Of all the elections I have studied and lived through I think this election brought home to me the great divide between the east and west coasts and “inland America” as Whitman describes it. From the east slopes of the Rockies to the Mississippi River and from Canada to Mexico is the heartland of America. Some have called it ‘the buffalo commons’. Those from the bigger cities say it is ‘empty’ and ‘barren’ and yet, those of us who live here and love this land, the great open spaces, the blue bowl of sky that covers us, would say it is anything but empty. The explorers and settlers who came here first, felt the ‘spirit’ of this place. It very quickly shaped their character -- who they were and what they would become. The ‘spirit’ was a sense of real freedom -- of body and mind. My mother, born and raised on the South Dakota prairies, told me how as a young girl she rode her horse across the land and said, “This is the life for me.” To live ‘inland’ is to experience a sense of being ‘scrubbed clean’, allowing you to see bedrock truth beneath the shifting sand. When you can see for miles with nothing to hinder the view then you know you have found a place which can house our souls, but is ours only briefly.
To live in this atmosphere does tend to shape the way you look at the land and its relationships with us. In attempting to sculpt the characters in my book, The Breaks, I quoted from Belden C. Lane’s Landscapes of the soul: “The quest goes on for a centered place, a place of empowerment and community where even today, one might discern in ordinary landscape that ‘Camouflage of the sacred.” (p. 226) Lane breaks out the relationship we seek from creation and which the prairie can give -- a centered place, a place of empowerment and community, a place that is sacred.
Reading Whitman’s poem we sense his belief the prairie gives birth to an individual who looks ‘carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors’. He says they hold an ‘earth-born passion, simple, never-constrain’d, never obedient. The “sea of grass” comes to identify a different breed of human: those who lead, not follow.
And Whitman’s name for this region is ‘inland America’ where our sense of history, our culture is different from the cities. We prefer less of frills and fancy and more of a lean, stripped down existence. We want honesty in our dealings and a day-to-day sense of reliance mostly on ourselves, but also knowing we can depend on our neighbors to help.
Perhaps we do eye with caution those who look us over with a flick of the eye, as if we lack any importance in the great scheme of things. These are the folks who have not studied their history nor have they driven the twisting two lane highways through the small towns that are off the road from the busy interstate system. We are not so easily dismissed. We are not part of a faceless blur of people. We know who we are and find our identity in the land around us. And we ask the question of Presidents and Governors: Who are you?
The Prairie-Grass Dividing by Walt Whitman THE prairie-grass dividing—its special odor breathing, I demand of it the spiritual corresponding, Demand the most copious and close companionship of men,
Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings, Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious,
Those that go their own gait, erect, stepping with freedom and command—leading, not following,
Those with a never-quell’d audacity—those with sweet and lusty flesh, clear of taint,
Those that look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, Who are you?
Those of earth-born passion, simple, never-constrain’d, never obedient,
Those of inland America.