Kathleen Norris’ transcendent nonfiction work opens with a quotation taken from the Spanish philosopher Jose’ Ortega y Gassett: “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Norris does just that, describing for the reader her starkly beautiful Dakota plains home—the physical world—as a means of revealing her own inner landscape, the topography of her very soul. In clear, richly imagistic prose, Norris presents disparate bits of information—weather reports, geographic and historical facts, quotations, lines of poetry, religious references—and skillfully weaves a story from the resulting mix, a story not only of one place and one life, Norris’s own life in her adopted home of Lemmon, South Dakota, but the more universal tale of how each and every one of us comes to call a certain place “home.”
The story of how Norris, a poet (Falling Oft; 1971; The Middle of the World, 1981; The Year of Common Things, 1988), came to call the Great Plains her own is nothing short of remarkable. From the very beginning, Norris speaks of her life in Dakota (a term she uses for both North and South Dakota) as one of destiny. “This is my spiritual geography,” she writes, “the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance.” Norris and her husband, also a poet, both left successful careers in New York City in the early 1970’s to take over Norris’s ancestral home in Lemmon. “We expected to be in Dakota for just a few years,” Norris writes. Yet luckily for the reader, Norris and her husband remained in Lemmon permanently, supporting themselves through a series of odd jobs (Norris worked for a time as a poet-in-the-schools), stubbornly clinging to a land that often seemed to reject all attempts to claim it, all the while fighting to explain their move to baffled city friends, to curious native Dakotans, whose innate distrust of outsiders might be enough to scare anyone away, and to themselves.
Norris recognizes others’ bewilderment at her decision to remain in such a seemingly desolate environment, and much of Dakota is taken up with her reflections on what it means to give up the trappings of outward success—steady jobs, a supportive artistic community, dinners out, even television—in order to find inner peace. What makes her story so engaging is her ability at one moment to share in others’ bafflement at her monastic Plains existence—“Where I am is a place where the human fabric is worn thin, farms and ranches and little towns scattered over miles of seemingly endless, empty grassland”—and the next moment to celebrate with a poet’s keen eye the striking beauty of a land stripped to all save for vast stretches of earth and sky. It is not as if Dakota is easy to like. It is, after all, a land abandoned by 80 percent of its homesteaders within the first twenty years of its settlement, Norris tells us. To carve a life out of such unforgiving territory it takes a certain faith (which Norris possesses in abundance) and a love for all that is not simple or obvious or even, finally, of this world. By breaking down her life and her land into their most simple elements—reflected in chapter titles such as “Dust,” “Frontier,” “In the Open,” and “Weather Report”—Norris charts the path she has followed in her journey from city skeptic to Plains believer.
First and foremost in Norris’ inner pilgrimage is the land itself. Dakota is a desert—literal and in some ways cultural—and in exploring the link between self- identification and place, Norris writes of inheriting country so barren and at times so foreboding—dust storms, little rainfall, bitter cold, and baking heat are the norm—that often it is a struggle simply to survive. Instead of giving up or becoming disillusioned in the face of such adversity, she rises to the challenge not only of meeting the land and its inhabitants (in some areas, not even two per square mile) on their own terms but also of coming to the realization that she must completely change her perceptions of what has value and meaning in her life. Dakota pushes its inhabitants to both test and question what they are made of: “A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky.” For Norris, this means a gradual spiritual conversion, a search for what she calls the desert within the desert. Faced with the seemingly endless emptiness of prairie, she...
(The entire section is 1858 words.)