I’ve been writing about the North Dakota Bad Lands on this blog since I first created it in 2009. I have tried to focus on what forces are affecting this important part of North Dakota’s landscape, and why it is such a special place, deserving of more attention and protection than it is getting from our politicians these days.
Somewhere between a half and a third of what we call our Bad Lands is owned by the state and federal governments. As I’ve explained here before, the federal government acquired a million acres out in western North Dakota during the Dirty Thirties, and then rented it back to ranchers, to help them stay on the land during our Great Depression. That practice continues today.
But it is still publicly owned land. We all own a little bit of these wonderful Bad Lands. And we all have a responsibility to do what we can to preserve them. It is the only land in North Dakota that can be protected from the ravages of rapid development because we are the owners and have some say in what happens to it. There are many who have come before us into the Bad Lands who would be alarmed at what we are allowing to happen there today. Let me share a few of our predecessors’ words, to illustrate why I think it is important we pay special attention to the future of our Bad Lands.
Here’s John Steinbeck from “Travels With Charlie”:
“I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding . . . And then the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black.
It was so beautiful that I stopped near a thicket of dwarfed and wind-warped cedars and junipers, and once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. Against the descending sun the battlements were dark and clean-lined, while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color.
And the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost. And for pure pleasure I collected a pile of dry dead cedar branches and built a small fire just to smell the perfume of the burning wood and to hear the excited crackle of the branches. My fire made a dome of yellow light over me, and nearby I heard a screech owl hunting and a barking of coyotes, not howling but the short chuckling bark of the dark of the moon. This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Bad Lands . . . In the night the Bad Lands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.”
From Lewis Crawford, Former Superintendent of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, in his book “Badlands and Broncho Trails,” published in 1922:
“Size is only one element of grandeur. Beauty is usually made up of fine lines and rich colorings, and depends largely upon its transitoriness. It defies the camera. Beauty, whether in woman or nature, is never static. The camera always is. Mountains are too vast to get a close up view and too far away to give distinctiveness; they are grand, sublime, majestic, but are static, lifeless pictures unchanging through the ages, everlasting to everlasting. The Badlands are willfully coquettish. Mountains are the cold marble statues with unspeaking lips and unseeing eyes; the Badlands are the living actors with flushed faces, beaming countenances and pulsing blood. The sublimity of the mountains is awe-inspiring and reduces the beholder to nothingness, while that of the Badlands is palpitating, alluring, ecstatic; the one soul diminishing, the other soul accruing.”
Olaus Murie, the great naturalist and “father of modern elk management” came to the Bad Lands in the 1950s, partly to make recommendations on the re-introduction of elk into what was then Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. This description is from his handwritten report:
“Here is history! Our visitor looks across the badlands — the broken, tumbled Badlands — domes and bluffs and color-banded rims. Traces of lignite coal are there, speaking of ages still farther back in time. And the colored scoria, the product of native clay baked by burning coal seams. Traces of petrified forest. A landscape of clay and sandstone, persistently, patiently carved by muddy water, through infinite ages, until these rugged land forms took shape.
“I like to remember one evening on the rim of the deeply chiseled valley in the north area. We had been looking down on the winding course of the Little Missouri far below us, with its typical line of cottonwoods, and bordered by the typical Badlands formations. I had thought of those high school days in Minnesota, when I had borrowed Roosevelt’s books from the library. I remembered Frederic Remington’s drawings, remembered the burning desire to find this western scene. Will the people of today, the people of tomorrow, continue to feel the pull of land that beckons to a sample of our country as it was, a country of space and beauty and a sense of freedom?
“The sun went low and dusk was creeping over the valley below us. We watched that poetic quality of light envelop the cliffs and rims about us, and settle over the river bottom where we glimpsed the gleam of water in the bends.
“Not a serrated mountain range here, not a mossy forest, nor a lake-studded paradise. Rather an open country; its trees are twisted and storm worn, and grow sparingly along the river banks. A raw country, a country in the making, perhaps. This very fact, this character, the attributes of chiseled buttes and domes, the clay and the prairie grass, the eagle, the prairie dogs, deer, coyote; the flocks of grouse at the heads of the wooded draws — all of these spell one phase of our west — not to be compared with different ones — to be taken and enjoyed for its own singular beauty and character. Ordinary country, but with an aura of the west — something that drew Roosevelt, the adventurous ones.”
Herman Hagedorn, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s first biographers, in his book “Roosevelt in the Badlands,” described the world Roosevelt encountered when he first came to the Bad Lands:
“It was a region of weird shapes garbed in barbaric colors, gray-olive striped with brown, lavender striped with black, chalk pinnacles capped with flaming scarlet. French-Canadian voyageurs, a century previous, finding the weather-washed ravines wicked to travel through, spoke of them as mauvaises terres pour traverser, and the name clung. The whole region, it was said, had once been the bed of a great lake, holding in its lap the rich clays and loams which the rain carried down into it. The passing of ages brought vegetation, and the passing of other ages turned that vegetation into coal. At last this vast lake found an outlet in the Missouri. The wear and wash of the waters cut in time through the clay, the coal and the friable limestone of succeeding deposits, creating ten thousand water-courses bordered by precipitous bluffs and buttes, which every storm gashed and furrowed anew. On the tops of the flat buttes was rich soil and in countless pleasant valleys were green pastures, but there were regions where for miles only sagebrush and stunted cedars lived a starved existence. Bad lands they were, for man or beast, and Bad Lands they remained.“
And the great Roosevelt himself wrote much about the Bad Lands, including this description of the Bad Lands in winter, written in his log cabin on the Littler Missouri River on a long, cold winter night, and published in his book “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail”:
“When the days have dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seem never-ending, then all the great northern plains are changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blow out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snowdust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faces their unshackled anger. They roar in a thunderous bass as they sweep across the prairie or whirl through the naked canyons; they shiver the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that cluster in the gorges sing like the chords of an Aeolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind may stir; and then the still, merciless, terrible cold that broods over the earth like the shadow of silent death seems even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than is the lawless madness of the storms. All the land is like granite; the great rivers stand still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there is no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting display of Northern Lights, or wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretch out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.”
At the conclusion of an early summer hunting trip he took to the Bad Lands in 1884, Roosevelt wrote a letter to his sister Anna back in New York:
“For the last week I have been fulfilling a boyish ambition of mine — that is I have been playing at frontier hunter in good earnest, having been off entirely alone, with my horse and rifle, on the prairie. I wanted to see if I could not do perfectly well without a guide, and I succeeded beyond my expectations. I shot a couple of antelope and a deer — and missed a great many more. I felt as absolutely free as a man could feel; as you know, I do not mind loneliness; and I enjoyed the trip to the utmost. The only disagreeable incident was one day when it rained. Otherwise the weather was lovely and every night I would lie wrapped up in my blanket looking at the stars till I fell asleep in the cool air. The country has widely different aspects in different places. One day I would canter hour after hour over the level green grass, or through miles of wild rose thickets, all in bloom; on the next I would be amidst the savage desolation of the Bad Lands, with their dreary plateaus, fantastically shaped buttes and deep winding canyons. I enjoyed the trip greatly.”
I’m sharing these words, some of the best ever written about the Bad Lands, because when I try to describe them myself, I feel much like another North Dakota historian, Clell Gannon, who wrote, after a canoe trip on the Little Missouri River in the 1920s, “The view from the top overlooking a canyon-like reach of the Little Missouri was of the kind that gains little and suffers much from the inadequacy of a written description.”
Yes, the Bad Lands are hard to describe. The Bad Lands must be experienced to be appreciated. How they survive the coming storm of development will depend on how much attention we pay to them, and how we rise to their defense. That’s why I keep writing about them.
FOOTNOTE: If you have observed these writings carefully, you will notice a certain inconsistency throughout them: the spelling of Bad Lands-Badlands-badlands. Since I deal with this part of the state a lot, it is a particularly annoying problem to me. I prefer Bad Lands, two words, capital B, capital L. I never gave it a lot of thought, frankly, until Tracy Potter, who worked with me in the North Dakota Tourism Department, said to me, casually, one day, “It should always be two words, both capitalized.” I realized then that I agreed with him, but I had often been carelessly spelling it all three ways from time to time.
There’s no question that, at least as a matter of pride, it should be capitalized. Everyone pretty much agrees with that. But one word ort two? Broad disagreement. Theodore Roosevelt almost always used two words, Bad Lands. I say almost because, while I haven’t found any writings by him that make it one word, there might be. I probably have not read every word he wrote. But I did a quick check in the Roosevelt books on my shelf and cannot find any other spelling than Bad Lands in his writings. Roosevelt’s use of two words, capitalized, is just so Rooseveltian. In his usage, the word Bad is an adjective, describing some Lands, and both words are capitalized for emphasis. In Badlands, the whole word becomes a noun, and even if it is capitalized, it does not carry the strong character reflected in Bad Lands. As Hagedorn points out, the French-Canadian fur trappers who first came here called them mauvaises terres pour traverser, which translated means “bad lands to travel through.” Mauvais is French for “bad.” The trappers were describing the lands they traveled through.
But most people use Badlands, including the National Park Service, both in the name of Badlands National Park in South Dakota and in describing the area in which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located. North Dakota state government usage is one word as well, and I blame Ed Schafer for that. Ed made it the semi-official position of the state when he was governor, based on the fact the NPS uses one word. I’ve tried to talk some sense into his head, but he’s stuck on it, so I guess we are, too. But I will continue to use two words, except when I am quoting someone who does it differently. I say, if it was good enough for our 26th president, the great TR, it is good enough for me.