Learning to See the Land

Environment, Humanities

By Bryce Tellmann

Many, perhaps most, of the students I teach are from the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, all states that are frequently referred to as “Plains States.” (We can spend a lot of time debating the inclusion criteria for a state to qualify as a “Plains State,” but that’s a different post.) At some point in the semester, I usually ask them, as a group, to complete this sentence: “The landscape of my state is ______.” Almost invariably, I am met with a unison chorus of “flat!” or “boring!” This response is more than mere topographical observation.

I grew up in western North Dakota, seeing the landscape much as my students do: essentially flat and nondescript. Not until years later did I realize that I lived in a very dramatic landscape: knuckles of stone push their way out of ancient hills, the last evidence of resistance to glacial domination thousands of years ago. Stretches that appear flat are actually cascading downward, racing toward whatever rare stream or coulee will collect the sparse rainfall. The grass itself frustrates efforts to touch the ground, as one must dig through several inches of dense, matted undergrowth to find soil. This immense complexity is most evident at dawn and dusk, when the extreme angle of sunlight throws easily elided variation into sharp relief.