Debra Marquart

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The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere
                    Prologue:  Pilgrim Soul

Farmboys. How we avoided them when they came around, their hands heavy with horniness, their bodies thick with longing. Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds.

       And who could say where their hands had been? On pitchforks, mowers, inside swathers, combines. They were patient boys, those long hours in the saddle of the tractor, plowing dark furrows in the fertile earth. They might be grasping the teats of milk cows at sunrise, killing gophers in the afternoon, and be on you by nightfall. No, no. Best to stick with townboys, their soft saliva mouths, their round corduroy shoulders, their talk of plans for college.

       We were farmgirls running tall through pastures.  We had long shiny hair and peach-fresh skin.  Born to carry the milk bucket, the alfalfa bale, our hands soon mastered the manual transmission.  We learned to speed shift, double clutch.  Our feet never knew the brake.  We roared down the section lines in our fathers’ pickups, empty gas cans clanging in the truck bed.  We left trails of dust behind us.

       This was no little house on the prairie. We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times.  We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, and navel-exposed. We walked around town like the James gang, tossing this and flashing that.

       We came in pairs sometimes, first cousins, second cousins, double cousins—it thrilled the imagination. Some were brunette with delicate features, some had hair that hung heavy as gold down the angle of a jaw line. Some of us had wild laughs that never led to wild actions.  Some had older sisters who got in trouble and had to get married or had to be sent away to homes for wayward girls. 

       We had strong white teeth. We shone them on the world. We spoke the international language of beauty.  All the immigrant grandparents gossiped in German about us.  We were wayward girls looking for the untroubled way.  We were best in show, the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop, too good for this place, everyone agreed. We were programmed for flight.  We farmgirls lived north, south, east, and west of town. In the middle of all this was me—the girl that I was then—the watcher, leaning toward the periphery.



Grow Where You’re Planted, that poster I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, I know I never believed it. Was it the image I liked that made me duct-tape it to the wall? A daisy with a bent stalk growing out of a square pot. Two other posters, Label Jars, Not People and Make Love, Not War, I believed. But Grow Where You’re Planted, never. In my childhood, like those people with suitcases packed and waiting for the mother ship, I prepared myself for transplantation.

       Napoleon, the small town in North Dakota where I grew up—1,107 people, three bars, two grain elevators, a post office, a drugstore, a courthouse, a funeral home, and farmland stretching for miles in all directions. The only jobs I saw around me were farmer, banker, and priest. The prospects for women were worse—teacher, housewife, nun.  Not one of them an occupation I imagined for myself.

       I watched television for clues, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about a beautiful single girl who twirled around and flung her hat in the air in a public square, she was so happy to be young and living in Minneapolis. She worked in a news office. That could be me. I watched That Girl, about a pretty single girl living in New York. She had a boyfriend, Ted, who came around almost every day. Her father lived nearby; she saw him occasionally.

       I watched A Family Affair, a show about a teenage girl, Cissy, and two freckle-faced, strawberry blond kids, Buffy and Jody, whose parents had died in some way that we are never told. The program is a sitcom, and it would be too sad to know how the children were orphaned. They are sent to stay with their only living relative, their Uncle Bill, a city-dwelling bachelor played by the actor Brian Keith. It’s unclear what he does for a living. He’s far too busy and preoccupied to raise three needy children, and he is rich, rich, rich.

       Fortunately, he has a butler, Mr. French, who is good with children, who can cook and clean and care for all their needs. The children warm to him. Mr. French is gentle and rotund and always ready with food. Each episode centers on the ways in which the two men are perplexed by the strange emotional world of the children who have been put in their charge.



Farmboys. Best to avoid them, with their forty head of Angus cattle, their prize bulls for breeding, their 160 acres of wheat.

       A few years ago in the state of North Dakota during a campaign to raise money for family farms, the state tourism bureau produced a calendar of hunk bachelor farmers--gorgeous, four-color photographs--one shirtless bachelor farmer for every month of the year. They came in all varieties and sizes. They were big-armed, muscular, and deep-tanned, or they were small, well-toned, and scrappy, but they were all, each one of them, the calendar assured us, extremely lonely for women out there on the plains.

       The same year, an article in the Wall Street Journal reported that multitudes of dairy farmers lived the same lonely life on the rolling, lake-pocked ranges in Minnesota. The article asked where all the big Minnesota farmgirls had gone? The answer: to the big Minnesota towns like St. Paul and Minneapolis.

       Sustainable agriculture. Farmboys stay with the land; farmgirls run away to college, or to good jobs in the city. The Journal article reported that the lonely hunk dairy farmers were looking for wives, just as in the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.



The state flower of North Dakota is the wild prairie rose, almost a desert flower. It crops up along roadsides and ditches, draws little attention to itself--prickly green foliage, tiny pink blossom bent low to the ground. A wallflower rose, I thought, for a wallflower state.

       Called the “Roughrider State”—after Theodore Roosevelt’s first U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, which actually fought dismounted in Cuba due to logistical problems—or the “Peace Garden State,” after the Peace Gardens, North Dakota is also known as the “Flickertail State,” a nickname inspired by the flicking of a running ground squirrel’s tail. 

       Despite the abundance of Richardson’s ground squirrel in North Dakota, legislation making it the state animal was defeated in 1953.  That distinction now goes to the state’s honorary equine, the Nokota horse, a unique breed thought to be a descendant of Sitting Bull’s war ponies.  The state drink of North Dakota is milk; the state dance is not the waltz, not the two-step, the polka or the rhumba, but the square dance. 

       In North Dakota, we had very little spring and even less fall. Three blistering months of summer packed between eight bitter months of winter. A season of blowing dirt followed by a season of snow and ice. And always there was the wind.

       With sixteen inches of precipitation on the hundredth meridian, even less in the western parts of the state, only the toughest grasses survive: buffalo and gramma grasses, little bluestem, switchgrass, crested wheatgrass. Even fields of sweet corn can’t reach full maturity in the short growing season. Farmers grow the hardiest cropsflax, barley, sunflowers, Marquis hard red spring or durum wheat, introduced from Russia for its ability to ripen early.

       Drive through the plains states west of the hundredth meridian in summer, and you will see the fields shot through with crops of gold and yellow and tan. Fewer crops of deep, verdant green like the corn and soybeans that prosper in wetter states like Iowa and Illinois. Plants that grow west of the hundredth meridian must learn to survive on less or die.



Sometimes towngirls who don’t know any better marry farmboys. First, they get all soft and romantic at the sight of those rugged farmboy hands.  Then they begin to imagine their idyllic life on the farm. It would be nice to have some animals, the towngirls croon. Maybe a horse or two.

       It’s a farmgirl code not to warn the towngirls about the farmboys, about their horny hands and their uncanny ability to plant seeds. It’s retribution, a farmgirl payback.

       Towngirls had noon lunches at home, while farmgirls sat on hard school benches eating not-so-hot hot lunches. Towngirls got to be cheerleaders, school newspaper editors, homecoming queens.

       Farmgirls got to milk cows, haul bales, pick rocks. They got to work in the barns and the fields beside their brothers, the farmboys, like equals in the cold winters and hot summers.

       Each year on the last day of school, the farmgirls mounted the steaming row of buses on the curb for the long ride home. They were going far from town now—east, west, north, south—sometimes hour-long bus rides deep into the country.

       Goodbye, farmgirls. The towngirls rode by on their banana bikes and waved, not in a mean way, but in a towngirl way, oblivious to any hardship around them. See you in three months, the towngirls sang, thinking about a long summer of picnics and swimming-pool afternoons.

       The farmgirls glowered at the towngirls through the bus windows, thinking of spreading straw with pitchforks when they got home. The farmgirls knew that in the summer, aside from church, they might get to town three or four times: a few Friday nights, the Corn Show, maybe the Fourth of July. By the end of the summer, they knew their boyfriends would be towngirl boyfriends.

       Now it was rude awakening time for the towngirls. It’s best they not know what’s coming. Someone has to stay with the land, the farmgirls think, and it better not be us. Soon enough it will be towngirl hands weeding the acres of carrots and potatoes.

       Some of the towngirls take to farm life, make the best of it. They throw themselves into gardening, canning. They get really good at it. They take up rosemaling. They buy old dressers and learn to strip and revarnish them. They dig antique clay pots out of junkyards and place them in their foyers as umbrella stands.

       But many of the towngirls break under the pressure and run away from their tanned, muscular husbands, leaving behind toddlers and teenagers. Many farmboys get left behind like this, even the choicest ones, like those featured in the state tourism bureau’s Hunk Bachelor Farmer calendar.



The farmhouse I grew up in was once an icehouse, a thick hull of four walls where ice was stored for people to buy in slab form before home refrigeration. People say my great-grandfather, Joseph Marquart, bought the icehouse from the creamery in town a few years after he immigrated to Dakota Territory from his village in south Russia. They say he hauled it with oxen across the lake that stands between our farm and town, during the coldest part of winter when the lake was completely frozen over.

       He dragged the shell of the icehouse up the hill of our farm and set it on the basement foundation he had prepared. He added a second floor with many rooms for all his children and a balcony that ran around the exterior of the second floor. My older cousin Tony, who grew up in the house, told me that Great-Grandpa liked to sit on the balcony and look out over the many acres he owned. He liked to imagine the generations of his family that would live together in this place for many years to come.

       It was a big, drafty farmhouse with creaky wood floors, one bathroom installed in the fifties, a large kitchen with a round table in the center, a coal furnace in the basement, and staircases steep as ladders.

       The bedrooms were hot and airless in the summer, freezing in the winter. The windows blew like saxophones in the hard wind of Alberta clippers. Each day of the winter, I woke up cold in that icehouse, my red nose peeking out from under the blankets. I dreaded setting my bare foot down on the freezing wood floor. I knew some of my grandparents had died in those rooms.



Watching A Family Affair as a child, I coveted most the high-rise apartment that Buffy and Jody got to live in. The elevators were nice, I thought, as was the friendly doorman. The apartment’s large windows overlooked the lights of the city, and Mr. French was always waiting with a tray of cookies.

       I watched The Bob Newhart Show, about a mild-mannered psychologist working in downtown Chicago. I liked Bob Hartley’s patient nature. All around, he was surrounded by strange, nervous people, but no problem presented by a client or a friend seemed too outrageous to him.

       At night he went home to his beautiful wife, Emily, played by the actress Suzanne Pleshette, who had a deep voice and a horsey laugh. They cooked dinner together and talked about what kind of a day they’d had. They drank wine from fluted glasses and looked out over the lights of the city.

       “You can’t get there from here,” my father used to say when I spoke too long or enthusiastically about the cities I planned to someday run away to.  I had consulted maps; I thought I knew otherwise.  Did he mean to imply that the gravel road outside our farm was not connected to other roads, and that those freeways had not paved and multi-laned in preparation for my flight?



As a child I remember my mother as overworked and preoccupied, slamming doors and cupboards. She was always busy with her hands, milking cows, washing dishes, canning, sewing, gardening, working with the farm bills, the messy pile of receipts, her worried fingers on the calculator. She was always running from place to place.

       In the barn, she would throw a milker on the cow then run across the yard into the house to put dinner in the oven. From my upstairs teenage bedroom, where I was reading or listening to the radio, or playing my big Kay guitar with two squiggly F’s for sound holes, I might be singing spirituals or protest folk songs about suffering and endless hours of labor in the fields, and I would hear her fling the door open downstairs and then the house would shake with the stomping of her feet.

       She’d throw open the refrigerator and tear the roast from its wrapper. She would clatter a pan on the kitchen counter then throw the roast in with a loud thump. She’d tear open the packet of French onion soup, sprinkle it over the meat, run a little tap water into the pan, throw the whole thing in the oven, and be out the door and back to the barn in time to take the milker off the finished cow and put it on the next one.

       One day, my mother stopped at the foot of the stairs to listen to me. I didn’t hear her come in. I was practicing my solo for choir, testing the limits of my voice.

“The Lord’s Prayer,” I remember I was singing. For thine is the kingdom—I was climbing to the crescendo—and the power—I was building to the climax—and the glory—approaching the rarefied atmosphere only the first soprano can inhabit—for-e-ver—I was holding and holding the second syllable, the high note—for-e-ver—I was stretching time, losing meter, my voice shaking the windows with its power, and before I could bring it down to the Amen, settle the song gently to the ground, I heard another voice break through, a louder voice, screaming from downstairs. I could barely make it out, the words shut up I heard, and my mother’s voice screaming louder than I could sing— “Shut up” —and yelling up the stairs, “Don’t sing in the house,” my mother’s voice yelling, “Just stop singing in the house.”



What is the sound of a pilgrim soul singing? As a child growing up in North Dakota, I felt myself wanting to grow tall and wild. When you’re young, it’s natural to be green and vivid. But I heard cautions all around me: “You’re not so hot”; “Don’t get too big for your britches.”

       How to find sustenance and nurture oneself to maturity in a place that yields only sixteen inches of precipitation a year? Like the grasses and crops around us, we lived on the narrow margin of life. Large houses, shiny cars, nice clothes, big talk—all unnecessary expenditures of limited resources.

       Best not to sprout unsustainable foliage. Then what will you do during the dry years? We watched each other for signs of vanity. Anyone inclined toward extravagance was pruned back, wing-clipped: “She’s beautiful, but she knows it”; “He thinks his shit doesn’t stink.”

       If I were a flower, I thought, I would want to be a hollyhock, a tall, sturdy stalk, opening large flowers everywhere, or a tiger lily, orange and black petals opening shamelessly to the world.

       I knew the effects of drought, had witnessed it in my father’s fields--stalks and sheaves withered on the vine. Nothing sadder than the nodding head of a dry bud.

       Still I dared to imagine myself in full blossom.  I could be the pampered rose, unbridled beauty accompanied by thorns, or the hothouse orchid, a fragile thing that everyone fusses over. Even in this dry place, I told myself, I must find a way to bloom.  I must never allow myself to be blighted.



In 1974, my parents drove me to Bismarck, where I would be attending junior college, and dropped me off at the front door of my girls’ dorm with my few boxes of clothes, records, and books. They didn’t come up to my room. They were worried about rush hour traffic and getting home in time to do chores.

The goodbyes were not tearful. I was the youngest and wildest of their five children. I won’t say they were glad to be rid of me. Perhaps they were just happy to be on their own for the first time in twenty-five years.

       I suppose I stood on the front steps of the dorm and waved goodbye to them as they drove off, and I imagine they waved back. They were not the kind of people who didn’t wave back.

       The half-mile stretch of gravel road leading out of my parents’ farm is framed on either side by cottonwood trees that are over seventy feet tall. My great-grandfather planted these trees, grown from a packet of government seeds given to prairie farmers, after he arrived from Russia in the 1880s.

       In my 1960s childhood, I felt the cottonwoods loomed like giants over us, ringing the northern edge of our yard. I was frightened of their height. I had nightmares that the thick trunks would come down in the heavy wind; that they would fall the entire length of our big backyard, break through the roof, and crush me in my bed. I did not understand then about the deep tangle of roots underneath that holds things up, that holds things in place.

       The day before I left home for college, I took a photograph of the road leading out of my parents’ farm—the long driveway stretching out to the open wheat fields and the giant tops of the cottonwoods reaching up to the sky.  The photograph must have been taken in late afternoon. The shadows are long. The light is cast in gold and bronze, the sweet color of memory. 

       The picture of home was one undeveloped frame in my camera, the first in a succession of images I planned to collect of more interesting places.  I got myself on that road, and I did not wave back.  I concentrated only on flight. 

And for a long time, it seemed to me, North Dakota looked best only when glanced at briefly while adjusting the rearview mirror.