If it were 200 years ago and I was Yankton Sioux, an old man in a band of loosely arranged family members in a little garrison of tepees, I’d be up, awake, I'm sure, just as I am now, and wary. This morning, just outside, lightning fills the dark western sky, oozing thunder as it rolls east. The howling wind just won’t quit. It’s almost siren-y. I know buffalo were created for this landscape, but if I was in a teepee right now, some barebones structure smothered in buffalo hides, I’d still be even more edgy because this wind--this old man thinks--will take down any comer.
We’ve got huge white poplars out front of the house, unique monsters people sometimes stop to photograph. There's a lumbering maple too, just outside the living room window, its thick arms draped up and over the roof dangerously, this morning. For the last thirty years we’ve had huge trees just outside our bedroom; we've been blessed with anomaly—tall trees where for centuries there were none, trees as unusual to the tall-grass prairies as the immigrants who planted them like buoys on an ocean, huge shade trees creating shade that every years gave up limbs to the press of massive winds like the ones assaulting us right now.
On the Great Plains, people love trees, except in wind, when they get dangerous.
We took a hike on paths that wound through a prairie homestead a week or so ago, a chunk of land between the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers, a piece of ground that wouldn’t have been chosen by immigrant Hollanders because the soil was thin and sandy. In dry years the land would be the first to spit dust. I'm sure you'd be lucky to get a decent crop—if the river didn’t get you, drought would.
But the homestead is a beautiful place, and we loved the hike. Everywhere, there were cottonwoods, cousins to the poplars outside, trees some people understandably call weeds. They grow fast, but they’re dirty as heck, far softer than pine, and they give up their limbs all too easily in wind like this morning’s. They grow in groves where the land floods easily because, I’m told, it takes standing water to make cottonwood seed come to life.
Walking among them feels almost funereal in early spring, when they’re still buck naked. My grandson says they're broken—his way of describing trees in winter. But he's right--and they're broken in every way, naked and weary and limbless. They suffer greatly in this wind, but they're native, and their ancestors were here for Lewis and Clark. But they're all misshapen, every last one of them, even when they grow in groves. They're no match for the wind.
It's dark out, but I can't help but wonder how the trees just outside our house are doing in the din of battle just outside my window.
If I were in a tepee right here right now, I’d be even more awake and worried because that soft wood is no match for the wind that roars, king of beasts, just outside our windows. It just won't stop howling this morning, and I know for a fact, as he would, that it doesn't give a rip about what it takes down.
It's just here where I live, an angry neighbor, this wind, this brutal unrelenting wind.