Writing a North Dakota Essay

I’ve been utterly charmed by some of the essays compiled over at the Midwessays project. You can check them out here

For a moment, I thought about writing an essay for this collection. I had two interrelated ideas, but I couldn’t manage to distill them into anything worth writing (and polishing). 

First: The Silence

I’ve lived in loud places. I grew up on the East Coast. I went to graduate school in an ersatz East Coast pseudo-Rust Belt city and have lived for a number of years in Athens, Greece. These place never seemed particularly loud to me. In fact, the ambient din of these places was comforting. Then I moved to North Dakota. 

To be clear, I do not live on some isolated prairie farmstead. I live in the third largest city in North Dakota, Grand Forks, and I live close to its revived and busy downtown. But even here there is a profound sense of silence.

I think it may be a combination of things. First, in the winter, a thick peace comes to the Red River Valley. You can almost see the peacefulness as the frigid winter air slows down outdoor activities, causes most self-respecting animals to bunker down, and most economical humans to close up their homes. Our houses become little capsules of life surrounded by deep quiet.   

Second, there is a sense of quiet here that emanates from a deep sense of privacy. People who live here in North Dakota know one another, but do what they can to keep their lives from becoming too entangled with those of their neighbors, coworkers, or friends. I suspect this has to do with their sense of self-sufficiency or maybe an outsized sense of family. It may even relate to their awareness of small town gossip. In daily practice, however, it means that many folks aspire to silence. People quietly going about their lives. 

Interlude

I’ve heard a story of a faculty member in another department who has taught an entire class without speaking. The class is conducted in total silence with neither the professor nor the students making any intentional verbal or non-verbal contact with one another over the course of the semester. As one might expect, half of the class regarded the course as a complete waste of time, while the other half left profoundly moved. 

I know the professor who teaches this class. He moves like a shade through the hallways of the English department without acknowledging anyone around him. It is said that he experienced a grizzly murder as a child which rendered him silent and distraught. Others say that he’s taken an oath of silence for some religious order. 

Second: The Public

Most days, I take some time for a walk on the Grand Forks Greenway. The Greenway is a large public park that doubles as part of the city’s flood mitigation system. Separated from town by a series of imposing flood walls, the Greenway is an amazing public space with parks, trails, paths, golf, and even a pool that traces the course of the Red River. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite public spaces and, as you might expect, the community takes particular pride in its size and amenities.

There are some funny things about the Greenway, though. The oddest is that when I’m walking, running, or biking around its paths, people rarely greet each other. In fact, many folks intentionally avoid eye contact or look pained when I say “hello” or even the typical half-wave that you encounter when driving on section line roads. In the past, I’ve connected this to the alienation associated with modern life

Now, I wonder whether it’s something else. I wonder whether it’s a distain for the very idea of public space. Folks from the West have long distrusted public spaces which limited or complicated the rights of individuals to make a living. In North Dakota this is no where more apparent than political conversations about oil and public lands (as well as the role of the state in protecting any sense of the commons whether through mask mandates or environmental regulations).

I wonder how much recent political trends have bred a sense of resentment toward public spaces and amenities. This must create a kind of unpleasant cognitive dissonance between those who enjoy the Greenway and the realization that it embodies the very commons that they distrust in other areas of life. 

This kind of dissonance must be distracting. Simple greetings while walking along the paths may even feel like a betrayal of their deep seated distrust of public spaces and the public good.

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