NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
August 24, 2000
Published in 1980, The Cruel Cold Land, by Mary Shipton Girard, is a fine memoir of farm life in Ward County, North Dakota. The author grew up the daughter of a widow who managed the farm well after her husband died of a stroke in 1919. Mary Shipton left home in 1931 and lived out her life in Washington state.
What puzzles me about the book is the titlethose adjectives "cold" and "cruel." The author says the family had "reasonable prosperity" in the 1920s and "austerity" in the 1930s. They do not appear to have suffered want. Indeed, the memoir is full of fond memories of roaming the countryside and socializing with neighbors. Cold, surebut cruel?
The dedication is to the author's mother, Minnie Virginia Lowell Shipton, and aunt, Lydia Lowell, "who were both heroines as well as victims of their time." Victims. Whereas most of us today are weary of unlikely claims for victim statuseven the two Bills, Clinton and Gates, claim to be victims of vast conspiraciesin 1980 the race for victim status was just beginning.
Perhaps the title was just an unfortunate accident of timing, but it seems to me symptomatic of something that has become characteristic of life on the northern plainsthe tendency to claim hardship when in fact one is living in comfort. I'm complaining now about people who complain about the weather.
In my experience there are people with every right to complain about itpeople who have to get out to their livestock, linemen for utility companies, and so on. Most of the complaints, though, come from people like me.
Imagine the depths of winter. In the morning I don a layer of poly-something underwear followed by layers of P---- fleece, G---- shell, and other high-tech synthetic armor with trademarked names I can't mention.
I touch the automatic garage door opener and roll out a 9hp snowblower to clear the way for my 4WD vehicle. My technology of comfort is so complete that I go out of my way to snowshoe in blizzards just get back in touch with the environment. I love the blue sunrises of winter and the buttery moonlight on a drifted land.
Lately I've been reading another book about people dealing with their climateAir-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, by Gail Cooper. It's about Willis Carrier, the father of modern air conditioning, but more than that, it's about the debate over climate control.
Engineers and architects early in this century, Cooper says, came to "believe that a totally artificial indoor environment, independent of the natural climate, was a possibility." That roused opposition from "open-air crusaders" who insisted that fresh air had to be brought in and that nature was the best model for health.
The engineers won, of course. Factories, surprisingly, led the way, as certain industries, such as textiles or cigarettes, required environmental controls. Movie theaters led the way toward human comfort, installing air conditioning in order to beat the summer slump. Post-World War II housing made air conditioning the norm for residences.
Air-conditioning, too, made possible the New South, the corporate South, the New Economy South. What corporation would put its headquarters in Atlanta or Houston without air conditioning? That technology changed the course of regional history.
I'm working around to why corporations are now choosing to locate on the northern plains, and individuals, too, are streaming into the region.
It's because they can. Perhaps not with the decisiveness of air conditioning in the South, but perceptibly nevertheless, technologies of human comfort have advanced to the point where more people are willing to work and live here.
Cold, yes. Cruel, no longer.
Source: Tom Isern, (701) 231-8339
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865
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