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Writers on Wind
Aug 13, 2013
Wind is an omnipresent force in South Dakota. We notice the rare absence of wind almost as much as strong gusts that ruin a summer picnic or dangerously carry snow during blizzards. Our state is consistently ranked as the fifth windiest by the National Weather Service.
Throughout South Dakota's history writers have written about our wind, trying to capture the sound, the bite and relentlessness of prairie gales. There are rumors, which may be exaggerated, of pioneers going insane from the constant wind. More likely it was a mix of loneliness, poverty, harsh weather and extreme hardships that most settlers faced.
Kathleen Norris wrote a passage in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that gives a glimpse into how wind can affect the psyche:
"In open country, far from any trees, the wind beats against you, as insistent as an ocean current. You tire from walking against it just as you would from swimming against an undertow. Working outdoors on such a day leaves you dizzy, and your ears will still be ringing at night, long after you have drawn the shelter of four walls around you.
The wind can be a welcome companion on a hot day, but even die-hard Dakotans grow tired when the sky howls and roars at forty miles an hour for a day or more. The wind is so loud you have to shout at the person next to you, and you can't hear yourself think at all. You begin to wonder if you have a self."
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hamlin Garland was not a stranger to midwest winds. He was born in Wisconsin but the winds he experienced on the prairie stood out. "It was like all the roarings of all the lions of Africa, the hissing of a wilderness of serpents, the lashing of great trees. It benumbed his thinking, it appalled his heart, beyond every other force he had ever known."
Sheepherder Archer Gilfillan touched on wind in a more lighthearted manner in his nationally acclaimed 1929 book Sheep (which was more about his Harding County neighbors than about sheep). Gilfillan wrote that the "force, not to say violence of the wind may be judged by the fact that when it is due east or west the transcontinental trains frequently blow through our towns as much as a day and a half ahead of schedule."
South Dakota Magazine contributing editor Paul Higbee reflected on prairie wind for the May/June 2008 edition. In Lakota culture, he wrote, wind is a benevolent spirit Tate (tah-tae). "Tate is the father of the four directions and the epitome of what a good husband and father should be: strong and gentle, masculine yet unafraid of being nurturing and mother-like."
And Black Elk, Oglala Lakota holy man, wrote that wind is part of the great circle. "Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves."
Wind is as natural as our prairie grass, hills and flowing rivers. It is a part of the circle of life of which Black Elk speaks. Although we can't see it, its force affects everything around us, our actions and even our thoughts.