With the deepest sorrow I write today to say farewell. All things must pass. My time with the Bismarck Tribune now ends. I have had a great run. As of today, I have written 520 columns in the past 10 years. That’s almost 700,000 words. Nobody can say I haven’t had my chance to make my views known to the readers of this newspaper.
Writing for the Tribune has been one of the greatest pleasures of my whole life. You have given me the opportunity to try to express my love of North Dakota in all of its moods, to explore the back roads and the buttes and ridge lines —with you along for the ride. You have listened patiently as I attempt to make sense of the industrial revolution that has come to this unlikely place. Each week, in health and sickness, in times of great joy but also sadness and disarray, when I am here in North Dakota or somewhere else in the world, I have awakened on Wednesday mornings with a sense of delight and anticipation, because by noon on Wednesdays, whether I am on a cruise ship or at 38,000 feet over Telluride, Colo., I have had to push “send” and place my week’s essay in the hands of the editors at the Tribune.
You may think I have run out of things to say. Actually, it’s just the opposite. I believe we are living through the most extraordinary time in North Dakota history. The development of new technologies that permit us to extract oil from shale is the ultimate game changer. We are merely in the early second phase of this great social, economic and political revolution, and we are going to need all the hall monitors and commentators we can muster.
Almost every week, I walk into the grocery store or a coffee shop and someone I don’t know comes up to me to say hello and to say some version of this: “I just want to tell you that your column is the first thing I read every Sunday in the Tribune. I don’t always agree with you, but I like what you write and appreciate your point of view. Keep it up.”
That always makes my day. To my mind, that has been the point: to help to create a civil community dialogue about who we are, how we got to this point, where we are headed, what we value, what we fear, what we love about this place and how we should proceed into the future.
I almost always respond by saying, “Hey, I don’t always agree with me either.”
In the vast majority of my columns, I have written about the odd magnificence of North Dakota. If you have been a faithful reader of my words, you know that I believe that North Dakota is an acquired taste, that you don’t really love North Dakota unless you love it in all of its many moods — gossamer crocus and gale force winds — and that what is best about our mutual homeland is subtle and improbable. I write about family and holidays and books and friendships and gardening. Inevitably, I have written about the Bakken oil boom. That is not my favorite subject — by far.
My favorite subjects are thunderstorms that creep in from the west on an endless summer’s eve, the language of cottonwoods on a perfect fall afternoon in the badlands, the smell of dust in your nostrils as you drive the gravel roads north of Marmarth, the sacred majesty of the Little Missouri River, the glory of having a national park in our midst and the ground blizzard on Thanksgiving Day as you drive the family out to the old farm near Mott.
I have found it impossible not to write about the Bakken oil boom, not only because it is, I believe, the most important story in North Dakota history, certainly the primary story of our time, but also because I believe this rapid industrialization is challenging almost everything of importance in North Dakota life. I’m a Jeffersonian: I believe that an enlightened people engage in a civil public conversation about the things that matter most, even when that conversation is uncomfortable.
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How can I thank my readers enough for the gift you have given me of reading what I write and sometimes referring to my perspective in your conversations about North Dakota? I am immensely grateful to each of you. You probably have no idea how important this public forum has been to me. It has enabled me to “process” my love affair with the Great Plains and North Dakota, for writing is a much more formal and penetrating way of making sense of life than mere musing or conversation. It has drawn me to grand adventures all over the state. It has introduced me to a number of friends I would not otherwise have found, several of whom are among the greatest friendships of my life. It also has, paradoxically, provided a Rorschach Test to separate true friends from false ones, what Thomas Paine called “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.”
Readers of this column have gotten to know my family pretty well: my late grandparents Rhoda and Dick Straus of Fergus Falls, Minn., dairy farmers, who represent to me all that I admire in life. You have met my remarkable mother Mildred (but you must call her Mil), the strongest woman I have ever known, a frequent companion on my adventures and one of my closest friends. She often takes on a slightly comic aspect in these columns, because she provides great material for humor, but she is precisely the mother I would have ordered if the creator offered us parental options.
And if you have read these columns, you have watched my daughter grow up. I had not intended this, but there is a kind of father-daughter biography that has found expression here over 10 years.
I will miss this our weekly encounter more than I can possibly say. Indeed, I have been grieving this turn of events, and I will feel a hole in my life now that probably cannot be filled in any other way. Somehow, and I’m not sure why, this column has come to be an essential factor in my love of life, love of North Dakota and love of public dialogue.
In the end, I cannot decide whether I worry more about the future of North Dakota, this once quiet windswept landscape far from the main traffic lanes of American life, or delight to think about the breathtaking array of possibilities that will be coming our way in the decades ahead. Frankly, I think that is why I have been valuable: I’m certainly not an oil boom detractor, in spite of what the militant cheerleaders say, but I’m not a wholehearted supporter of the boom, either, because I see its capacity to erode values that I believe are central to the North Dakota character. I think my ambivalence is shared by the majority of the people of North Dakota.
I don’t plan to shut up. If I did that, I would have to leave North Dakota. I believe that every responsible citizen has a duty to observe what is happening, study it carefully, reflect on its impacts on North Dakota life and engage in a robust public conversation about the future. Beginning Monday, I will be seeking other ways to communicate with the people of North Dakota — and beyond.
The days are getting shorter. Sunrise this morning: 7:40. I still have 250 tomatoes to can. And miles to go before I sleep. As Thoreau says at the end of “Walden,” “The sun is but a morning star.” One door closes and another opens. I’m just getting warmed up.
To all of you, I say, with the sincerest gratitude, hail and farewell.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)