Leg 1

Completed leg 1 of travel to New Zealand: Fargo > Denver > San Francisco > Auckland > Christchurch. Writing now from DIA. We never get away clean; I have a backpack of work along, including a dozen proposals I agreed to review for a major granting agency. My expectation is to be able to discard the printed proposals in Auckland, having completed and uploaded the reviews, and thus lighten my pack.

It is reasonable to ask why I accept this sort of professional obligation and carry it with me instead of just enjoying our travels. The usual answers come readily: you participate in peer review, often burdensome, as dues for membership in the academy. You want to be a player, get support for your own research, achieve stature in the profession, then you have to do your part. Peer review, for all its blemishes, keeps the enterprise reputable.

While executing this duty faithfully, I feel a necessity to do it well, with integrity, and to speak for the process. Neoliberal politics and ideological imperatives invade ever more spheres of the academy. Decisions, appointments, and rewards often rest not on teaching or learning or scholarship or discovery but on other bases. The proponents of disturbance do not like cultures and structures grounded in values they do not recognize.

Yet here I am, reading and assessing, sworn to uphold the values of teaching and learning and scholarship and discovery. And I declare, these values are real and good, and there are spheres where they survive and govern. Let us respect and defend them.


Come Tuesday Dr. Kelley & I catch a flight to New Zealand, returning for the first time since the onset of COVID. Despite the difficulties of getting away, we are thrilled to be going. We realize how important our near-annual expeditions to Aotearoa had become to us, personally and professionally.

At the heart of this is a long-term research enterprise, “Learning from the Lindis.” This is an exercise in regionalism that focuses on a district of Central Otago, where the Lindis River enters the Clutha. When I first visited the Lindis in 1991, it was a pastoral place dominated by sheep culture. Today it is known more for its fine wines. Suzzanne and I have gone deep into the district in a manner by which we hope to define the practice of this genre of history. A big ambition in a rather small, beautiful place.

Dr. K in Lindis Pass

On arrival in Christchurch we will pick up a hire car and drive immediately to the Lindis by way of the Mackenzie and Lindis Pass, then settle into Cromwell a few days, lodging at a modest and comfortable motel that suits us well. I’ll meet my course in the history of the Great Plains from there via Zoom, and from Cromwell we will venture into the countryside. We need to update, because the pace of change in this part of the world is fast. We hope to attend some community events, identify new local sources, and gather intelligence from knowledgable residents. Come next April we will write from this expedition and present to the World Social Science Association.

From Cromwell we return to Christchurch for the conference of the New Zealand Historical Association, where we are to prersent a paper (which we are only now writing). Its title is “On the Ground: Doing Regional History in Far-Flung Places.” Here is the abstract.

“The senior author of this proposal, having pursued research in the grasslands of North America for a half-century and in the New Zealand high country for three decades, learned early in the process that the practice of regional history in the two locales differed profoundly. A memorable dialog with Canterbury’s W. J. Gardner clarified the distinction for him, and he has been sorting it out ever since, with a commitment to doing history on the ground, at the grassroots, engaging the details of agricultural practice and environmental relationships. Throughout the current century the junior author, joining a line of research specific to the Lindis district of Central Otago, has transformed its practice by shifting focus to narrative culture, especially that propagated by the women of the district, as the basis of region. At the same time both authors have assumed leadership roles in the definition of region at home, on the Great Plains, the senior author through extensive research and writing and the direction of graduate work, the junior author through the founding of a university press dedicated to the proposition of giving voice to the prairies. They propose a paper reflecting on the practice and posture incumbent on scholars who wish to make a difference, to provide a constructive, grounded history to people of a particular place, whether in America or in Aotearoa.”

Not really an abstract, it’s the proposal we made, which was accepted. Yesterday morning over coffee we hashed it over, the conversation got pretty freewheeling, and now who knows where this paper will go. Well, we have a pretty good idea, and we will do what is in the proposal, but we may do it in peculiar fashion. Stay tuned.

Another sort of return: this blog, like so many other things during COVID, went dark for quite a while. This expedition to New Zealand seems like the inspiration and opportunity to bring it back to life, to make it the journal of our travel and work. What say you, Dr. K?

Crossing Paths (not Swords)

We mostly travel agreeably together, Dr. K and I. Often we are on the same page, traveling together in pursuit of the same enterprise. Sometimes we travel together, each on his or her own agenda.

That was the case a few weeks ago, when we drove out to Dawson, in the central, Missouri-Coteau part of the state. Suzzanne was using our lodgings at Dakota Outback Cottages (nice place), Dawson, as jumping-off point for a couple of days running a heritage press with Allan and Leah Burke and the Iron Men at the Braddock threshing days. It’s something she has done every September the past few years.

Meanwhile, Angie and I were roaming the hills of Kidder County in search of sharptail grouse, which were few, but we got a couple, and the scenery was spectacular.

This weekend we got worn out with homecoming activities at NDSU, but with no rest for the weary, each of us today took off in a different direction (or directions). It was my honor this morning to provide the homily for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fargo-Moorhead. My text was St. Mark’s narrative of the feeding of the multitude, and I spoke about the necessity and joy of feeding people–and specifically about fall suppers.

Meanwhile Suzzanne lit out for the Ellendale Opera House, where the Ellendale Area Arts Council was hosting her for a talk about memory artist Emily Lunde, in association with an exhibit being toured by the North Dakota Museum of Art. I’m sure she did great, but she’ll have to tell you about that.

I came home long enough to reassure the Ladies they had not been abandoned and wash my truck for an expedition with a couple of my excellent undergraduate students. We made the drive this evening over to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, near Dazey, to attend the annual turkey-and-kraut fall supper. This was just splendid. Kraut is in the roasters, God is in his heaven, and the fellowship was heartening. I’ve posted photos in my Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Dr. Kelley’s Notes

There is much to say about the transactions of the Agricultural History Society today, but it’s late in Stavanger now, and I’m too tired to think and write. So I may catch up tomorrow, or possibly the next day, as we take the train back to Oslo.

Here’s an interesting footnote to the day, however. This morning Dr. K and I were sitting in on the opening plenary of the society and I noticed her taking notes in her journal in a fine longhand. Surreptitiously I shot a short video reel of her note-taking and posted it to Instagram.

When I checked back in at end of day, the reel had racked up more than 100,000 views and more than 4,000 likes. Not sure what’s going on, but it seems Dr. Kelley is an influencer.

Growing Wild and Spraying Down

A long day, a good day, what we’re here for. Up early to get to UiS for opening sessions of the AHS. I presented at an ungodly time of the morning in the opening timeslot. All went well, I think; you can tell when people are engaged, even if it’s a group of mixed nationalities. I’m glad to have been part of what turned out to be a solid session. The other presenters were from Stavanger and Yale, the moderator from Bergen.

Dr. K and I did a full day of sessions. The presidential address, by Drew Swanson of Georgia Southern, was outstanding: “Growing Wild: Visions of Wildlife Management as Agricultural Science in American Forests and Fields.” Swanson has done books on the culture of hunting in America and on the environmental history of whitetail deer. Today he talked about how, with the closing of the frontier and the depletion of wildlife, the country entered into a period (1900 to 1940 or so) when there was a widespread effort to transform key game species–whitetail deer and ringneck pheasant were his main examples–into semi-domestic livestock, supplying both a conservation market for release into the wild and a culinary market for meat. This came on the heels of a “more-game” movement that emphasized multiplication of animals more than the conservation of habitat. The drive for agricultural management of game dissipated from the 1940s with, Swanson argues, the rise of a different sort of ethic in relation to wildlife, one that clearly separated wildlife and commerce.

I think maybe a couple of other things were at work, together and in sequence. First, there was the industrialization of meat production. Chicken, pork, and beef became so cheap and of such consisent quality that venison or pheasant seemed expensive and inconsistent. Second–and this certainly has accentuated in recent years–there came a neoliberal re-commodification of wildlife. The idea is, leave the game animals in the wild, but harvest revenue from them as objects of recreation for people with deep pockets. This is tied, in recent years, to the reduction of access to land for ordinary citizens.

More sessions of papers, supper with friends, then over to the Arkeologisk Museum for the evening lecture, by Bart Elmore: Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future (a book talk from Elmore’s landmark work published by Norton). This was not a feel-good event. More about this subject perhaps another time.

Dr. K has settled in to do NDSU Press business for I don’t know how long tonight. I’m sitting in the lobby of our posh hotel, catching up on communications, and wondering whether I can get away with bringing an aquavit out here from the hotel bar. Wish me luck.

Not Just the Aquavit Talking

After a full and thought-provoking day of museums yesterday, we took today to get our feet under us preparatory to the beginning of the AHS conference at the UiS tomorrow. We scouted the bus route, located the facilities, assured ourselves we could navigate the scene–and then came back downtown to do some shopping in the old town. Some rest was in order. Also, Dr. K insisted I should read through my paper, which I am presenting at an 8am session tomorrow.

Not sure how many scholarly papers I have presented at conferences over the years–surely more than a hundred. So I suspect Dr. K fears I may take the occasion too casually. It is always good to make sure that those words you wrote actually will come out of your mouth without stumbling. I thought I would have some friends planted in the room for this presentation, but the two closest ones from back home on the prairies are both presenting in other sessions scheduled concurrently! I really don’t mind them missing my paper–they surely have heard enough from me–but I regret missing theirs. Anyway, it was good to read through my text and remind myself (and get Dr. K’s assurance) that the thing made sense.

A paper on climate change on the Great Plains, more specifically the effects of the Little Ice Age on human developments–spanning a half-millennium in fifteen minutes–what can I do with that? It is what you might call a think piece. I’m in the foundational stage of writing a new history of the Great Plains, trying to do for the twenty-first century what Walter Prescott Webb did for the twentieth–make sense of the region in the middle of North America. My intention is to be not merely synthetic, pulling together what is known. I hope to establish new habits of thought about the land. To do this, in addition to mastering a library of literature, I need to do a lot of thinking, in ways not so much grounded in that literature as launching from it. To push myself to do that thinking, I will be generating a bunch of half-baked papers for presentation, begging indulgence while I think out loud.

For although if you know me, you will have heard me speak irreverently of the personalities, folkways, and vagaries of academic life; and although much of my writing has pushed into the realm of literary nonfiction, eschewing the fullness of scholarly apparatus; I nevertheless still believe in sholarship, try to live the life of a scholar, and keep the company of scholars. Thus I desire conversation with that company about the line of work on which I am embarking. Maybe the company will teach me things. Maybe I’m just covering my flank. But I’m willing to confess what I’m doing, and it’s not just the aquavit talking. Good night, Stavanger.

Opportunity Cost

Morning in Stavanger was catch-up–Dr. K doing press business, me sorting out university correspondence–and so it was early afternoon before we set out for historic sites on the town. However nerdy this may sound, we both really wanted to call in at the Norsk Hermetik Museum, the Norwegian canning museum, because we read that on Tuesdays they fire up the ovens and process sprats, and you can sample sardines right from the racks. Which I did, but Dr. K declined, so I ate two of them. The exhibits on canning featured interesting technological artifacts, which I studied because the technology was applicable to the transportation of oysters out to the prairies in the nineteenth century, something I have been writing about in Plains Folk.

Dr. K was tickled to find that the Norsk Hermetik Museum is co-located in the old cannery with the Norsk Grafisk Museum, the Norwegian museum of design and printing. (The joint museum operates under the name Iddis.) She got pretty absorbed in all that while I was nosing through the canning stuff, and I suspect she will be posting some photos.

After this we made our way across the harbor and around the point to the Norsk Oljemuseum, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The history of the rise of offshore drilling in the North Sea since 1969 is well-known and is pivotal to the emergence of the Norway as we know it in the twenty-first century. By the time we got to the museum my phone was dead, so we’ll have to rely on Dr. K for photos, but in retrospect I’m rather glad I was unable to take pictures and so was focused on comprehending the exhibit material. Which was massive, and comprised an astonishing collection of modern artifacts, along with a reef of models and media. I cannot do justice to it all. I can, however, tell you the effect it had on me emotionally and intellectually.

Beginning at the end–I concluded that this museum could not happen in America. It is so dense, and the discourse so elevated, that consultants and designers would never buy in. The simple volume of information is challenging, but the ideas, the human values wrapped up in the technological issues, are daunting. I think if a museum studies class were to tour the Norst Oljemuseum, the scholars would say, this is too much; it all must be simplified, dumbed down, and perhaps made less disturbing. And yet the museum was full of people actively engaging its content. It is a conviction of mine that those of us who trade in intellectual content for public consumption must challenge and elevate ourselves and our audiences. The Norst Oljemuseum is doing this. Could it be done in America? Would it be tolerated in America?

Because the content is not just serious, it is critical. The Norst Oljemuseum initiates the sort of conversations we never have had in North Dakota: the relationship between resource extraction and the public good; the human gain and cost for persons on the front lines of extraction; the long-term effects of short-term profit. In Norway, the petroleum industry is state enterprise. The industry itself has initiated these deeper conversations. It is all rather breath-taking.

As a citizen of North Dakota, and a scholar of the plains, I came away from the Norst Oljemuseum informed, stimulated, and disturbed. I came away with a deep sense of opportunity squandered. As the Bakken Boom unfolded, we often preached from the text of our prior experience with resource booms–in America. We have paid for our parochiality. We might have done much better. It is possible that the same deficiencies in our society and nation that would make it impossible to have something like the Norst Oljemuseum also made it impossible to deal competently with our situation on the ground.


Oh my, the story of the Vigeland Wergeland (say that five times fast) just got more complicated. We all know about the magnificent statue of Henrik Wergeland, Norway’s great Romantic poet, that stands in Island Park of Fargo. Those of us who read inscriptions know that the bronze was made by Gustaf Vigeland, Norway’s great monumental sculptor. An artist befitting the subject, and vice versa. A few days ago, touring the Vigeland Museum in Oslo, I was excited to espy the plaster cast of Wergeland from Vigeland’s studio–thus anchoring for my mind the trans-Atlantic connection at both ends. Now it appears we have a triangle on our hands.

For today, In Kristiansand, the place of Wergeland’s birth, we stumbled into Wergenslandparken, and here is what we saw! An identical Vigeland Wergeland! Back into the website of the Vigeland Museum, searching out some now-disconnected pages, I find this exposition.

So it was Vigeland’s idea there should be a monument to Wergeland in his home town, and somehow, at about the same time, he made a dup to be emplaced in Fargo, North Dakota. How did this connection happen? I know that Dr. Herman O. Fjelde of Abercrombie was involved in securing the statue for Fargo. How did he know this was even a possibility? On return home, I’ll investigate this.

We’ve gotten interested enough in Wergeland–not only his stature as a literary figure but also his zeal for human rights–that we want to visit his grave in Vår Frelsers Gravlund of Oslo. We’ll be back in that city in a week or so, arriving in evening by train to catch a plane home the next morning. Presuming the trains run on time, we figure we have time to race over to the cemetery, pay our respects at dusk, and examine the memorial placed on Wergeland’s grave by the Jewish community in recognition of his work on their behalf.

In the meantime, tomorrow noon we catch our train for Stavanger, where in a few days we join the annual conference of the Agricuiltural History Society. Today, when we called in at the Sørlandets Kunstmuseum of Kristiansand, we were privileged to view a remarkable artifact: the Maisengel (corn angel), which was included in a retrospective exhibit. I take this as a blessing for the upcoming meeting of agricultural scholars.


Gray dawn, and I awoke with no idea where I was. I don’t think it was the Opland aquavit I had for a nightcap. It was the strange dream that had visited me, and from which I fully emerged on waking only after giving my head a vigorous shake.

The dreamy situation was a prairie town, somewhere, probably on the North American continent, but I’m not certain. Its name, no kidding, was Alice. As in Alice, the famous object of reference for the I-94 Buffalo-Alice exit sign in North Dakota, but also, of course, the famous ideal of Nevil Shute’s outback novel, A Town Like Alice. I know them both well. So I’ll just let Alice float somewhere.

Alice had a country store peopled by an ensemble of characters, some of whom ran the place, while the others came and went and conversed. The store functioned as a sort of community development agency. People came in to talk about and work out the problems of the community, some of which were things, and others were people. The people-problems seemed to reside mainly at the other main establishment of the town, a tavern. People kept talking about what was going on over there, and I kept mum, because in my dream-memory, I was well acquainted with the tavern and its denizens.

The Alice store was also a sort of museum, with artifacts there among the merchandise. Moreover, people kept coming in to show me stuff and ask about it. I wish I could recall all the things they brought me, but the only one I remember was a calf blab, like the one hanging on the wall of the museum in Dunn Center, North Dakota. And there was food, too, baked goods I was munching while chatting about matters antiquarian.

It surprised me when I observed evening was falling. I realized I had gone off to this place without telling Dr. K where I would be, and she would be worried by now. When I emerged into the twilight, I could not find my truck. I wandered for some time, until finally I walked out of the town and found my truck parked along a dirt road. When I started it up and tried to pull away, I found the road blocked by a stretch gate. There emerged from the brush alongside the road a rustic character, whom I think I had met in town. He insisted that I walk with him to see his orchard. After that he walked me back to my truck and opened the gate for me.

As I was driving away from Alice, I awoke. Confused. Also relieved. Then happy to realize that I was in the Hotel Norge, Kristiansand, and that downstairs there were coffee and a Norwegian breakfast buffet awaiting. Sweet.

Caffeinated, I picked up a plate and started in at the end of the groaning board. And there it was, in its place of primacy–smör, a crock of butter. Along with several hearty loaves of grainy bread from which to carve the foundation of your breakfast. Life should be like this. And end with a raspberry tort.


Spending early morning in Oslo catching up on communications and confirmations. On to Kristiansand tonight – working our way toward the AHS conferencre in Stavanger. Hiking, museuming (musing? museumizing?), reading, writing along the way. Gorgeous weather (about to change). Eating well. Sleep habits irregular. . . .