“Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” – Jose Ortega y Gassett, from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.” – from Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt
As part of my master’s degree in literature, I took a Great Plains literature class – mostly out of curiosity, but also because I was interested in reading literature from my general part of the country. I wanted to see if there were common threads that bind the regional narratives. I found that there are, in fact, elements which bind Great Plains narratives, and in my semester paper, I ended up working toward building a “Great Plains Framework.” (I brought together frame analysis, linguistic metaphor analysis, and Great Plains narrative in the paper.)
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Black Elk Speaks were added to my list of favorites, along with Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
The quotations above are just two of my favorite passages from the books. These lines are more than mere cliches; they are wholly true and, at least for me, are holy words. The passages themselves tell a story.
The storytelling tradition of the Great Plains is a rich one, with most narratives structured as a present time (whatever that may be) with flashes or extended periods of episodic memories or experiences of the past – as if time were fluid.
I experience time in this way. On a daily basis, I’m constantly moving about in a linear fashion through time, and then, something triggers one of those memories that sends me back in time. My memory triggers are typically features of the landscape, certain words or songs, and familiar scents. When I say features of the landscape, I mean anything from a certain kind of tree or a cool misty morning to a wide open pasture or an old pickup truck to a hideous geometric and primary color printed sweater or an old school Sony Walkman.
I do believe that our landscapes and the places in which we live influence who and how we are, at least to some degree, and how we experience time and move through life. This time and this life are not just about us as individuals. Our stories involve each other and are never strictly about ourselves.
Storytelling is never only about one character or place, but rather, it encapsulates everything and everyone who is involved in the story – from major to minor involvement.
Re-reading Black Elk Speaks and Dakota is on my to-do list for the near future. I’m drawn to these words. I’m compelled to read and re-read them. In some way, the words are fairy-tale-like, and for me, right now, that makes all the difference.