“. . .they are like the new grass of the morning—
though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.”
“This is a harsh world,” she told me when I sat down for coffee. “It’s not a particularly nice environment.” She was talking about the place where she’d lived all of her life, south central South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation, north and west of Valentine, Nebraska.
Her family had come there by way of a famous government plan, the Dawes Act (1889), created by a man who believed in the near-redemptive power of private property. It was Henry Dawes’s idea that by giving Indian folks each their own chunk of reservation land, two objectives would be accomplished: first, Native people would gain pride from that ownership, despite the fact that the idea of owning land was mystifying, even irreligious, to many indigenous folks; second, Dawes (and others) felt that allotting reservation land to Native people—and giving them the freedom to do with it what they will—would undermine the tribal system, which was anathema to “civilizing” the Indian.
Most historians concede the Dawes Act was a miserable failure for a score of reasons, not the least of which was sheer corruption and graft. White folks took advantage of Native ways and took control of thousands of acres of land originally given to the tribes. Way out there on the dry as dust Great Plains, it’s difficult to know who was the sorriest victims were—the Brule Sioux who lost all that reservation land, or the idealist settlers, who figured all they needed to do was put up a sodhouse and plant some trees and they’d be well on their way to the American Dream.
It’s short-grass prairie country, and if the almost seasonal droughts don’t get you, the hoppers likely will. The woman I was talking to wasn’t at all wrong: the world she lived in was harsh and unforgiving.
One story she told me I’ll never forget. Some grand uncle and his family moved to a vacant farm out there, from Iowa, where he’d farmed before. He planted corn, just as he always had. The spring rains were a blessing, she said, and by July 4, the corn was promisingly close to knee-high. Life on what was then the frontier was promising and sweet.
But one afternoon a blast of hot wind rose from the south. The temperature had already reached 100 degrees, and that scorching wind—you can know its ravages only by having experienced it—flattened the entire crop. No tornado. No hail. Just a long wretched blast of hot wind and the entire crop was gone. That fast. In a flash.
“The very next day,” she told me, “my uncle put his kids and all his belongings in the wagon he’d rode in on, and left Todd County, South Dakota, gave the horses a snicker—and they were gone back east.” In the morning that crop was rich; by evening it was withered. Gone. So was he and the family.
Moses isn’t talking about the prairie here, or the harsh open spaces of the Great Plains. He’s talking about us—and our aspirations, our lives, about time and the cold hard fact of death, of crops, lush and green, flattened by a searing southern wind.
Our lives, he says—when you think about it—they’re like that corn: here today, gone tomorrow.
There’s little that’s sweet about such sentiment. But it’s the undeniable truth he’s admitting, as the psalms often do.