Monday, October 18, 2010

Migration--Trains, Mennonites, Bison, Native Americans

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.


Diana Studer said...

That sounds as if it could be written around Australia or South Africa too. What has gone? What is left? Who is gone? Who is here? And if the birds migrate -those who end up on the island of Malta get shot as they land. Sorry, you don't need more bad news.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

This is great. Tell more of the Nebraska story, please.

Jim Groble said...

My German great grand parents went to Minnesota and then homesteaded near Red Lake.

Great narrative. jim

Christine B. said...

My late great grandfather, dead about five years now, was one of the last to be born on the Kooeeskooee Reservation in Indian Territory (before it became Oklahoma even!). The feds kicked all the Indians out...guess they found oil or something.

Every choice has a consequence, for good or ill. I try to remember that for everything from who I vote for to what products I use in the garden. My hope is my choices leave the world a better place for my children. No pressure, right?

Christine in Alaska

Gene said...

I was born and raised on a South Dakota dry land farm--I think it took 20 years in the Navy to get the dust out of my eyes. I left almost 50 years ago after spending four years at UNL. I share your insight into sounds carrying across the prarie on chilly/cold nights--they are so crisp. I guess I would say now that on the inside I knew as a young man that the great plains would never be my home. I do miss it at times but only for a short while.

Gene K

Les said...

Despite its nearness to the ocean, you would feel at home here. Coal cars hauling the insides of West Virginia mountains terminate here as they are loudly dumped upside down into waiting colliers in the harbor. The noise is loud as it echos off the water, but one grows accustomed to it.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

It's all very sad and disturbing. The bison no longer roam, but we move around more than ever, with few to no ties to the land. That's just wrong.

Benjamin Vogt said...

EE--Bad news is the news. We need an eco newscast at 10pm every night. I'll co-anchor.
Adrian--Well, there is no more NE story. It's all about Oklahoma, really, or will be. I imagine snippets will pop up on my blog over the next two years or so. So many people to talk to, so many books to read, so many places to visit.... it will be an evolving narrative.
Jim--Yup, lots of Germans in MN, but not my clan. There was a Mennonite settlement in SW MN, and one up in southern Canada.
Christine--That's amazing! And that he lived that long. Yup, must've found oil. Like the gold rush in the black hills.
Gene--I get seasick, likely part of my plains life. I can't imagine not seeing for miles in any direction, but that's the same onthe ocean, right? How different if the ocean aesthetically from the plains? We always describe "an ocean of grass."
Les--I feel at home nowhere, and everywhere. Mtn top removal--have you ever seen anything more evil, I mean pure pure pure evil? To me it's like seeing images of concentration camps.
MMD--The land is a place to temporarily live, to be used, to be sold and traded. Our whol life, our whole language, is one of commerce and distance. Even how we interpret major relgious texts. How can we ever be expected to love one place and be connected? How can we ever be expected to love one another as a result, or as a cause?

debsgarden said...

Interesting. Just a couple hours ago my husband and I were having a conversation about the bison and what has become of them. And Oklahoma - I know a man, a Native American, whose ancestors marched on the trail of tears to that place. He has relatives who live on a reservation there even now. It is all a sad part of our history. The world is endlessly full of such histories.

Benjamin Vogt said...

DG--I have a rocrd of the last reported bison in Kansas, which came wandering alone down mainstreet in some small town. A man and his rifle quickly dispatched it. They knew what they were doing, how sad to have been there! You are fortunate to know your friend, or not. We quickly forget what we do, and gloss over too much. But even my exercise in writing this all down seems quite futile and pointless, screaming into the darkness.

Carol said...

Very important, hauntingly beautiful writing Benjamin. Fascinating and I hope to read more of yours. That part of me that is a direct link . . . a blood line to the trail of tears . . . is housed within this body and mind with other lines that throughout time have been thoughtless, greedy and powerfully corrupt. The lines of destruction is endless. That part that was once so closely and sanely connected to the rhythms of nature . . . reaches out in my humble way . . . with every action hoped to be thoughtful and caring for all those of nature to live justly . . . plants and animals. I hold dear a closeness with a simpler life and the power of the purse to make my statements and support towards a saner world.

You are a gifted writer! Looking forward to the next installment.

Victoria Summerley said...

Wonderful story-telling - you have such a great talent for it.

Catharine Howard's Garden Blog said...

Migration never goes away - this post has tremors of Grapes of Wrath and sets me thinking of the new waves of migration that we can expect here with global warming. Disoriented bison and elk - I wonder whether they are like hefted sheep.
This week I am turning my thoughts to Lake Turkana and the dam building there which will cause population shift and migration.

Indoor Fountains said...

Sounds like such beautiful country out there. Thanks for sharing your incredible gift of literary expression

Benjamin Vogt said...

Carol--Beautifully said in your own right! Nice. I always wonder si small actiosn do matter, and I think they matter more for the indivdual doing them than some larger good. I.e. personal change = public change.
Victoria--I know. :) Let's hope the book someday won't stink.
Catharine--I need to reread that book! I just watched a vid with my students about a dam burying Native American sacred sites....
IF--It can be, but the beauty is always one of absence, negative space, distance, and solitude. Some call this hell.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Just as this comment form popped up, I heard a train whistle. I live about half a mile from east campus. I'm not sure where we hear the trains from, maybe near Cornhusker Highway.

I think about those things sometimes. I participated in some research study some students at UNL were doing involving images, odors, and politics. Part of it involved saying how we feel about our country past and present. There really are good and bad things that have happened, and continue to.

My dad's family were Germans from Russia. My grandma was a baby when her family came. They were migrant farm workers. When my grandma was a girl, they moved to Oklahoma for awhile. When they moved back to the bottoms, my grandma was called an "Okie" by those who didn't like her new accent. After their marriage, my grandma and grandpa worked the beet fields in the western part of the state.

Awhile back, I asked my parents to keep an eye open for any photos of the huge garden they had when they lived in the bottoms. They told me they couldn't find any. There is a photo of me, around 5 years old, standing next to some gladiolas or irises, I can't remember which, now.

I better get back outside! I came in from spreading compost when our next door neighbor's yard guy was spraying something on her lawn. It's windy out there! When I saw him leaving, I went out and asked what he'd been spraying. He said it was 2, 4 D. I called the extension office, and was given a number for the Department of Agriculture. The guy said it should be OK to continue spreading the compost. He said if any drifted, it will be gone by spring. Plus, the organic matter would prevent the plants from taking in the chemical. He also said it probably won't kill the nut grass they were spraying. :o(

Have a great weekend!