chapter II—desolation

I recently picked up my great-great-uncle, Will Lillibridge’s book, Ben Blair and landed on a few passages that seemed to fit what i was pondering in the moment.

“Ten miles out on the prairies,—not lands plane as a table, as they are usually pictured, but rolling like the sea with waves of tremendous amplitude—stood a rough shack, called by courtesy a house.”

—Will Lillibridge—Ben Blair—Chapter II Desolation

Usually in January I make an annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Burke, South Dakota. This year, because of COVID19, I won’t be traveling. So, on this Winter Solstice 2020, I’m reflecting on the prairie, my ancestors and revisiting my photographs.

I’ve always assumed that my love of stark landscapes was simply due to where I grew up. However, as I age I’m increasingly aware that it’s far more complex than that alone. I’m drawn to spaciousness in any form. In paintings, film, photographs, literature it’s what’s NOT there that I love and am so drawn to. Oh, and when there’s a well-placed pause in a song—damn, I swoon.

There’s a duality of growing up in rural America that I understand now at fifty-four and having lived out east for thirty years. There’s on one hand, a fiercely independent streak born out of generations of hardscrabble pioneer and homestead life, but there’s also what’s in the negative space everywhere that I’m more curious about lately.

For that pioneer spirit to survive on such isolated terrain, there’s often a high need for conformity. To me there can be a false sense of security that comes from conformity. When we conform too much, we might be leaving some of the best parts of ourselves hidden in the negative space.

INDEPENDENCE + CONFORMITY = ?

While being around the like-minded often puts folks at ease, the opposite can be quite true as well. When people are different, or deemed outsiders, it might be natural to fear that they might upset the social order in some way. Is this really true,or does it just FEEL true?

The psychology of geography, interesting enough in the year of a world-wide pandemic, is rooted in outsiders potentially bringing disease to a region. Of course illness was greatly feared when folks were trying to populate a new territory…all lives certainly mattered back then just as they do now.

To honor that fierce independence it seems to me that different skills, ideas, and perspectives should be exceptionally valued, hell, even celebrated—now more than ever regardless of one’s geography.

We really need all types of thinkers and doers to face the world’s many challenges. Perhaps this first day of winter is well-timed for some quiet contemplation on what seems likely to be an isolated, and potentially sorrow-filled season before the light returns.

“To-night, for the first time, and with a wonder we all feel when the obvious but long unseen suddenly becomes apparent, the primary fact of human brotherhood, irrespective of caste, came home to him.”

—Will Lillibridge—Ben Blair, Chapter XXII Two Friends Have it Out

ego vs. heart

Somehow folks, photographs of Herrick, South Dakota struck at the heart of many people…actually WAY more people than had ever read my blog before.  So, at first it fed my ego.  I was obsessively checking the number of viewers I had for those Herrick photographs.  (Obsessively is almost too small of a word for my behavior.)  I kept thinking about the comments of people who grew up in Herrick and moved away.  A former babysitter of mine wrote and people were connecting about their love of Herrick and rural South Dakota.  That was a blast for me.  Thank you.

This morning in my NIA dance class we did a move that protected our hearts and then we gave them out to the world.  Arms closed and wrapped in protection across our hearts then opened wide. It made me think about EGO vs. HEART—protecting the way the world sees me vs. vulnerability & social risk.  I was thinking about the volume of traffic I had to my site and then it all went straight to my heart.  Arms wide and then crossed.  Try it, it’s kind of a cool way to get a sense of vulnerability and protection in your body.  I’m not surprised that my pictures of Herrick, South Dakota sparked so much interest and dialogue.

I think the geography of our upbringing is in our bones.

lillibridge-take-the-girl-out-of-south-dakota

“…voluntary settlement to a frontier area tends to produce individualism.”  Geographical Psychology; Exploring the Interaction of Environment and Behavior edited by Peter J. Renfrow.  Cool, huh?  I often think about the freedom and spaciousness I was allowed growing up on the prairie. It was awesome AND I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Burke.  To quote Joni Mitchell, “I got the urge for going”.

lowell-s

My settlement in Burke was involuntary at my birth, however, it did produce a sense of individualism in me.  I suspect in many others too (judging by your response to my photos, shut up ego, let the heart take over).  In the book I referenced it suggests that people in frontier areas are naturally more suspicious of outsiders because of the potential to spread disease.  Fascinating lizard brain stuff, huh?

For many reasons “pioneer & frontier thinking” has been bouncing around in my head a lot lately.  Last week a relative sent me this article about my Great Grandfather, Lowell Stanton Lillibridge, pioneer banker. These few paragraphs tell a great story about pioneer life in South Dakota at the turn of the century.

I’m grateful I have a different lens to view the landscape that informed who I am.  I’m not wild about some other middle aged issues, but I do appreciate the wisdom.

I haven’t lived in South Dakota since 1989.  I moved to Vermont on New Year’s Day 1990, and yet an image of a South Dakota two-lane highway is my constant muse.  Funny how different things look with a quite few more years in the rear view mirror.

I encourage you to think about what specifically speaks to you about the geography you experienced growing up.  What’s your “South Dakota two-lane”?  That image got me through some rough dental work last week.  You might want to consider a landscape as a sort of meditation…a “go to” place when you need to settle your brain down.

Thank you for reading.  I’m truly grateful for your time.