Place, Water, and Writing…

I was thinking about the proposed water grab on the Plains of San Augustin and thinking about writing as I put some notes together for Lauren, when I read this post by Chad Love on the Sand Hills and a little connection sparked across my synapses. I remembered how I used to use a passage from The Hidden West by Rob Schultheis to teach my students at Wildbranch how to write about Place. The following is from my preface to the Wilder Places edition of 1996.

“I learned to push my students to write in class, not just in their off-time; to handle short assignments with vivid writing , evoking favorite landscapes, putting real animals and people into them. I searched fro writers and passages that would inspire emulation. I introduced my students to essays by Annie Dillard, descriptions of tarpon fishing by Tom McGuane, poems by Ted Hughes. And I brought them a passage from Rob Schultheis’ The Hidden West.

“On the first day of class I read them the passage that begins: “If the mysteries of the Great Plains have a heartland, it is the Sand Hills of Nebraska.” Schultheis introduces the area with a disconcerting image (one with a structure I suspect he “stole” from Churchill)– the grassy hills are a desert, a hidden one, with more secrets hidden inside them: “A sea inside a desert wrapped in a green prairie.” He brings you, the reader, into the scene in an intimate, active way, with vivid language that owes nothing to the piling up of descriptive words that students often think characterizes “fine” writing: “…dig. Beneath the brittle grass and the thin smoke of soil you hit sand: you are standing in a sea of dunes.”

“After setting the scene, he gives us a character, Martha Schaller, who was born there of a settler family. I don’t know what kind of person the reader would first imagine, but Martha “was six feet tall and weighed about a hundred pounds, still wore the Levi jacket she had gotten for her thirteenth birthday, smoked little black cigars and had been a model in Paris. Her childhood had been a honky-tonk fairy tale.” He sets her family in the ghost-ridden landscape:

‘Once as she rode home at winter dusk in a swirling Great Plains blizzard, her horse spooked and she looked up and saw (she said) an enormous white wolf, three feet high at the shoulder, leap the barbed-wire fence and race away across the white prairie. There was also an eroded sandstone bluff back in the hills, and when you crawled in with a flashlight you found yourself in a vault that went as high as fifty feet in places. And there were bats: tens of thousands of the ruby-eyed little leather devils hanging upside down.’

The “story,” all of three pages long, ends in tragedy. Martha’s father and his pal blow up the bat cave in a spasm of unnecessary fear of rabies. The Ogallala Aquifer, the hidden sea, begins to dry up. Martha returns to find her father drunk at his desk.

‘It’s all over, he told her. Sand Hill’s cattle ranching’s dead. We got maybe thirty years left, and then the whole business is going to dry up and blow away; from Denver to the hundredth meridian, this country’s gonna look like Afghanistan. The dirt farmer and the rancher’s gonna be as fifty million buffalo, as dead as Crazy Horse, as rare as a set of Jackalope antlers. Ed Weicker and I and every other rancher in this county should have crawled in that cave with the goddamn bats and dynamited the door down from the inside.’

I look at my students, as hushed and moved by this set of characters in a landscape, this piece of nature writing, as by any short story or tragic play. And I say, “Go thou and do likewise: write me a piece of landscape that means that much to you. You have ten minutes.” And I walk out the door.

2 thoughts on “Place, Water, and Writing…”

  1. I got my copy of "The Hidden West" based on that recommendation. The Sand Hills are a little recognized wonder. They'd probably get better press if they had been included with Wyoming or Colorado rather than Nebraska.

    I was fortunate enough to have worked on a prehistoric data recovery excavation out there in the mid-1980s. We were working in the fall and got to watch endless flights of sand hill cranes fly over while we dug.


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