This is a guest post by Joni Norby who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Minnesota. Enjoy.
I remember twilight. There is nothing like the endless Minnesota twilight of early July. It’s almost always warm and sunny by this time of year and the days live on until 10 pm or so; even when dark finally falls, daylight lurks in the shadows. There is no mauve 8 o’clock here.
July 4th on Lake Traverse is my favorite twilight. Generations of my family celebrate our nation’s birth together by hosting a day-long, massive pot luck feast until evening when it’s time to arrange our deck chairs around the edges of a large, grassy recreational area that borders Shady Dell beach. It’s here that the firework display is staged. Patriotic, rock, and country music blares from the speakers of a local DJ (a relative) and the grandchildren of the firework master (also relatives) distribute cups of red, white, and blue popcorn and American flags to the land-based crowd while the lights of hundreds of lake vessels anchored just off the shore dot the darkening water. Family and friends alike wait excitedly for what is to come.
Just as the sun finally surrenders and the Mourning Dove calls its last lament, the first fireworks explode into the star-sprinkled sky and shower down onto the glassy calm of the lake creating a psychedelic vertigo within the clamoring crowd. Yes, we are celebrating our nation’s birth, but also the bonds of our family to this place.
Lake Traverse shares its name with the county. Both are very easy to spot on a map. The county covers the northern half of the “bump” that forms the western border of Minnesota where the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” meets up with low rolling hills of South Dakota. It’s the southern boundary of the Red River Valley, where water runs north and the eastern vista is so flat that its endlessness can take your breath away. This whole area was once part of an enormous glacial lake, named Agassiz; what remains of this prehistoric water mass (in addition to Lake Traverse) is some of the world’s finest farming soil. It’s this heavy, black loam and an unnaturally flat terrain that lured my ancestors, and many others, to what was considered the western frontier in the mid-1890s.
The promise of a better life and the purchase of a land grant under the Homestead Act brought my great-grandfather and his family to the eastern edge of Traverse County, Clifton Township, from Somerset, Wisconsin. This farmstead has been my family’s home for almost 120 years, yet to me our ownership feels temporary. The field plow still unearths artifacts of times past: arrowheads and shells, specifically. There are wide, shallow depressions in the soil caused by bison that once rolled on the ground to rid themselves of menacing insects, before the real menace of the American expansion west drove them out of the grassy flat lands forever.
Yet for all these ghosts, the prairie is very much alive. If I pay attention I can feel it dance: the rhythm of the flat lands doesn’t flow like a breezy waltz but jolts with the give-and-take of a choppy Argentine tango. Seasons don’t blend together; they clash and bump up against one another. Sometimes spring will get ahead of itself and winter will pull it back to its rightful place. Summer often over-sleeps and rolls in late. Autumn usually arrives on time, but can tease me with an unmistakable sharpness of air that can be felt as early as August.
Of all the valley’s natural forces, nothing holds off the inevitable repose of winter quite like twilight; even in late October the burnt evening sky fights on. Leaves can curl and blow away, crops can be harvested, and frost can dust the ground, but the sun still clings to the west. It blankets the prairie with a brilliant blood red while it loses its grip and slips down the horizon into parts unknown. Twilight’s lingering glow refuses to disappear completely until it has burned its brilliance into my memory, holding me close until spring when it once again will rule the evening sky.
Joni Deal Norby is a Minnesota native and has studied creative nonfiction and poetry as part of Stanford University’s Online Creative Nonfiction Writing Series and at The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Joni is an emerging writer with publications in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s literary publication Red Weather, spring 2013 and spring 2014. Joni currently lives with her husband Dave in California’s Central Valley, but still summers on Minnesota’s western prairie. You can follow Joni on Twitter @norby_joni.