On land that has been in our family for over 200 years, my grandfather from, Nebraska passed away last June. A hoarder of many things, he left me a leather diary. It was written by the relative who had originally homesteaded our acreage. His name was John Fletcher.
Family legend is that John left a professorship at Mary and Williams; and with his wife, Abby helped homestead the great American Plains - a patch of land that flows through the center of the United States from Canada to the Rio Grande in Texas. Two thousands miles north to south and reaching 500 miles west from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains – over a million square miles of desolate, but beautiful prairie land.
I’d often wondered what kind of man it took to settle such arid land. Land whose legacy would someday include winters that left men and cattle starved and frozen on its steppe; and droughts that would turn it into a dustbowl forcing farmers off its plains.
A prairie where Indians and White Men fought and died over a land that seemed content to chase men away, rather than embraced them to her bosom – a land with both the power and intent of wanting to be left alone.
Indeed, to some the plains were no more than a corridor to funnel fallow Arctic air over America’s heartland in an attempt to shunt its manifest destiny. In millennium past, it had been an inland sea with its detritus evident in thick marine fossils left behind on the flattened terrain.
I wondered can a strip of land not only define a man, his strength and resolve, but also a nation’s. Would I find not only a history of my family in these pages, but of my country’s as well?
On a hay bale in my grandfather’s barn, intrigued and intoxicated by the smell of the old, weathered pages, I opened the diary and began to read:
June 14, 1803
One cannot breathe the air without burning his lungs with the promise this land holds. Abby has at last forgiven me for giving up my professorship. She has, however, held fast to the bone china tea cups to remind us of more genteel ways rather than the bite of the plow and the grunt from harvesting fields and lowering cattle.
A later entry, vastly different read:
August 10, 1806
This land is as terrible as it is beautiful; and daily I hear more the creaks of the prairie schooners passing west than stopping. The Rockies to the west are a mighty and fearsome sight, but they shrink to what is carried in the winds of this forsaken land. I blame no man for moving on, but many stay as well.
If one could reap the wind, he would be rich as there is an over abundance of it here. In the summer, it sears the skin like a branding iron; and in the winter, it burns the face without pretense, freezing it in a cold flame that no fire can thaw. Daily, as if powered by the devil, the wind sucks water from land and sky. Crops rattles as dried bones in its constant wake.
I hear President Jackson has sent two men, Lewis and Clark out to survey this land to the Pacific Ocean. They hope to establish forts and settlements for fur trading along the Missouri River, cattle grazing, and homesteads planted with corn, wheat, and rye. Such are my dreams as Mr. Jackson’s for our nation to provide a means for man’s self-fulfillment. Abby, and those who homestead beside me will persevere and never let this dream die.
Wind blows through the door of the barn, creaking its hinges, distracting me. I lay the diary down and as I do, something white slips from its pages and falls to the ground. It is a sliver from a china cup, with a blue periwinkle beneath its glaze, perfectly preserved. It is identical to the set in my grandmother’s cupboard.
A fragment, but still treasured enough to be in John’s diary. In a moment, I had my answer to how a strip of land can define both a man and a nation. The Great Plains in the very heart of America, where prairie fires kill, grasshoppers devour and ill winds blow, had, in the end, surrendered to a greater, more defining power: a man and a nation’s will to persevere in keeping the dream of self-fulfillment alive.
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