Clay Jenkinson joined Good Day Dakota to discuss his new book “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota.”
Jenkinson is known for his work as a humanities scholar, columnist, creator of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, and his nationally syndicated radio program and podcast “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.”
The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota is Jenkinson’s 14th book. Eric Sevareid (famous CBS News Journalist from North Dakota & Jenkinson’s hero’s) called North Dakota, “a large rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.” In other words, a not a very distinguished state.
“I love this state, I’ve loved it all my life, and I’ve been trying to understand it. And, now we’re at a crossroads. The old family paradigm that has really been the basis of North Dakota since 1889 is changing. We’re moving toward robotic agriculture, to industrial gigantism, and it’s not clear what happens to the family farms and the communities that supported them. And, of course, the energy boom has been a remarkable and mostly good thing for North Dakota, but we all see the handwriting on the wall. That we’re going to be moving globally to a post-carbon world, or a less carbon world, and what that means for North Dakota is unclear, so this book is a lovesong to North Dakota, it’s my favorite book of all the books I have written but it is also an attempt to kind of wrestle with these problems. What is North Dakota going to look life 50 or 75 years from now,” explained Jenkinson.
Jenkinson explains North Dakota is not on top of the list for states people want to visit. In fact, it’s the last and least visited state. Jenkinson poses the questions: “How will we maintain our cultural vibrancy in a post-agrarian time, know that we live in this wind swept, long winter, raw sort of place?”
Another aspect of ‘The Language of Cottonwoods’ is giving the youth of North Dakota a bigger role in reshaping the state so that it remains vibrant and viable in the 21st century, without making it unrecognizable to the older generations.
Jenkinson explains, “I love the older generations, of course I am now a part of it for the first time, but these are the people that made North Dakota. I have been teaching a course at the University of Mary on the great plains. These pioneers sacrificed in ways that you and I can’t even probably imagine to prove up this state. They gave us our value system. We are admired around the country for our work ethic, our honesty, for our neighborliness. But, it’s not clear that we passed those values on now that we are post-agrarian and more urban every day. So, we have to ease into a new generation of leaders, and I think young people are going to demand change, and they’re going to want a more open society. It’s going to be more diverse. It’s going to corkier. I think we need to have a new homestead initiative of some sort that small, or organic, or niche farmers are going to have a place in North Dakota life. My point is I don’t think we can carry on the way that we have now, for the say last fifty or sixty years, and think that’s going to work. I think that we are going to have to get creative. And, I want us to get creative. I want us to be the most remarkable state in the country.”
Jenkinson decided on the native cottonwood tree for the title, because it’s a metaphor for how North Dakota will need to grow. The cover of the book shows a cottonwood grove next to a river, adjacent to bluffs. A familiar landscape in the western part of the state.
“I think that the cotton woods is sort of a metaphor for the organic. We need to fall back in love with North Dakota as North Dakota. Instead of trying to make it Maple Grove, Minnesota or Aurora, Colorado. We need to fall in love with what is here. And, I think for a hundred years we have been trying to essentially impose a Kentucky blue grass model, or a sort of Indiana farm model, on this place. It’s worked, but it’s shelf life is limited and I think that we have to re-fall in love with this place from the grass up. And, the cottonwood is sort of what is native here. Important to Native Americans. Important to Lewis and Clark. Important to Theodore Roosevelt. Important to our own happiness,” explained Jenkinson.
Jenkinson’s goal for the book is to generates a statewide conversation on how North Dakota can evolve with the rapidly changing times.
“My dream is that we will really get into a serious, playful, happy conversation on who we are. Who we were, where we’re headed, and what are our possibilities for us. I’m encouraging everyone to read this book. It’s fun. People laugh out loud. It’s moving I think at times, but it’s a serious attempt to make sense of this place that we all love, but we all know [needs to change]. You know you, you have to sort of have to [know] North Dakota, in order to love it. It’s an acquired taste. The working title of the book was “Who are we now” We knew who we were, who are we now? And, then the question is who will we become?”
Virginia-based independent publisher Koehler Books publishes “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,”.