Dakota plains life demands deep roots

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rainbow in South Dakota

Yesterday night, standing with my husband on the front porch watching rain-swollen storm clouds roll toward us from the west, I said aloud: “It doesn’t even feel like we are in the same country as last year, does it?”

“No,” he said, and chuckled.

Drought

Many times last summer we stood on the porch looking across the neighbor’s field, hoping and praying the clouds we could see in the distance would drop a tiny bit of moisture on the dry, broken grasses, knowing lightning strikes and wildfires were more likely.

No moisture meant nothing grew all summer. Even the hundred-year-old trees in the windbreak looked ready to call it quits by the time September arrived in a blaze of unrelenting heat. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was feeling the same as those weary trees at summer’s end.

After my first experience with sustained drought six years ago, I joked I knew I wasn’t from prairie stock because my instinct was to head back east, where fresh water is more abundant and shade trees easier to locate. During the last few seasons of drought, I wasn’t joking anymore. I didn’t sign up to live in the desert, and I really begin to believe it would never rain again.

Long winters don’t intimidate me, and neither does the hard work of ranch life. But that dry, endless heat sure does. The agony of waiting for rain and watching for fire day in and day out while the garden, cured by the ceaseless winds, turns brown no matter how much you water it. That is a feeling I dread.

Damp country

Thank goodness two late blizzards and a few well-timed rainy evenings this spring meant the grass had already begun to grow in earnest before the kids and I left for Minnesota a few weeks ago. Still, the buds on the trees were only starting to burst open, and there were plenty of brown patches in the pasture.

“Look at the trees! Look at the grass!” I told them as we crossed the state line. “You can tell they get a lot more rain here, can’t you?” I said, almost giddy to be in damp country again.

Once we arrived at my mom’s house in Minneapolis, I couldn’t believe the overflowing gardens on almost every corner — peonies, bleeding hearts, irises, periwinkle — the abundance was awe-inspiring. Nothing at all like my garden at home.

Rain

While we were gone, however, it rained twice, and it has rained twice more since our return. The result is air thick with humidity, waist-high grasses in the windbreak, greens in the garden that grow an inch overnight. I even moved my houseplants to the patio, and they have never looked happier.

When I take the dogs out to walk across the hillsides in the evening, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Several years’ worth of wildflowers are suddenly blossoming all at once, and the grass and shrubs are a green so electric it almost hurts to look at them.

Deep roots

What does it mean to live in a place that pushes you right to the limits of your own emotional survival, and sometimes even pushes you a little past them? I’ve written before about how the folks who live and work on the Dakota plains have to be as resilient and deeply rooted as the grasses that thrive here.

They have to be able to go into survival mode and live with less for a year or two, sometimes more. But when abundance arrives on the wings of rain clouds? Well, then they must be ready to sing a new song. They must be ready to celebrate the beauty of a fresh morning, of fleecy lambs leaping through tall grass, or sturdy cows trailing slowly across emerald hillsides.

I wasn’t born here, so I don’t have those deep roots yet. But I am learning, and I am evolving. Once upon a time, this ground was the bottom of an intercontinental ocean. Now it is home to a sea of grass. Everything is always changing, including me, and for that I am very thankful.

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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.

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