I “Lean West,” as my friend Clay says. Although I’ve lived all over the world, including Asia, Slope County, North Dakota, is my home ground. West Fork Deep Creek Township.
My family always leaned west. I am most content where there is short-grass prairie. In my bones, I know the flora and fauna of the short-grass prairie. Very small remnants of that short-grass prairie survive in North Dakota.
When I drive to eastern Montana, I see more, but then the Yellowstone and then the mountains. The mountains my mother longed for all her long life. The Beartooth and the Bighorns and the Tetons, all of which I backpacked when I was a young woman, leading young people just a few years younger than me.
My mother, from whom I heard birdsong before I was born. My mother, who taught me birding from the day I was born. And Grandmother River, the Little Missouri River, the lifeblood of the Badlands, flows north into the Missouri River. My Grandma Lilly and my mother took me as a little girl to what we knew as Pretty Butte — where I have since learned the Hidatsa name is Bit’skapa Pahish (Rosebud Singing), known as Buffalo Spirit Places. My maternal clan also took me to Bullion Butte or Buffalo Home Butte.
And now the Little Missouri mouth is drowned by the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Long ago there were native villages there. North of the mouth of the Little Missouri River is Mididpadi Butte and there was the Miribaadi Butte Village, of the Water Buster Clan of the Nu’eta people. Lake Sakakawea covers many of their ancestral villages.
So, it is I live now west of the 100th meridian and seldom go east of Bismarck. I am heartsick at what the Bakken has done to our homelands.
“Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. Thither no business leads me. It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west…Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily, and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow.”
— From “Walking; or, The Wild” by Henry Thoreau; 1862