red Oak House, we have a red mailbox of Scandinavian origin mounted on the front of the house. I’ve seen these for sale at the Norwegian store at Kirkwood Mall in Bismarck. I’m on a first-name basis with my mail carriers, sometimes handing them a popsicle on a hot August day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Read this book and I promise you many happy thoughts about your connection to the prairie post office, the glue of our communities. Thank you to the authors and to NDSU Press for capturing this in a charming book.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Mother-Daughter Date To Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My daughter and I had a Theodore Roosevelt National Park getaway Thursday. She hadn’t been out there since Labor Day, and she described the day as “rejuvenating.”

She loves the Bad Lands as much as I, and she is particularly in love with the wild horses that inhabit the South Unit of TRNP. She is a photographer and a member of the group North Dakota Badlands Horse. This nonprofit organization publishes an annual guide to the horses and my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson, has had her photographs featured in the 2017 and 2018 guides.

Thursday was a very monochromatic day in the park, with overcast skies, but not a breath of wind. There were very few other visitors, and the entire loop road was open, something very unusual this winter as it has been closed most previous winters. In addition to seeing 50 horses, we spotted a few bison and some activity in the prairie dog towns. We also saw several hawks, six wild turkeys, lots of magpies and two golden eagles perched on a clay butte. A bald eagle flyby was the day’s finale.

The highlight of the day was that she got to see a stallion she’d never seen before, which is pretty remarkable considering all of the hours she’s spent at the park.

Here are some of Chelsea’s photographs from the day. You can follow her work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at Wild Dakota Photos.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Wonder Of Birds

Thank goodness for winter, a time here at Red Oak House for us to catch up on reading.

About a year ago, I bought myself the book “The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future,” by Jim Robbins (Spiegel & Grau, c2017). I tucked it away, waiting for an opportune time to read it. This week was that time.

Robbins, a Helena, Mont., native, is an accomplished and respected writer. He has written for the New York Times for more than 35 years and for a variety of other magazines, covering environmental and science stories. He is also the author of the books: “The Man Who Planted Trees, Last Refuge: the Environmental Showdown in the American West,” and “A Symphony in the Brain.”

In this book, “The Wonder of Birds,” he wanders through a wide variety of locations, from wild places all around the world to a business that creates feather clothing and costumes of all varieties, the Mother Plucker Feather Co.

He writes of the transformative and healing powers of birds, something I can attest to from decades of birdwatching.

“Walking across the broad sweep of grassy prairie of northern Montana day after day is an immersion into a starkly beautiful landscape. On the days I hunt I become a predator, and the experience touches some deep and ancient part of my psyche, a calm, though vigilant, deeply felt energy, providing me with the stamina to hike mile after mile along creeks and down one-lane dirt roads, all but oblivious to distances covered or the hours passed, consumed only with thoughts about in which patch of chokecherry, cattails, or thick grass the birds might be hiding” (pg. 104).

My husband, Jim, recounts that he also has a greater ability to walk without tiring when in the wild than when he is at the YMCA, much like Robbins describes. Speaking for myself, I get bored walking around the track but can walk for miles on a hiking trail. The presence of the birds is a part of that.

Robbins meets with Cagan Sekercioglu, an associate professor of biology, who says, “Even if you just look for birds, you’ll see the best parts of the planet. Not just landscapes and biodiversity, but some of the last remaining interesting cultures.”(pg.115)

Illustrations copyright by DD Dowden, 2017.
Illustrations copyright by DD Dowden, 2017.

Each chapter begins with a lovely pen and ink illustration by DD Dowden. The chapter devoted to ravens and crows is particularly delightful.

Again, from the book:

“If we can learn how to move beyond the subconscious terror we all carry and the emotional numbing we take on to shield ourselves, if we can tap into the extraordinary power of birds and bottle this lightning, if we learn from our relationship with birds to fully understand our nervous system and the full range that we are capable of feeling and sensing in the world, we will find something inexhaustible and profound, even life-changing” (pg. 280).

In this, the “Year of the Bird,” this book was worth every penny and a delight to read. I give it my highest recommendation. If you Google the title, you will see that many other reviewers agree with me.

While you are at it, do check out this delightful issue of National Geographic magazine.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Secret Ministry Of Frost

Although this is a time of fallow in the yard, there is beauty everywhere, for those who pause to look. The hoary white bits coat everything and the air is still.

It makes me think of this poem, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Here are the first and last few lines.

“Frost at Midnight”

The Frost performs its secret ministry,

Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry

Came loud–and hark, again! loud as before

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. 

Last night, there was a luminous crescent moon low on the southwestern horizon. On the owl nest front here at Red Oak House, there is nothing yet to report. In time, I’m confident that there will be inhabitants. The feeders bustle with winter visitors and squirrels.

Our Red Oak tree was front-page news Monday morning in the Bismarck Tribune, and I’ve had so many cheerful comments about it as I’ve gone here and there. I’d like to see the city put in a sidewalk there, after this news!

My research took me again to the State Archives at the Heritage Center. The Capitol grounds are just as lovely with today’s frosty coating. I wrestled with microfilm and found what I was looking for, departing with a sense of satisfaction. Thirty-two cents and some time was all it took. That and the dedication of the good folks who work there. Many thanks.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — A Writing Retreat At Annunciation Monastery

“Life’s pulse is gained in the hollows, the intervals between events … you must discern these spaces. This requires leisure, the chance to sit and contemplate, and the opportunity to respond to inner urgings.

“If you can find a place to retreat, you can make a life where Tao will flood into you. Out in the woods, or in the mountains, or even in small villages where times are slow-paced and the people sensitive to nature, there is the possibility of knowing the deep and the profound. Only when you have the time to accumulate an unshakable belief and faith can you glimpse the Tao in which there is restfulness and a natural sense of what is right.”

— 365 Tao: Daily Meditations (pg. 142)

This past week, I was immeasurably blessed by a personal retreat of my own devising at the Annunciation Monastery, on the southern edge of the campus of the University of Mary in Bismarck.

This place is filled with the presence of the holy, and the sisters here are most assuredly living out the Benedictine value of hospitality.

I found space in which to read and to write. They provided me with a silent room and any meals I cared to attend in the sun-drenched dining room. Every single one of the sisters was kindness personified: gracious, kind, funny and interesting. The institutional memory here leaves me awestruck.

Several of the sisters have been here since the monastery moved from St. Alexius in downtown Bismarck, relocating to what is now the Benedictine Center at the university, the first building here. In later years, the new monastery was built, and they moved there. One sister told me that there were only dirt roads here and people thought they were crazy to move so far away from Bismarck.

Lay people are often confused that a place where nuns live is called a “monastery,” as they tend to associate this word with monks and men. The definition that I find on the internet is a “house for persons under religious vows” and, yes, mostly “men.”.Here is an article on that topic if you care to delve deeper.

The renowned architect Marcel Breuer was engaged to design the first building, what he later called his “gem of the prairie.” He designed the (now) Benedictine Center, a gorgeous building, the walls constructed from the area’s native rock, with inspiring and open spaces and sightlines everywhere. Sister Gemma remembers Breuer well and speaks with great reverence about the stonemasons who built the building, lamenting that it has become so difficult to find someone who will do this sort of labor.

Some years ago, my friend, Paul (born and raised in Bowman, N.D.), was visiting his father in Bismarck and I took him canoeing on the Missouri River. I’ll never forget his expression of shock as we came around a bend in the river and I pointed out to him the University of Mary buildings on the bluffs above us and told him that Breuer had designed the first building. He knew about Breuer but had no idea that such a man had designed this building and in Paul’s childhood home state. After we had taken the canoe out of the water and secured it to the Jeep, we drove up to the Benedictine Center and walked around. He took dozens of photographs and was in awe of the space.

Breuer insisted that no trees be planted around the building. Sister Gemma said that he would come to the site and just sit quietly on the prairie to get a feel of the landscape. To this day, architectural students come to the campus to study these buildings, and future leaders have been very careful to design new campus buildings to incorporate elements of Breuer’s original design, including the native stone.

Each day while I was there, I luxuriated in the quiet with no distractions of dog, cooking, cleaning and such. In the first two days, I went to town for my yoga class and for some research at local libraries, as well as one personal appointment I could not reschedule. Thereafter, I canceled every temptation on my personal calendar and just stayed put. This was a luxury I was unwilling to squander.

The only bird I saw this week was one lone bald eagle, which flew overhead as I drove up the hill to the campus.

A storm and bitter cold blew in Wednesday, just as forecasted, and although I had planned to perhaps do some cross-country skiing here on the open prairie, I didn’t even budge, except for a couple of walks in the biting cold along the river bluffs — I checked out the beautiful library nearby — and to poke my head out the door late at night to look at the stars. Orion shone there above, along with Gemini and the Pleiades. I looked into the valley of the mighty Missouri River whenever I had a chance.

Mostly, it was me, with an explosion of papers around my room, and my laptop. I limited my social media time. I went to evening prayer each day. I had coffee and a granola bar in my room in the mornings, only emerging for the midday meal. After lunch, I read the Bismarck Tribune in the monastery library. When I came down with a cold early in the week, Jim and Chelsea brought out a humidifier and got a short tour. Shortest duration of a head cold I’ve ever had. Hmmmmm …

Sunday morning at Mass, it came to me that it was interesting that I would begin my retreat on the Epiphany and prepare to leave this afternoon on the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, returning to my ordinary life, refreshed and renewed, with a big chunk of the first draft of a manuscript written.

I arrived at my warm home to find my husband was making homemade chicken noodle soup in his new crockpot. The springer spaniel won’t leave my side. I made many new friends, wonderful nurturing women who I will visit again and again. I was am very blessed.

“… imagine! imagine!

the wild and wondrous


still to be ours.”

— Mary Oliver

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — A State Champion Tree — In Our Yard!

Hello from Lillian AND Jim. We sat down this week and wrote about one of the coolest things that have happened to us in a long time, and we’re posting it on both our blogs — Wild Dakota Woman and View From The Prairie. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it.

On summer evenings in the early 1970s, you could find Birgit Smeenk in her front yard with a garden hose, pouring water onto a spindly little oak tree she had stuck into the ground in hopes of one day having shade for the front of her house at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck.

It takes a long time for an oak tree planted out here on the prairie to provide shade, even with daily waterings. Birgit’s daughter, Jennifer, watched her mother water that tree every day. “For a few years, it just didn’t do anything,” Jennifer told us on the phone from her home in Washington state the other day. “Then one year, it just took off.”

Birgit’s constant attention worked. She didn’t live to see it, but today, more than 40 years later, that little stick is now North Dakota’s State Champion Red Oak Tree — the largest Red Oak in the state. So says the North Dakota Forest Service.

We bought that house at 920 Arthur Drive in late October 2009, becoming the home’s third owners, and we moved in a few weeks later. So while we took notice of that big old bare-branched tree in the front yard as winter approached, we didn’t give it a lot of thought until the next spring, when it started to leaf out and we saw the familiar shape of oak leaves.

Neither of us had ever owned (or been owned by) an oak tree that big before, and we inquired of Tim Kingstad, from whom we bought the home, about the tree. Tim, the home’s second owner, told us it was a red oak (Quercus rubra) and that the Bismarck city forester said it was the only mature Red Oak in Bismarck.

There are a lot of other trees in our yard, probably 10 varieties. The Smeenks and Kingstads had been pretty attentive to trees, especially when the kids brought home seedlings on Arbor Day each spring. Some of the evergreens, planted early in the Smeenks’ time here, in the early 1960s, were taller than the oak, but none as spectacular, as we watched it through that first full year of seasons, from bare branches to green buds, to big green leaves, then yellow, then reddish brown, holding its leaves to be the last tree to go bare in late fall.

Our longest-lived neighbors, both in time on earth and time on Arthur Drive, Dave and Myrna Blackstead, who live across the street, have watched that tree grow all of its life. Myrna thinks it was transplanted by Pieter and Birgit Smeenk from a lake cabin the Smeenks frequented in Minnesota, probably in the late 1960s.

Myrna recalls this was their second try at an oak tree, after the Smeenk boys accidentally broke off the first one, much to their mother’s dismay. The boys’ older sister, Jennifer, isn’t sure. She thinks maybe her parents bought it somewhere. She vividly recalls her mother out there with that hose every night, though.

Well, thank you, Birgit and Pieter Smeenk.

Pieter and Birgit Smeenk were immigrants, he from the Netherlands, she from Denmark. (We believe that occasional flashes of bad karma that erupt in our now mostly Norwegian household from time to time, are the result of too many years of Danish presence — nothing personal, just institutional).

The Smeenks dedicated their lives to the children of Bismarck. Birgit was a physical therapist and worked with BECEP, the program for preschool children. Pieter was a much loved Bismarck pediatrician. He finished his career as medical director for North Dakota Crippled Children’s Services, serving in that job past his 80th birthday. To this day, frequently when we mention to someone that Dr. Smeenk owned our house at one time, the response is, “Oh, my, he was my doctor when I was little. I loved him.”

Dr. Smeenk died in 2000, at age 82, his wife in 2014, at age 85. Their children have scattered. None live in Bismarck. Upon their parents’ death, they composed beautiful obituaries.

Of their father:

“He received three things in life that are of basic importance:

Someone to love

Something to do

Something to look forward to

And he was thankful.”

And of their mother:

“She knew herself to be a child of God and lived her life with the joy and radiance which this awareness gives. She plucked thistles where she saw them, and planted flowers where she thought they might grow.

Grace was in all her steps

Heaven in her eye

In every gesture dignity and love.”

We know Birgit loved that tree, and we’ve taken good care of it. A couple of years ago, we started noticing in the mornings some sap on the Jeep, which we park under the tree. About the same time, Myrna stopped by the house one day and said she’d been watching our tree from her perspective across the street. “I’m a little worried about your oak tree. It looks a little peaked.”

She was right. There were a few small dead branches, and the leaves weren’t as thick as they had been the year before. We called the city forester and the Extension Service for advice. We were told we needed to treat it with a special chemical we could buy at Runnings.

Well, we weren’t very excited about that — we’ve taken great pains to build up an organic yard, and Lillian’s hundreds of hostas and daylilies, and Jim’s prolific vegetable garden, are a testament to our success at that. First, we tried a release of a huge number of ladybugs to go after the aphids, but that didn’t take, as these critters disappeared within a day.

But this tree was important. So early one summer morning, Jim drove down to Runnings and snuck into the store before anyone else got there so he wouldn’t be seen and bought a couple of those big blue bottles of Bayer Crop Science chemicals, came home and held his nose and mixed it up and poured it around the base of the tree, being careful not to spill on the hostas.

Well, as much as we hate to say it, let’s hear it for modern science. The roots of that big old oak tree sucked up that chemical and sent it shooting up the tree, killing all those little aphids that had been eating leaves and spitting all over the Jeep.

One day Myrna came over and said, “Well, whatever you did to your tree, it worked!”

The tree and the house have become inseparable — it’s not possible to imagine one without the other. To cement that bond, we’ve named our house “Red Oak House,” and we use that name on our fledgling business cards and our website (, which doesn’t really have anything on it yet except a bunch of photos and links to our blogs.. There’ll be more one day. We have time.

Forest Service technician Joel Nichols measures our red oak tree.
Forest Service technician Joel Nichols measures our red oak tree.

We learned of the North Dakota State Champion Tree Registry a few years ago and wondered how our giant red oak measured up. So this fall, we went out and measured it according to the specifications listed by the Forest Service on its website and sent in an application. Within days, the Forest Service responded and sent a technician to verify our measurements — a fellow named Joel Nichols, who we said has the best job in North Dakota. He agreed.

A couple of weeks later, we received a letter in the mail from Glenda Fauske, coordinator of Information and Education with the Forest Service (the second best job in North Dakota) that started “Dear Jim and Lillian, I’m very pleased to announce your red oak (Quercus rubra) at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck is the new first place champion red oak!” (Here is the list for the entire state.)

Along with the letter was a certificate for framing and a news release, which has generated interest from the Bismarck media. We’ll likely be in the paper next week. We’re not sure how we’ll handle the fame. We’re also not quite sure how our neighbors will like the steady stream of onlookers and gawkers on our quiet little street, which has an average daily traffic count of 12.

But what the heck, if you’re interested in seeing the largest red oak in the state, come on over. Arthur Drive is one of those little streets off Ward Road that doesn’t go anywhere except to the houses on that street. We tell people that if somebody hits a really bad hook off the No. 6 tee box at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course, their ball could end up in our yard.

But wait until June. Our oak is the last tree to leaf out on the street (oaks are just that way), but the wait is worth it. If you want to stop and visit and examine the tree up close, bring wine. And we’ll toast Birgit and Pieter Smeenk for planting that tree. And Dave and Myrna Blackstead for keeping a close eye on that tree all these years.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Winter Notes: Owls

Here at Red Oak House, in the wooded Highland Acres neighborhood of Bismarck, we like owls very much. We frequently have great horned owls and Eastern screech owls in our large blue spruce and green ash trees.

Many years ago, my brother, Thomas, took me to Yorktown, Va., where I bought this wonderful wooden snowy owl at street arts and crafts fair. (Thomas looked at me a little sideways that I would buy a hunk of wood, but it “spoke to me,” and I’ve never regretted the purchase.)

Last February, at the suggestion of our friend, Alan, who is a great owl enthusiast, I rounded up our friends, Jeff and Linda, to help me build three owl nests, to encourage the owls to stick around our yard. Jeff and Linda opted to not take a nest home because they had Cooper’s hawks nesting in their yard the previous summer and did not want to risk conflicts, so I gave the extra two nests to friends, Mike and Bill. So far, no nesting in any three of these nests.

Just before Christmas, Jim and I took out the ladder and put some beef soup bones into the nest in an effort to encourage the owls. We laugh at the thought that we give our neighbors something to scratch their heads about, wondering just what we might be up to now, messing around in the tall green ash tree in December. Our springer spaniel, Lizzie, was quite perplexed as to why she wasn’t getting these meaty bones. When one dropped to the ground, she seized it and we relented, knowing she would snap at us if we attempted to take it away.

For Christmas, I gave Jim a wonderful screech owl nest box and today, while there was a break in the weather, we mounted the box, at the opposite side of the backyard from the great horned owl nest. We had to use both ladders, and I held the box while he secured it, as suggested by the craftsman who created it.

When I was a young mother, two of my children’s favorite books were “Owl Moon,” which I’ve written about before, and “Owl Babies.” To this day, my children and nieces and nephews can recite the lines from this charming book, the story of three owlets who grow alarmed when the mother owl leaves to hunt. Here is an animated reading of the book.

Our friends, the Suchys, are as fond of owls as anyone I know, and they have many nesting owls at their ranch in Morton County. Linda Suchy has formed a powerful bond with her great horned owls. I look forward to her owl reports, including sightings of the grand snowy owl. This PBS Nature program on snowy owls is a great delight, and I give it my highest recommendation.

A few years ago, there was a big irruption of snowy owls in North Dakota, and we drove around the rural roads in Morton County finding many. At this time, our daughter, Chelsea, was a student at Dickinson State University, so I met her halfway between our two towns for a day of snowy owl watching. We must have seen about nine that day, her first sightings.

Another memorable snowy owl day for me was that same winter. My friend, Valerie, had not yet seen these, thus we went hunting southeast of Bismarck and found one, perched on a power pole. Valerie was thrilled, and I was equally as thrilled to have been able to find one for her.

One winter, Jim and I made two separate trips to northeastern North Dakota, once to see a hawk owl and the other time to see barn owls. Many a night we’ve laid in our tent listening to owls hooting above us at campgrounds all around the country. When we were living in Medora, N.D., we found a tiny western screech owl perched in a juniper at Cottonwood Campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it was quite a delight to take Chelsea to see it, blending into that juniper in a magical way.

Several times I have participated in northern saw-whet owl banding at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, led by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and, once, took my daughter, Chelsea, with me. You can see the joy on her face when she got to hold one of these tiniest of owls. She says it is one of her happiest memories, she who loves the Harry Potter books and movies so. The banding programs have added greatly to the knowledge of saw-whet owls. Turns out, the Little Missouri River Valley is a major migration corridor for them.

Owl folk art holds a prominent place in the Library of Red Oak House, with this trio of wooden owls on a top shelf looking down upon us

and a beautiful white woolen mother owl with her owlet in a pouch, which I purchased in Winnipeg some years ago. It is called an “owl packing doll” and was handmade by the Canadian Inuk artist Fait a la Main, from the community of Holman, in 2004. When I saw it on the store shelf, I fell in love.

In the future, I hope to see two other species of owl: the elf owl and the great grey owl, both of which will require some travel. A trip to Manitoba, Jim?

I leave you with this poem “The Owl” by Edward Thomas.

“The Owl”

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;

Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest

Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,

Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.

All of the night was quite barred out except

An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

But one telling me plain what I escaped

And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my response,

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Happy Birthday, Mother

If there was a geography bee at Edgewood Vista in Mandan, N.D., Marian Crook would probably win. It’s not that she just reads a lot, which she does. And having chased a career military husband around the world adds to her advantage. But a big addition to what she knows about the world is jigsaw puzzles.

You see, jigsaw puzzles are often pictures of places, and Marian has put together hundreds, maybe thousands, of them. And each time, she learns something about the place in the picture she’s just completed.

Marian Crook is my mother and a retired nurse. She grew up on the family farm in Slope County, North Dakota, in the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri River, the youngest of three sisters and as she describes it, she was “her father’s son,” working alongside him in the fields as much as time permitted when she wasn’t going to school.

Those long days on the tractor and in the grain truck gave her plenty of time to dream about faraway places. And like a lot of farm kids growing up during the Great Depression, she learned about responsibility and independence at a pretty young age. She spent many hours by herself on the Slope County prairie, herding sheep. In spite of this, she and her friend, Helen Brown (shown in the two photographs below), managed to have lots of fun. They remained close until Helen’s death a few years ago.

She also played basketball at Rhame High School. To this day, she tells great stories of her school days and the good teachers she had there.

When she became a military wife, with a handful of kids to look after while her husband was deployed both overseas and in this country during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, she wasn’t intimidated by the challenge of getting ready for the next move, sometimes after her Army husband had gone on ahead to his next post to line up housing for his growing family. And she always looked forward to the possibility of seeing some of those places she had dreamed about as a girl. Like crossing the Pacific Ocean.

Marian and her first four children on Okinawa.
Marian and her first four children on Okinawa.

Many years after those daydreams on the tractor, after flying from Billings, Mont., to San Francisco with four young children (one of those was me), she herded us onto a modified Troop Ship headed for Okinawa in order to rejoin her then-husband at his U.S. Army assignment on that island so very far from the United States.

Seasickness plagued us all on that “cruise ship.” To prepare her children for their time on the island, she told us “remember this is their country,” and she got thoroughly acquainted with the culture and history of the island with her new friends there. She let her children roam when they were not in the military schools or in a boat exploring nearby uninhabited islands with other military friends. To this day, she has kept her Japanese skills sharp and can immediately tell you what her street address was in Okinawa — or any of her addresses around the world, for that matter.

Marian loves the seashore and the mountains and birds and can now be found hatching adventures with her new friends at Edgewood Vista Mandan when she’s not reading books or newspapers, or baking krumkake, or organizing a pinochle or cribbage game with her neighbors, or scheming up a trip to The Owl Used Bookstore. On Saturday, for her birthday, Chelsea and I took her to The Owl.

Her apartment is easy to identify because she has a lifelong love of lighthouses — born perhaps from the time she lived on the West Coast near Seattle in her later teenage years. Here she is shown with her youngest daughter.

While living at her husband’s duty station at Fort Bliss, Texas, she trained as an LPN and worked while her children were at the neighborhood schools. Later, as an older-than-average student after her marriage ended, she returned to college with her youngest child in tow and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Nursing from Dickinson (N.D.) State University. Following that, her career took her to Grand Forks, where she worked at then-United Hospital until her retirement from that career just before the big Flood of 1997.

Known as “Gram” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, upon retirement she lived a “gypsy” life, traveling and living with her children around the country to help care for her many grandchildren so their parents could work and enjoy some free time by themselves.

Marian and her children in front of the trusty station wagon pulling the pop-up camper. Slope County Silbernagel farm.
Marian and her children in front of the trusty station wagon pulling the pop-up camper. Slope County Silbernagel farm.

In addition to travel, she learned to love to camp, and until just a few years ago, well into her 80s, it wasn‘t unusual to find her camping, with or without her family, in her tent and a well-used sleeping bag, in national and state parks around the country. She’d pitch the tent and plunk herself down in a camp chair and read National Geographic or one of the many other publications she still subscribes to.

She eventually settled in Mandan and now keeps busy getting to know her neighbors, participating in geography bees and knitting special scarves for staff and other loved ones. She is a wizard with a needle. She and her mother, Lillian, made this quilt that I treasure. Her embroidered dish towels are in great demand. I have a drawer full and think of her each time I take one out.

She is notorious in her dislike of cooking, but in spite of that, she could easily feed a large branding crew. Growing up, I did much of the cooking, and she would volunteer to wash the dishes while I played the family Gulbransen piano. What a good trick to get me to practice! Chelsea played for her today.

Marian, back middle, with her two sisters and her parents, Andy and Lillian, at their 50th wedding celebration in the basement of Rhame Lutheran Church. Shortly after this celebration, Lillian Silbernagel died unexpectedly.
Marian, back middle, with her two sisters and her parents, Andy and Lillian, at their 50th wedding celebration in the basement of Rhame Lutheran Church. Shortly after this celebration, Lillian Silbernagel died unexpectedly.

Marian Crook, the youngest daughter of tough Scandinavian and German roots, embodies the pioneer spirit and works hard to make her corner of the world a better place. She is truly an inspiring woman.

Happy birthday to my dear Mom.