Less than a mile north of my home in Nebraska is a main BNSF rail yard, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe lines now one conglomerate who both, in the late 1800s, vied for my family’s business as they and thousands of other Mennonites immigrated from Russia to the Great Plains. In cold winter nights the sound of railcars colliding together is like dry thunder as long trains of Wyoming coal are linked with long trains of shipping containers.
Less than a mile south is Pioneers Park, where on the far west end a few dozen bison and elk roam several acres. Perhaps their migratory instincts have been erased over the generations, or they may simply be latent and suppressed. Behind the barbwire fences that revolutionized borders, they pace around a small pond, rest beneath cottonwoods, stare at a small bit of prairie out beyond a dirt road and hear the same trains I hear at night. Those railroads carved up their world like they did the many Native American tribes. Railroad companies advertised overseas about cheap land for sale near rail lines and new towns, land the companies got for free from the government. Foreign agents visited towns and villages to rally poor Europeans, set up ocean passage, and donate railcars for cedar trunks, wagons, and stone farm implements.
Immigrants poured in from Russia. Almost 20,000 in five years. Some chose the Burlington Northern and settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas, some the Santa Fe and Kansas. All knew distance as a westward trajectory, homesteaders seeking religious freedom along the gridlines of progress. The buffalo fell from 50 million to a thousand in a century. The great Native American tribes were crammed into a dozen or so reservations in Oklahoma Territory—a place with the most diverse intersection of ecological regions of any state in the country.
As I lay waking in the morning I hear the short, sharp calls of a cardinal at the feeder, spaced every few seconds apart. To me they are a winter bird, a sharp holiday red against the faded green of invasive eastern red cedars they shelter in. The birds are home wherever they are, doing what they can in a landscape that changes radically every decade. The houses move out further, the trees move north as the earth warms. The fences and the highways dissect the land and separate us from it, making us no longer migrants but sheltered animals in a world we made without understanding the world of which we are. I hear the train cars colliding eastward toward bigger cities. I wonder if the bison can hear them, and if that call is now a primal fear. I wonder how far the hard echo reaches in the chilled morning of this late autumn, and how latent our instincts are to migrate again, one last time, beyond the lines we imagine hold us safely apart from one another.
* I was born and lived in Oklahoma for ten years before moving to Minnesota. Oklahoma has been a barren place for me full of soul-sapping depression and heaviness once you cross the border--in the red dirt you feel the whole history of the country's expansion sped up into a few decades, a microcosm of insanity. Minnesota has meant freedom and self expression for me, wilderness in every romantic sense. But as I live in Nebraska--almost perfectly between my two homes--I look south and see what the legacy of ecological, industrial, and cultural romanticism in America has left behind, and the strange new power it can provide as we redefine are now native land, for better or worse. And so, perhaps, begins the second memoir. Eventually.