The story of the Great Plains is the story of movement, the story of Plains tribes and buffalo, the story of horse masters and dog masters, the story of grasslands so immense and intense that even in the latter decades of the 20th century, Gretel Ehrlich, in her 1985 book The Solace of Open Spaces, writes, “In the Great Plains the vistas look like music, like Kyries of grass, but Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect—tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into pure light” (3). This is a place of the iron horse, a place of Eisenhower’s interstate system, of Manifest Destiny, the Great American Desert, flyover states. This is not a place of stillness.
But the narrative of movement on the Plains largely came to an end with the four major legislations of 1862 (Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the act establishing the US Department of Agriculture), which turned the narrative of movement into a story of roots. The shifts in national thinking represented by these pieces of legislation offer insight into how the narrative of the Plains was shifting from the movement of horse, wagon, and foot to the mechanized movement of trains, which heightened the character of the Plains as being an impediment to progress.
The patriarchal, pastoral, yeoman farmer ideal gained its footing on the Great Plains, celebrating “farming one’s own rich land [which] produced a strength of character and a strong moral commitment toward education, women’s rights, and similar issues” (Shortridge, 215). But this abrupt switch—which began with the legislations of 1862 that so strongly encouraged emigration (movement) and settling (roots)—also reestablished order in what was considered a wild place and reaffirmed set gender roles and responsibilities where they had lapsed. Farming was what one did when one grew up, settled down, achieved adulthood. Both the rhetoric of movement and the rhetoric of roots that dictate our national story are still rhetorics of conquest and power—and that power is still enshrined in the page itself.
It remains important to remember that the story of America is a story of the page: the Declaration of Independence preceded the American Revolution and our Constitution remains the foundation of our society. The same consideration is true of the Plains: the government found the control they desired in the written word—treaties and legislation—often more successful than brute force, so it was through the written word that they attempted to domesticate this particular landscape and its inhabitants. As the rhetoric of the Plains changed, the function of the page also changed. In the latter decades of the 20th century came works of literature that sought to look deeper into a place and recognize its inherent value, rather than works that simply sought to conquer and tame, more clearly subverting the power of the Plains rhetoric, the metrocentrism that permeates American culture. This era also saw an emergence of women writers finding voice, finding the page, and finding an audience. Women’s fiction has had a long presence on the Plains, starting with the Romantic view of the Plains in authors such as Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the use of creative nonfiction has not been so examined, especially in the late 20th century. The emergence of New Journalism in the mid-20th century and the move into memoir in the late 20th century in the nonfiction genre also offered women’s nonfiction legitimacy to topics and content that had been previously silenced.
While Plains-centered place-based nonfiction is still largely written through male voices like Edward Abbey, W. Scott Olsen, William Least Heat-Moon, Ian Frazier, and others, women’s nonfiction of the Plains still occupies a smaller space on the shelf. However, where women are writing the Plains—Gretel Ehrlich, Debra Marquart, Elizabeth Dodd, Lisa Knopp, and others—the choices that these women writers are making on the page signals a deliberate reclaiming of both the character of women on the Plains, their experiences, and the value of the landscape itself.
The struggle to do so is multi-faceted and must incorporate aspects of feminism and rhetoric, place studies, and creative writing. Cheryl Glenn writes in “Mapping the Silences, or Remapping Rhetorical Territory,” “For the past twenty-five hundred years in Western culture, the ideal woman has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement)” (1). Children even today are still exposed to this ideal, through Little House on the Prairie and the character of Ma Ingalls, who is determined to be civilized, to raise civilized daughters, even though they are nowhere near civilization. But in terms of valued knowledge of the body, while the knowledge that men gained from working the fields became as valued as the mountain-men and explorers, women’s knowledge gained through their bodies was effectively silenced. This masculine experience was represented on the page in subgenres of nonfiction, such as nature writing: D. Rae Greiner writes in “Negative Response: Silence in Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces” that “The American nature tradition is certainly fashioned upon this masculine ideal, that persistent trope of the strapping individualist and the wilderness to which he retreats from civilization, seeking to escape the confines of materialism and the social constraints that plague him” (219-220). Women’s writing had no similar outlet.
Women’s nonfiction writing of the Plains has largely been confined to the classic female forms of cookbooks, journals, and letters, which, historically, do not generate much critical or literary interest outside of academia. (It is ironic, then, that one of the most formative examples of this rhetoric of movement and conquest comes in the form of male journals, like those of Lewis and Clark.) Gretchen Legler writes that “In the American literary tradition and cultural imagination the land has been treated as, represented as, woman—silent, receptive, passive; a non-speaking agent. Restoring agency in the land, and with that agency restoring an independent sense of eroticism, humor, anger, and desire in the land, is what Ehrlich’s work is all about” (24). The female body itself is, as Legler argues, essential to reclaiming the voices of the women of the Plains as well as the landscape of the Plains. The existing narrative was displaced from the Plains simply because it did not fit the established American national narrative of strength, ingenuity, and tenacity, and it was replaced with a narrative that had its roots in bioregions that could—and did—more easily support pastoral farming, place-characters that legally tied peasants and serfs to the land, primogeniture, and other methods of linking land and power through the male line.
The point of this paper, therefore, is three-fold: to explore how Gretel Erhlich in Solace of Open Spaces (1986), Elizabeth Dodd in Prospect: Journeys and Landscapes (2003) and Debra Marquart in The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (2006) disrupt this established narrative of the Great Plains (specifically writing of Wyoming, Kansas, and North Dakota, respectively), to restore the agency lost by both the women of the Plains, as well as the place itself. (For clarification purposes, the terms Great Plains and West are used interchangeably within and across these three works.) Their choice of written form—the Montaignian essay—is as important as the content of the page.
Essaying the Feminine
Australian nonfictionist Mark Tredinnick writes in “The Essential Prose of Things” that “[The essay] writes out of that encountered world, caught up in the figures of a singular and personal experience of the actual realm—it expresses that. The essayist does not write about himself, nor does he imagine he is making a creation that is independent of the ground from which it arose” (35). In Tredinnick’s defense, in this particular essay on the essay, he uses the female pronoun as often as he uses the male pronoun. The essay is the natural choice to combat the three silences that Cheryl Glenn identifies (“closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement)” (1)). The form of the page itself breaks their silences, they deliberately use their bodies in the landscape to (re)write what it means to be a female body on the Plains, and the open spaces of the Plains invite escape from narratives of confinement. Certainly Erhlich and Marquart are not the first or the only women to choose the essay form to resist these strictures.
The French nobleman Michel de Montaigne is credited for having shifted the meaning of essay with the publication of his Essais. But “the essay” has largely become an contemporary umbrella term for the creative nonfiction genre, when inside the genre, it has a different meaning, purpose, and execution; it has yet another set of rules within composition. But the qualities of the Montaignian essay, while largely written by men, are decidedly feminine: it is a form that values all possible ways of knowing, personal experience, nonlinear modes of expression. Nancy Mairs writes in “Essaying the Feminine” that
Preference for relation over opposition, plurality over dichotomy, embodiment over cerebration: Montaigne’s begins to sound like a feminist project. Which is not to say that Montaigne was a feminist… But whether intentionally or not, Montaigne invented, or perhaps renewed, a mode open and flexible enough to enable the feminine inscription of human experience as no other does (75-6).
The essay can be seen as a texual, page-based response to traditional methods of silencing women’s voices and experiences, but the essay itself recognizes the fragmentation of women’s experiences and is a space that can represent women’s experiences as much as memoir, as much as any other form. Mairs continues, quoting Montaigne himself: “‘We are all patchwork,’ Montaigne writes, ‘and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.’ His use of the essay form reflects this sense of fragmentation” (79). The essay form—as Marquart, Dodd, Ehrlich use it—is one way to reclaim a woman’s life, body, and experience as legitimate sites of knowledge.
The essay as a form can bridge the difference between a strongly observational text (like Dillard), a strongly embodied text (like memoir) and one that incorporates all possible elements of a place and respects all possible ways of knowing.
Until recent decades, women’s writing and women’s writing of their bodies and experiences has been confined to “confessional” writing—and demeaned in discussions of memoir—but women writing illness narratives, addiction narratives, motherhood narratives, and other deeply personal, deeply embodied narratives are still largely dismissed, often shelved in “self-help,” only to be read by other women. Even Susan Sontag, writing Illness as Metaphor at the beginning of this phase, could only write about her illness in a form that did not recognize her personal experience as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding. Annie Dillard, also writing in this phase, even though she won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, needed to write her personal experiences in that place as scientific, observational. Though memoir, as a form, valued and represented women’s experiences—largely experiences of the body—other forms of nonfiction can also represent women’s experiences. The reality is that Montaigne’s essay provides an excellent blending of form and content, experience and intellect, to provide a revaluing and reclaiming of women’s writing of the Plains.
But it is worth mentioning how Ehrlich, Marquart, and Dodd fit into the larger world of the nonfiction genre, the essay form, and also the subgenre of nature/travel/place writing. (Because the conquest of the continent also came in the form of cataloguing the flora and fauna, setting up Lewis and Clark as some of the early American travel writers and nature writers—and the two are not mutually exclusive.) Erlich, Marquart, and Dodd’s position as women writing in this subgenre is important: Gretchen Legler writes that “The tradition in American nature literature that Ehrlich is writing against has been Romantic and androcentric. In such texts the land has always been constituted as an ‘other,’ a ‘thing-for-us,’ not as a ‘thing-in-itself’” (22). In her essay, “Wapiti,” from Prospect, Elizabeth Dodd considers the network of the umwelt, a term coined by German biologist Jakob von Uexhull. She writes, “Being a ‘network,’ a conceptual tapestry of what the physical world presents to the life within it, the umwelt is composed of many subdivisions—fiber, texture, and pattern, so to speak” (60). D. Rae Greiner writes in “Negative Response: Silence in Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces” that “The genre of American nature writing is one whose tradition is decidedly masculine, and for better or worse Ehrlich is considered a nature writer” (229). I disagree that Ehrlich is a nature writer. She represents an essential link between the decidedly non-personal female nature writing of Annie Dillard and the experience-memoirs that comes later. Ehrlich represents one of the first explorations of a place—and the natural world of that place—not simply through personal experience, but through her deliberately embodied personal experience, that is, the experience of her body in that place. Considering Ehrlich as a place writer is an important moment, necessary to understanding how the voice of the Plains and the voice of the women on the Plains can find their pages.
On a textual level, the lines between travel writing, nature writing, and place writing exist, but the boundaries are fluid. Part of the way that Ehrlich and Marquart disrupt the narrative of conquest and reclaim female agency in Wyoming and North Dakota that comes from both the rhetoric of movement and rootedness comes in transcending both nature writing and travel writing and considering the place itself as essential to the creation of meaning and this is the point that must be understood before we continue. The addition of place writing—and the essay as a form to write place—is an important development in nonfiction. Place writing values the complications of humans and the natural world, over compartmentalizing and privileging humans over the natural world or vice versa. From this definition, then, place writing could be considered inherently feminine. The difference is that place writing—and the essay form to write place—aims to reconcile the human and the more-than-human world, to eliminate the either/or rhetoric of people and land. The resistance of Ehrlich and Marquart to both the nature writing and travel writing subgenres, setting their work as place-writing, is an important step in their reclaiming of women, place, and page. They reject forms that do not suit their purposes and in some cases, invent their own forms.
Essaying the Narrative of Conquest
Richard Manning, in Grassland, considers post-1862 the age of agricultural conquest: “The place was a mess, and it became a young nation’s job to fix it with geometry, democracy, seeds, steam, steel, and water” (qtd. in Marquart 60). The nonfiction texts of this conquest—which at this point could be best described as travel writing or nature writing—would follow that linear desire, because the Plains were not a mess, at least not in its natural state. But the rhetoric of conquest— movement and roots—had displaced or killed countless numbers of the native population, destroyed the buffalo and other aspects of the ecosystem, and was in the process of ripping the sod to shreds. The texts Gretchen Legler succinctly describes what became the traditional American nature writing, that
specific form that privileges a style of writing largely practiced in Western culture by white men, that is, nonfictional literary prose that emphasizes observation, an almost scientific attention to physical detail, and assumes as its founding premise that there is a definable boundary between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and that ‘man’ is to be alienated from the natural world (31).
The obvious question there is where are the women? Are they to be alienated from the natural world as well, or are they part of what must be conquered and tamed? Nature—and the texts that came out of this exploration with the newly American landscape that stood between the Shining Sea in the East and the Shining Sea in the West—was something to be controlled, transversed, to be conquered and tamed. Elizabeth Dodd writes of John James Audubon in the first essay of Prospect, which is titled “Background,” and though Audubon’s conquest of nature—killing birds so he could draw them—is not of a literary variety, it is no less a page-based expression of nature as something to be conquered. As a result, the nonfiction that comes out of this conquest—rather than exploration—reflects this ideal. But while the rhetoric, which often translates to the page as a linear, chronological narrative, is decidedly masculine, what is particularly interesting about the cultural ideal of the Great Plains is the distinctly feminized rhetoric.
Marquart and Ehrlich use of the Montaignian essay is the primary mode through which they disrupt this narrative of conquest, first by rewriting the linear narrative of beginning-to-end. Even the conquest that is represented in the rootedness of the place is disrupted, because the essay respects a prismatic representation of person-place-idea-experience. For instance, D. Rae Greiner observes that “Ehrlich consistently upsets our predetermined readerly reactions to her book— formally beginning the narrative in the third, rather than the first chapter” (236) and Marquart’s book also does not begin at the beginning—in fact, her book begins with the return to her hometown for her father’s funeral. Dodd’s essays, even less linked than Marquart’s, offer a similar disruption: in the second essay, “Elmscape,” Dodd offers this weighty first line—“It was springtime when my husband said he wanted to end our marriage” (12)—but this essay is not about divorce, nor is the rest of the book. In fact, there is no mention again of a failed marriage until the last two essays of the book and her husband is a constant, contented character on the page as the reader continues through the book. Since an essay does not depend on the movement of the narrative for its structure, expectations of the text are further disrupted.
Tredinnick writes in the introduction to his The Land’s Wild Music that “Much of the best essay writing—the loveliest and wisest prose, the most human, the most hopeful and real, the writing that carried on what Montaigne had begun—was being turned out, I realized, by writers whose subject was the land, by men and women under the influence of the sky and the whole more-than-merely-human world about them” (4). The subgenre of place writing—and the essays that often come from this subgenre—can be considered a disruption of this narrative of conquest, which seeks to control, tame, and use. Elizabeth Dodd writes in Prospect that “the unmistakable underlying attitude toward the land is still utility. The doctrine of utility was, well, utilized to rationalize seizure of Indian lands throughout the West” (96-97). She continues, quoting various accounts of officials observing that since the Native populations are not doing anything with the land, not using it, thus the land must not be of value to them. Place writing aims to return agency to the place, to write the place as having inherent value in itself, regardless of the material worth humans assign.
Recognizing the totality of place is essential here, to a surprising degree by Greiner: “Unlike the great majority of naturalists, Ehrlich’s ecosystem is composed of mountain lions and domestic sheep, neither of which is more authentic to the experience to the other” (241). This is why recognizing these two writers as place essayists is important: authentically writing the place— however that is defined—means recognizing the place for what it is, not simply what it was and can never be again or what it might be for the future. This is not to say that place writers cannot yearn for unspoiled landscapes or a movement towards a sustainable living on those places, but what seems to set women place writers apart is this acceptance and consideration of what a place is right now—and this means considering the built landscapes as well as the naturally-occurring. Dodd writes of the Black Hills, “The very reason I could visit the Black Hills—a pilgrim or tourist—is, of course, because of my snug position in a culture of conquest and acquisition. In spite of my discomfort with, even my grief over, the way the West was won or lost, I have a home on a portion of prairie where 150 years ago no white people lived. We are there now, the beneficiaries of that mostly forgotten conquest, and I earn my living teaching the great great grandchildren of pioneers” (95).
Marquart, writing of growing up on her family’s North Dakota farm, observes: “My ancestors would not feel at home, I realize, in the current ecological times, when wilderness is loved and cultivated land is labeled as ‘disturbed.’ Where monocultures, like corn and wheat fields, are vilified, and polycultures, like restored prairies, are glorified. For them it would be a world turned upside down” (61).
Furthermore, Marquart herself places herself squarely inside the place, as it is, acknowledging the relationship between people and the place—and not the placement of one as more important than the other. Marquart writes in “The Most Famous Person From North Dakota” that “I have a debt to pay to grass. My genetic line—the person that I am—survived because two ancient grasslands on two separate continents were irrevocably altered by my ancestors. The more I acknowledge that debt, the more I come to love the place where I’m from” (61). What Marquart is doing here is disrupting the established narrative that nothing good comes from North Dakota, that there is value in the place as well as the people who “altered” it. She breaks the binaries of good/bad, right/wrong, through the vehicle of the land itself. Without the landscape, she herself would bear a different shape, because a different landscape—other than the grasslands her ancestors seem drawn to—would have constructed a different group of people. What has been done to the grasslands of North Dakota cannot be undone, at least not on the large scale that environmentalists desire, so what Marquart is doing here is considering the landscape how it is, not its ideal form and quality, whatever that is—because an environmentalist goal to reestablish the grasslands can be viewed as another form of control. Valuing the landscape as it is, acknowledging that there are different views of what constitutes value of that same landscape, is part of what it means to disrupt that conquest, because conquest is always wanting something more, wanting that next step.
Because Marquart’s childhood, which is the subject of The Horizontal World, is tied to her family’s farm, she subverts this rhetoric and disrupts this narrative of conquest is by acknowledging the role that the place itself plays in the life of the people—her people—who settled it. For instance, she writes of how her parents met in 1948, when her father stopped to offer her mother (whom he did not know yet) a ride, because it was raining: “Conception through the agency of water comes as a blessing in a place that yields only sixteen inches of precipitation a year” (27). In this way, the landscape itself is playing an active role in their relationship. Dodd writes of her husband leaving within the context of Dutch elm disease and the Louis Vieux Elm, a single elm tree that constitutes the entirety of the State Forest of Kansas (19). But the point is larger than that.
Both Ehrlich and Marquart reference sex or the sexualized body frequently through their essays, solidifying the idea that sex is for more than procreation, subverting the narrative of sex (and procreation) that follows the rhetoric of conquest. If women can imply that sex is for pleasure, if women can take control of their bodies (and the language of their bodies), then the narrative of sex-as-conquest in the Plains narrative is disrupted and female agency is reclaimed. Marquart sets the record straight in her prologue: she isn’t some common farmgirl, as she writes in her prologue: “This was no little house on the prairie. We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times. We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, and navel-exposed” (xi-xii). Richard T. Twine,in “Ma(r)king Essence-Ecofeminism and Embodiment,” writes that “An ecofeminist discourse that constructs female power as chiefly based upon motherhood is inherently ambiguous and risks an antifeminist complicity with patriarchal ideas that for so long have constructed and constricted women to a childbearing role” (34). Both Marquart and Ehrlich’s work represents women who can actively choose to marry or not, to bear children or not. Later, Marquart writes of Klaus Theweleit, that “‘women’s bodies are considered objects and raw material, the terrain of man’s own production.’ I have only to think about two of my great-grandmothers—Barbara Hulm Marquart, who died in childbirth, and Katherine Docter Hoffer, who died from complications following childbirth” (Marquart 44). In another essay, she acknowledges the agency she has reclaimed in choosing not to bear children: “I think most of my two great-grandmothers who died in childbirth as I stand at this precipice—in my forties and without children, terrified my whole life of taking my body into that dark cave of childbearing, from which I’ve seen women emerge rich with child or broken beyond repair, but emerge nevertheless forever altered” (135). Because she can choose— and at this point in her life has chosen not to bear children—represents an important (re)claiming of her own body and the narrative that her life will take.
Ehrlich’s own story of love and loss—which could be argued is one of the sublayers of the book, as well as the place itself—contains a more traditional element of marriage, but even that is subverted. While the reader does not find out until the third essay that her reason for “escaping” to Wyoming was because the man she loved “had just been told he was dying. He was not quite thirty” (34). This bit of information comes in an essay titled “Other Lives,” which interestingly enough follows an essay titled “Obituary” (which does not mention David at all). The information about David’s illness, what she was thinking and feeling, is very spare on the page. Later in the book, in “Just Married,” she writes of marrying this man “who could talk books as well as ranching, medieval history and the mountains, ideas and mules. Like me he was a culture straddler. Ten months later we were married” (86). But as the essay progresses, she balances his proposal (which was interrupted by horse trouble, so later that night he “serenaded me…with the wistful calls sandhill cranes make. A cow elk wandered into the meadow and mingled with the horses. It snowed and in the morning a choir of coyotes howled, ‘Yes’” (86)) with the first time we hear of her being struck by lightning, a subject that will occupy later books, as it irreparably damaged her heart and her health. But the point is that these two writers subvert even the most traditional of female expectations by linking those roles to the landscape, as if they cannot be separated.
(Re)Writing the Rhetoric of Boundaries
Once upon a time, the Great Plains was not bound by 160 acre plots of carefully planted rows of corn, once it did not know the meaning of fence posts and barbed wire. But reconceiving traditional and historical boundaries is essential to rewrite the narrative of these boundaries: a landscape once roamed freely by people and animals and grasses became tightly bound where it was not eradicated. Gretchen Legler writes that “The way nature has been constructed in nature narratives is intricately related to the textual construction of identity. The dichotomy between nature and culture, the city and wilderness, the urban and rural, manage the construction of identity by establishing clear spatial and psychological boundaries between self and other (me and not me, culture and nature)” (31). If Ehrich and Marquart are seeking to essay these binaries, these artificial boundaries—especially as they appear on the page—to consider what it means to be a woman of the Plains, to be a woman on the Plains, what the Plains themselves mean, then the consideration of boundaries to those identities is important. Restoring the agency of women in this place requires setting the body as a legitimate site of knowledge, a physical manifestation of a text that can physically cross boundaries. But this restoration also means—in the case of Dodd—reclaiming a woman’s brain as a legitimate site for knowledge, not simply intellectual knowledge, but the network of knowing that combines intellect, body, place, and all other possible ways of knowing. Legler continues: “Ehrlich is crossing boundaries in her effort to ‘find wildness,’ to cross the artificial line between culture and nature. Ehrlich’s feasting is a way of breaching subject and object worlds” (26). But what is important here is not simply these two writers seeking to breach the boundaries of the Plains, but how that disruption—and the subsequent reclaiming—is represented on the page.
The first obstacle to address is textual and audience-related. The publishing world values tales told in places it can recognize, those located on the coasts or in locations that present specific imaginings. While Ehrlich’s book came from a large New York publisher, Marquart’s book found a home with an independent press. The prairies of North Dakota simply do not call the imagination in the same way and a woman writing of that place—especially if the narrative does not follow the expected linear structure, unless hers is a tale of escape from the rural and triumph in an urban atmosphere, an extention of the metrocentrism narrative that Lisa Heldke argues permeates Plains rhetoric. Marquart’s essay “The Most Famous Person From North Dakota” considers Lawrence Welk, who “was the one who got away from North Dakota and had made it good” (57), but later in “On Lost and Crazy Sisters,’ Marquart writes of her great-aunt Emma, who was called crazy: she never married or had children and she lived in California. What link Marquart’s grandmother made between this complete escape from North Dakota as well as traditional womanhood and Emma’s eventual institutionalization for paranoid schizophrenia is left to the reader’s imagination.
It is important to note here that both Marquart and Ehrlich are rewriting the narrative of movement expected of Plains narratives, the narrative of rural escape and metropolitan triumph. On the surface, the narrative seems familiar: Ehrlich is escaping to Wyoming and Marquart is escaping from North Dakota. But giving people the agency to move through and within the landscape is important, simply because the rhetoric of Marquart’s world of her family’s North Dakota farm is firmly rooted in keeping its people in place, pruning back vanity and pride. The language has been carefully crafted to prevent movement, unless it is to move to the big city. Marquart writes: ‘You can’t get there from here,’ my father used to say when I spoke too long or enthusiastically about the cities I planned to run away to. I had consulted maps; I thought I knew otherwise. Did he mean to imply that the gravel road outside our farm was not connected to other roads, and that those freeways had not been paved and multi-laned in preparation for my flight?” (xix).
Space is carefully crafted in Marquart’s prologue, from the physical white space between sections to the ways she switches between the domestic space and the landscape space outside the house to Marquart herself as a teenager singing “The Lord’s Prayer” upstairs in her room and “approaching the rarified atmosphere only the first soprano can inhabit” (xx). Considering that the roads, the boundaries on a map, keep people in as much as they provide escape is an important way that both Marquart and Ehrlich consider the ways they can move about their landscapes.
It might be obvious from the title of Ehrlich’s book—The Solace of Open Spaces—the importance she puts on the physical space offered by Wyoming, but she is using the space for healing, to let herself acknowledge the loss of David (the man she loved, her reason for going to Wyoming) and the aftermath of being struck by lightning. She writes often of space itself, like in the title essay:
We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness” (15).
But the point I mean to make here is not in the content, but something echoed in this Ehrlich’s title essay: “To live and work in this kind of open country, with its hundred-mile views, is to lose the distinction between background and foreground” (2). Space and distance, running-to and running-from, is as much opportunity as it is to be feared, as Ehrlich later writes in that same essay that “The emptiness of the West was for others a geography of possibility [but] the dark side to the grandeur of these spaces is the small-mindedness that seals people in” (9, 13). The essay itself, as a form, makes room for this kind of space. Essayist Robert Root writes in “What the Spaces Say” that on the page, in the text, “Space has become a fundamental element of design and expression in nonfiction. Knowing what the spaces say is vital for understanding the nonfictionist’s craft and for also appreciating the possibilities of this contemporary genre; it also helps us to better understand the nature of truth” (85). Linking the physical space of the place with the physical space of the text—this is one way in which both Ehrlich and Marquart reestablish the narrative of movement on the Plains in a way that values both the place and the humans.
Physical boundaries seem a natural place to consider the ways Ehrlich and Marquart rewrite and reclaim these boundaries. In “Things Not Seen in a Rearview Mirror,” Marquart writes of driving back to North Dakota for her father’s funeral from where she is teaching in Iowa, a linear narrative—or what should be—that is disrupted by a house, an actual house, not a double-wide in transit, stuck on the two-lane road that leads to her hometown and where her family is waiting for her as they prepare to say goodbye. The essay itself is only partly about this immediate moment on the road and that thread of narrative and the frustration and worry that they will not arrive to the funeral home on time, as is indicative of the Montaignian essay: the essay is not about the funeral or the drive to get there. The narrative simply provides the grounding to consider what do I know? and how do I know it? The point of this essay is to discuss boundaries and the nature of boundaries, the highways she knows well, the nature of the 100th meridian, “generally considered to mark the end of the Midwest and the beginning of the West” (1). But as the essay continues, Marquart meanders through knowledge perceived through the body in several ways. She writes,
I know the topography of this drive from every conceivable angle, could read it with my fingers like Braille. If you installed my memory like a slotted reel on a player piano, the ghostly keys would play out this tune: There is the gravel turnoff to Grandma and Grandpa Geist’s old place; there’s the farm where the Doll triplets lived; there’s the ruin of the old country store where the little boy was run over by a milk truck (3). The roads and demarcations she considers—the road she is trapped on, the roads of her childhood, the 100th meridian, the line between life and death, the road that is both a way out and a way in— become physical manifestations of boundaries and what binds people together and binds people to a place. She writes later that “We children of North Dakota are programmed for flight… We grew up wild in the middle of nowhere with the nagging suspicion that life was certainly elsewhere” (69).
Later, in “Great Falls,” she considers the nature of boundaries in a different way, writing of Great Falls, Montana: “Because I know there are places that have memory, that harbor grudges and throw hexes. There are places in the world that have hard-ons only for you, and Montana is such a place for me” (163). The essay is a cautionary tale for herself—and to others who seek to cross the hundredth meridian—because bad things happen when you cross those boundaries. Not only is the Essay about a breakup and domestic abuse, it’s also the place where she and her parents hit a deer on the highway and her parents call Marquart’s brother, several hundred miles away, to rescue them, rather than letting their daughter exercise her own agency and her AAA card to get them home. But the salient moment is in the writing: by writing this essay, she reclaims her agency.
Marquart begins the narrative in those first pages of her prologue, not with the beginning of her own story, but with a breaking down of the boundaries of her place, the boundaries between men and women, girls and boys, farmgirls and towngirls, farmboys and townboys. She writes, “Farmboys. How we avoided them when they came around, their hands heavy with horniness, their bodies thick with longing. Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds” (xi). The repetitive alliteration of the h in “their hands heavy with horniness” drags the speed of the sentence down, simply because the exhalation of breath that creates the h sound requires an intake of breath to replace the exhaled, a physical effort required to continue the sentence. It is in this way that the page becomes physical, like Ehrlich’s tendency towards semicolons to slow down the pacing of reading. But Marquart continues to shift the ideas of boundaries by locating the body within the ecosystem of the place, as she will do later by recounting her parents’ story of meeting within a rainstorm, the point here being to establish the physical and cultural boundaries of town and farm, girls and boys.
Dodd does something similar on the page. Most of her essays are segmented in some way, with asterisks to divide the white spaces between sections. With her essay “Wapiti,” she further disrupts our reading: as the essay moves from main narrative to etymology and elsewhere, she interrupts herself with sections that contain paragraphs beginning with a single word and a colon, which introduces that paragraph. “Anecdote,” “Encounter,” “Freeze-Frame,” “Artifact,” “Query,” and more. The effect stops the forward momentum of the narrative, the idea, the reader’s push to continue and forces further consideration of the present moment.
Locating the body within place and space is the first element of disrupting the narrative of boundaries, even more specifically as philosopher Jim Cheney observes: “inscribing…the nervous system in the landscape [because] the body is the instrument of knowledge in the world” (qtd. in Legler 27). The result of such inscribing of the nervous system in the physical world is a disruption of the narrative of either/or boundaries and instead respects the skin as the body’s largest sensory organ, the sense of touch, that this thing happened to my body, thus I know this new thing about the world. Gretchen Legler continues: that “When women ‘cause trouble’ with the language system, as I argue that Ehrlich does, we see the ‘turbulence’ and ‘whirlwinds’ that [Luce] Irigaray writes about; a ‘transgression and confusion of boundaries,’ a challenge to what is ‘real’” (25). As with the ways that Ehrlich and Marquart use their bodies and the subject of sex and pleasure to disrupt the narrative of conquest, the female body, sex, procreation, and marriage, they also address the bodily boundaries of these narratives. The rhetoric of the life cycle on the Plains is worth reconsidering and the boundaries it represents, but it is important to recognize that women have been silenced from expressing the landscape and their link with the natural world in terms of their physical, sexual body—and they have been silenced from writing of the pleasures of sex and their bodies. Women who insist on sex for purposes other than the procreation of children are considered troublemakers, as if only marriage can tame a woman and her body, as if the physical body and its actions are shameful. Both Erhlich and Marquart work to disrupt these traditional boundaries of what is considered proper behavior for women, for ladies, for virgins, for mothers, for wives.
Marquart’s braided essay “The Horizontal Life” is a delicious play on words, and it sets up Marquart trying to lose her virginity against the burning of the town’s grain elevator and her persistent migraine headaches, the accidental burning of her dad’s car with her own cigarette. This essay is fiercely embodied, even as we understand by the end of the essay that Marquart—the girl that she was—calls a halt in the middle of the event. Throughout the essay, the teenaged Marquart is only present on the page as “the girl that I was,” an effective textual distancing that also is written in the present, while in the other sections of migraines and her first job (and during her first day she accidentally burns her parents’ car to a crisp with a cigarette), she is on the page as I and the verbs are past tense. The girl that she was is deliberately trying to end her virginity, “no longer interested in shy exploration, or wonderment, or handing her carefully pruned virginity over to a husband on a wedding night. She has an itch somewhere deep inside her, in a place she cannot even begin to direct someone to. But she doesn’t want it scratched, she wants it vanquished” (100). The disruption in this essay happens on several levels. First, the text itself is braided, separated by white space, which disrupts the traditional boundaries of how a narrative should be structured (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement), as well as how the essay physically looks on the page. In another, earlier version, this essay won the 2003
Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award with the title “Agricultural Mysticism: 20 Fragments on Desire,” and was fragmented into twenty numbered sections, a structure that does not detract from its form as an essay. The text circles and weaves and it is not a straight narrative. For myself, I prefer the Mid-American Review version, simply because the shorter, more fragmented structure represents her experience better.
An awareness of the physical body on the page—especially the female body—can be considered from a different angle, simply in terms of gender difference. Ehrlich’s tendency towards the androgynous and this type of gender construction and gender roles in her essays appears in several ways. In most of her essays, she mentions some way in which gender roles are fluid, from considering the ways in which women are hard and men are soft to where and how maternal and paternal perspectives are required, both with animals and people. In “Other Lives,” Ehrlich writes, “One of the myths about the West is its portrayal as ‘a boy’s world,’ but the women I met— descendants of outlaws, homesteaders, and Mormon pioneers—were as tough and capable as the men were softhearted” (39). Marquart also considers the boundaries of traditional gender roles in a similar way by examining the narratives of marriage that have established themselves as “natural” on the Plains:
The word husband in its earliest origins means to be bound to the house, or house-bound—a peasant, for example, who owns his house and land. It also describes one who manages his affairs with skill and thrift, as in, to husband one’s resources. It its most literal sense, the husbandman is one who tills and cultivates the soil. As the word implies, a husbandman marries himself to the land, agreeing to nurture and care for it over a lifetime (33).
Part of this boundary disruption against the traditional narrative of the domestic woman has to do with reenvisioning gender roles, but the reclaiming is larger than that. This type of gender questioning provokes necessary questions, like what is a man, what is a woman? And because those definitions are questioned, if a man or woman is defined by their actions, this leads to further necessary questions about how gender and identity are constructed.
Beyond the inscribing of the nervous system in the landscape, the physical body in that same landscape will then bear the effect of that presence. The active qualities of the landscape lead to the active participation of women in that landscape, which crosses the boundaries of the female body and female beauty. Ehrlich writes in “Other Lives” that “Winter scarified me. Under each cheekbone I thought I could feel claw marks and scar tissue. What can seem like a hard-shell veneer on the people here is really a necessary spirited resilience” (43). Part of what is happening here is the simple craft element of active verbs, putting winter in an active position in the sentence, but the effect is larger: the landscape is restored to the active quality it had before conquest, which results not only in the physical marking—and disfigurement—of a woman’s physical body, often prized for flawless beauty, but such a restoration gives the landscape the power and freedom to do so.
But the breaking down of boundaries happens in other ways: Ehrlich, a Buddhist, inscribes the landscape she inhabits with Buddhist perspectives, which could in itself be considered a disruption of the established Christian narrative. Ehrlich writes in “To Live in Two Worlds” that “Because Christians shaped our New World culture, we’ve had to swallow an artificial division between what’s sacred and what’s profane” (105), a disrupting concept that later is echoed in “A Storm, The Cornfield, and Elk” when she writes, “Today the sky is a wafer. Placed on my tongue, it is a wholeness that has already disintegrated; placed under the tongue, it makes my heart beat strongly enough to stretch myself over the winter brilliances to come” (130). What is important to note here is how Ehrlich is disrupting the narrative of the Plains as the breadbasket of the world, causing trouble with her language in a way that asks the reader to reconsider what can be sustenance. Gretchen Legler takes this disruption in a different direction, considering the “profound insight into the relationship of the body to land, of desire to space, of language to body. Implicitly [Ehrlich] is also critiquing the hierarchical foundation of Western thought with her suggestion that one can EAT or DRINK space…” (25, original emphasis). Dodd disrupts the language of the place with the layered nature of the titles she gives her essays. The title of the book, Prospect, could be a noun or a verb, varied in definition. Other essays have titles like “Background,” “Float,” “Underground,” “Thirst,” “Flume,” “Asylum,” and more. “Underground,” for instance, follows a main narrative of curiosity about a pioneer cemetery, a stone in a family plot only bearing initials and the title “Mother,” and the movement to find who this family was, who this woman was. As the essay progresses, Dodd learns that this family may have been an important stop on the Underground Railroad in Kansas, that the caves thought to be used to hide slaves have been under water, lost after the Blue River was dammed, further complicating the idea of “underground” and the relationship of land and water. As seems typical of Dodd’s essays in this collection, she ends with a parting shot, finding not only the name of the woman she was searching for, but learning that the woman’s name is often the name attributed to the Egyptian princess who rescued the baby Moses, who would lead his people to freedom from slavery.
The way that Marquart and Ehrlich (re)write the boundary between traditionally binary qualities like land and sky, food and drink, cannot be separated from the landscape of their pages. Though silence and space is a defining feature of Ehrlich’s Wyoming as well as her writing of it, the sheepherding and the ranching simply have a different vocabulary and purpose than Marquart’s agrarian farming (and Dodd, who has no connection to farming at all in her life or in her text), which requires reconsidering the boundaries of language itself. Ehrlich writes, “An animal’s wordlessness takes on the cleansing qualities of space: we freefall through the beguiling operations of our own minds with which we calculate our miseries to responses that are immediate. Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how our bank accounts describe us” (63-64). Reconsidering the boundaries between animal and human is important here, as well as what the silence represents—humans can learn valuable lessons from animals. But even closer to the text, Ehrlich continues to pare away what has traditionally been considered the boundary between what constitutes effective verbal expression:
Sentence structure is shortened to the skin and bones of a thought. Descriptive words are dropped, even verbs… People hold back their thoughts in what seems to be a dumbfounded silence, then erupt with a excoriating perceptive remark. Language, so compressed, becomes metaphorical. […] There is no vocabulary for the subject of feelings” (6-7).
Silencing a woman’s voice is a different issue, especially in a landscape where silence and speech and thought are a kaleidoscope, rather than separate bubbles. Legler uses Ehrlich’s “A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk” to illustrate what she means by Ehrlich “challeng[ing] the silencing of women’s desire” (25), but what is particularly interesting about Ehrlich’s addressing of silence and silencing on the plains of Wyoming is more complicated. Even Marquart considers boundaries in terms of linguistics and punctuation: Farmers do not mean to be so possessive; they’re just punctuated that way. And farmer’s daughters must struggle against the powerful apostrophes of their fathers. They must drive away some early spring morning, hands planted firmly on the wheel, convinced they will never look back” (264).
Because the text is as important as the content, considering how Ehrlich and Marquart consider the role their language plays on the page in reclaiming what has been silenced is a crucial moment.
The preface to The Solace of Open Spaces is larger than simply moving beyond a binary that does not fit the place or the experience. What we have here in her preface is important in terms of content and approach, but also the way she uses the form itself:
The truest art I would strive for in any world would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truth; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. The lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life” (x).
Several things are noteworthy here: the first that this is the preface, often devalued as much as other female forms of nonfiction, is a moment where the horizontal planes of the narrative and the essays, the content itself, crosses the vertical planes of insight and reflection. It is the place where the body and the brain come together. Bill Roorbach calls this type of stepping back, considering what a narrative is really about, “high exposition.” For me, this is what elevates work to the level of essay, this reflective quality that puts the experience into a context that is liveable for those outside of the current geographical location and experience of the writer. Second, Ehrlich is clearly melding the work and the earth with life, as if a life lived cannot be separated from the place where it is lived. But thirdly, she is using her language and punctuation to elucidate what cannot be translated into words. Where most writers would have used commas to separate the list of what weather, light, and wind can do, the benefits of loss and despair, Ehrlich uses semicolons. The effect is a harder stop than a comma, but not as much as a period. The semicolons have the effect of barbed wire fences: catching some moments and letting others blow through.
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Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015, which won a Minnesota Book Award and is a finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Slag Glass City, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, North American Review and others. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.