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Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

dakotaContinuing in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I see somewhat where it is dated, discussing for example economic depression and agricultural crisis – because, if anything, things are worse now. But her astute ideas and conclusions are brilliant and in many ways timeless.

You saw my teaser earlier this week, so you know I am impressed. Norris, a poet, of course writes beautifully; it’s worth reading her words for their language alone. But I was really drawn in by the ideas behind them. As her subtitle notes, she is concerned with spirituality and geography. As you might have noted by now about me, I am not attracted to spiritual musings, but I was won over by the geography (in so many senses) and the sense of place which is at the heart of this collection. And I found myself on board for a certain amount of spirituality as well.

My favorite parts of the book were those that characterize place: the physical, biological, climactic characteristics that make “Dakota,” the unique region of both western North and South Dakota that Norris calls home, as well as the cultural and human characteristics of this scarcely populated area. I love thinking about and learning what is definitive about place, in both those senses: the natural, physical, extra-human as well as the human, and the idea of their interconnectedness. (Dakota would doubtless look a little different without people – Las Vegas certainly would – but there is no possibility, I think, of people without place.)

“The Holy Use of Gossip” taught me how gossip can be a good thing, or rather, taught me to recognize as “gossip” (originating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from God + sibling) the talking about each other we do in my close group of friends: when we share with each other that one of us is having a bad day, has suffered a loss, needs our help. This is well-intentioned and positive sharing that I’m glad we do. “Gatsby on the Plains” explores how community can lift its members up, or cut itself off from help: Norris writes that

…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.

Intermittent “Weather Reports” read like short, poetic journal entries of real, specific days, in between more formal essays. They are often not strictly reports on the weather, unless we expand our definitions of weather, which we may well be intended to do.

She writes a good bit about community, how it is formed and how it can be both good and bad for itself. Norris came (back) to Dakota as an adult: her grandparents were of that place, and when she inherited their home there, she and her husband moved in. She is both from there (because the communities knew her grandparents) and not (because she grew up elsewhere, and came in as a traveled, educated, artistic outsider), which made for some interesting challenges for her and her new neighbors. Her 2001 introduction to this edition of the 1993 book discusses her adopted community’s reaction to her work, her publicization of Dakota: in a word, there was both pride and anxiety, but the fact that she stuck around eventually earned her a more thorough local membership.

On the subject of community, I am intrigued by her repeated conflation of the desert, the plains, and even the ocean that once covered this region, with the monastery. She spends quite a few pages throughout comparing the sense of quiet, of great distances increasing mutual support, and contrasting some of the ways in which these communities work. For example, I appreciated the idea (in “Where I Am” – naturally one of my favorite essays) that the monastery is different from small plains towns in that the former has a formal text or rulebook that they agree to live by: in the case of Norris’s central example, Saint Benedict’s Rule, which guides Benedictine monasteries. The small towns often find conflict because they are not all working from one central, agreed upon set of rules or values or ethics.

As an artist, Norris finds that she benefits immensely from the immensity of space in the plains. And she’s got some great stories to tell about sharing art and poetry with her new communities.

I find that prairie people are receptive to a broad range of contemporary poetry, although they’d be unlikely to cross town to attend a poetry reading at a college, were there a college in the vicinity. Their appreciation of the poems I’ve read aloud – from a broad spectrum of contemporary American poets – has given me a new understanding of the communal role of poets, a role poets have mostly abandoned by closeting themselves in academia. Surprises await poets who venture out into the larger community.

I love this idea, that poets (and by extension, many formally educated or academic folks) have quarantined themselves with those like them, and are both failing to share what they have and – more so – failing to learn from others, by locking the doors to the ivory tower.

In a strange counterpoint to this sentiment, though, I found Norris occasionally off-puttingly snobbish about the reading of books: that more prairie people should do it, that they shouldn’t consider themselves well-educated or wise without doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong: clearly I love reading books and find a great deal of value in doing so, and I think books have a lot to offer everyone and everyone should read more. But I also think that people can be very intelligent, wise, and valuable without formal reading; I think that the same prescriptions don’t work for all of us, and I think it’s a shame if she’s found (for example) a great oral storytelling tradition and then laments the lack of book reading. It makes her sound snotty in a way that the rest of the book does not. I like her better than this.

I think it’s just a moment of weakness or misstep, though, because in fact she returns to this subject with more sensitivity in “Status: Or, Should Farmers Read Plato?”

I know as well as anyone that a lot of book learning doesn’t make a person wise (sometimes it simply legitimizes stupidity), but I can’t help but connect the fact that so many Dakotans have been denied access to their culture with the fact that they don’t trust that their own stories are worth much.

The fact of their inhibited access to their own culture and stories is perhaps the best argument for lack of book-reading as a major problem. And she goes on to contemplate what difference it makes to a pig farmer to miss out on Plato, and what Tolstoy and the Brontes can bring to a small-town waitress. I like the nuanced discussion there.

Dakota gets more and more spiritual in its subject matter as it progresses, so that I struggled more toward the end. Discussion of monastic retreats, and Norris’s relationship with the religious communities of Dakota, were often interesting to me; they are in some ways further discussion of community ideals, and I am more or less on board with the spirituality of nature, of relating to wind and sky and plant life. But occasionally there was too much God for my personal tastes. When I encounter the idea of monasteries, and other writers’ productive experiences there, I have found myself tempted sometimes to consider the same; but then I realize what I really need is to just go camping alone.

I found a lot to love and a lot to continue to consider here: about place, about inheritance, about storytelling and relating to one another, about community and about definitions of spirituality. I love Norris’s writing. Although I struggled here and there, or perhaps because I did, this beautiful and thought-provoking book will stay with me and, I think, continue to guide me.


Rating: 8 readings.

4 Responses

  1. Yes! “because” you struggled….

  2. my parents moved to S.Dakota from Texas so both (one time teachers/one time librarian) found her books interesting. I liked this one but I liked Cloister Walk best of all.

  3. […] Dakota, Kathleen Norris – nonfiction. Lovely evocations of sense of place in essay form. […]

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