One of the things I long ago came to love about South Dakota is the many opportunities it provides me to recognize my place in the universe.
Like most other people, I suppose, I often allow my sense of self-importance to exaggerate that place. I rarely go so far as to think the universe revolves around me instead of the sun, but I’m prone to considering myself a pretty essential piece of the grand scheme. When I do that, my home state gives me plenty of chances to set myself straight.
Floating in a boat on Lake Oahe on a summer afternoon offers such a chance. When the wind dies and the lake flattens out and the sun climbs high in a cloudless sky and the other boaters are so far distant that the hum of their motors is no more than the sound of a bee in sweet clover, I get a sense of just how small I am and how big the world around me really is.
The middle of a huge lake is a good place to remember that fact. So, always, is a family farm like the one where I grew up. There aren’t many places where a person can sense their place in the universe like a modest-sized farm. There, a person is as close to nature as it gets and it’s impossible not to recognize that nature is way more powerful than a human being.
I’ve written about driving a popping tractor all day pulling a plow across a quarter-section of land, then dismounting at day’s end to see what a puny dent I’d made in that one piece of prairie. Sometimes it seemed I could drive round after round until the end of time and never finish a field, even with the help of a powerful machine.
But I also got a sense of my place in the universe when I was lying on my back on the south lawn and studying the night sky on a clear night. The grandeur of space and the countless stars were obvious to me long before Sputnik or Apollo or Gemini made their bright but tiny tracks across the galaxy.
And I sure saw my place in the universe when I stood in a field of wheat or corn after a wicked afternoon hailstorm. The promise of a good crop lay mixed with melting hail stones in the sodden earth, and the bright-green leaves of corn or the smashed half-filled heads of the wheat stalks demonstrated who was really in charge. As if to put an exclamation point on that issue, nature sometimes painted a brilliant rainbow across the horizon.
On such occasions, my dad used to pause to admire those rainbows, even as his mind churned with profit and loss numbers, bank loans and grocery bills. I think he was trying to teach me that being small in such a setting needn't be frightening. It’s just the way of the world.
That’s worth remembering when I’m in town and dealing with central South Dakota’s version of traffic and shoppers and detours and distractions. Now, that doesn’t approach the chaos of a metropolis such as New York City. I can still recall walking through mid-town Manhattan on assignment to cover a national political nominating convention. Motors roared, horns honked, people pushed and bumped. In that setting, I did sometimes feel a little frightened. I was never in immediate danger, but the chaos of the city seemed threatening. I loved being there, or at least the idea of being there, but I couldn’t wait to get home.
If ever there was a place to remember the lines of the “Desiderata,’’ a sidewalk in Manhattan was it. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.’’ Placid is such a serene word, isn’t it?
And should I begin to feel I’m too puny in the world, the “Desiderata’’ also says, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.’’
I simply must trust that “the universe is unfolding as it should.’’