Volume 49, Issue 3
Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic, and spare. More recently, German architect Gottfried Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture appeared in 1851, about the same time that the U.S. and Canadian Homestead Acts were passed. Thousands of people, including my ancestors, came to start new lives and prove their land claim. Unknown to those homesteaders, Semper’s four building elements (the hearth, walling, roofing, and terracing) were essential to more than rudimentary shelter. His principles also applied to establishing communities, building houses of worship, and implanting a culture of respect for a place that was sometimes bountiful and unforgiving.
Long before Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition through this region in 1804, fur-traders and indigenous peoples built structures that sustained life. Each preserved sacred sites and a deep reverence for this area. The natural evolution beyond survival mode brought building designs that reflected vernacular traditions and the practical realities dealt by the harsh extremes of bitter winters and blistering summers.
Now these homesteader descendants (like me)—whether we live in small towns, big cities, or maybe still live on “the home place”—continue that fierce love of the land and the dome of sky overhead. It has inspired writers and poets such as Willa Cather, Tom McGrath, Ted Kooster, Larry Woiwode, and Kathleen Norris. After all, the curvature of the earth is all that stands between infinity and me.
Section Line Communion
The Abbey’s sanctuary
transforms before me. A gravel
road carpets the center aisle.
of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.
the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.
form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.
in pearled vestments
circle their vaulted blessing.
The Profit Mountains
piled on the prairie
offer an altar in the sunrise.