Review of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

“Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” – St. Hilary, fourth-century Bishop

I’ve got deep family ties to South Dakota, so I decided to explore the state through the eyes of an acclaimed writer and fellow contemplative and mystic. Kathleen Norris moved to South Dakota from the city, after she inherited her grandparents home. Her reflections on her home state are deeply wise as well as folksy. The land is in her blood, and reading her book is a privileged opportunity to understand the deeply holy nature of the place.

She presents a people and a world of tensions, deliberately so. “‘Extremes,’ John R. Milton suggests in his history of South Dakota, is ‘perhaps the key word for Dakota…What happens to extremes is that they come together, and the result is a kind of tension.’ I make no attempt in this book to resolve the tensions and contradictions I find in Dakotas….” The tensions in the Dakotas seem to seep into Norris’s own writing. One such example is that she is harsh, even bitter, on several occasions when she denounces the scapegoating and infighting of small towns. On the other hand, when Norris writes about small town gossip, she does so with admiring, even sacred language:  “Surprisingly often, gossip is the way small-town people express solidarity….Gossip is theology translated into experience. In it we hear great stories of conversion, like the drunk who turns his or her life around, as well as stories of failure. We can see that pride really does go before a fall, and that hope is essential….When we gossip we are also praying, not only for them but for ourselves….At its deepest level, small-town gossip is about how we face matters of life and death….”

What I think I appreciated most in my reading was to relate to the landscape. “Above all, one notices the quiet, the near-absence of human noise.” As someone who has spent time in the Dakotas, I am deeply appreciative of the stillness and quiet of the Dakotas. On the one hand, to some people, this kind of silence can be maddening. For me, I find it soothing and contemplative. The land stretches on, dotted sparsely by farms and tiny towns. I feel like I can breathe that kind of stillness, and it gives me an incredible level of clarity.

Living in the Dakotas, however, is not easy, and Norris talks a good deal of the challenges she and other face. “The high plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them. Like Jacob’s angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing…Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.”

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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