By Jim Norwine2
Best Things About Oklahoma Part I: Landscape
We all know about Oklahoma’s shortcomings–tornadoes, ice storms, mediocre teacher pay, and all the rest. All true, even if there is something manic about how we are bombarded with incessant reminders as though our license plates and welcome signs should read, Oklahoma: We suck!
So let me share some thoughts about three Sooner State special blessings that are, like a good night’s sleep or OSU/OU bowl games, so normal that we can easily mistake them for, ordinary.
All at least partly aspects or expressions of the now-mythic West,3 they’re essential keys to understanding what makes Oklahoma, “Oklahoma”4.
Today, the most visible: landscape. Next time, culture or human geography (what I think of as “self-reliant neighborliness;”) and last genuine Okie identity’s real bedrock: personal freedom or “liberty.”
I suspect some of you think Oklahoma’s physical geography and “blessing” hardly belong in the same sentence.
Where are the seashores, mountains, glaciers, rainforests, and jaw-dropping scenic wonders, or, for that matter, any one of the above? And what about the tornadoes, ice storms, droughts, scorching heat, and most of all, endless flat vistas of emptiness as far as the eye can see. Blessings?!
All true. We have no: Old Faithful or Grand Canyon; snow-covered peaks; orchid- monkey- and parrot-festooned jungles; towering thousand-year-old redwoods; year-round genial live-on-the-patio climate; and so on.
So, if you moved to Oklahoma for suchlike when you came to a fork, you took the spoon. But wait. Think twice before you decide to go hook up with the Beautiful People in Oregon, Colorado or the French Riviera, think twice. Are you really snooty enough to fit in?
When I think of Oklahoma’s geography two main things come to mind.
The first is middleness, assuming there is such a word. Let’s start with latitude. Oklahoma is smackdab in the middle of the middle latitudes. We are sufficiently far north, or south if you prefer, to enjoy all four seasons.
Take it from a guy who has lived in northern Minnesota and southern Texas: seven months of winter or summer can get mighty long. If central heat and a/c are ever outlawed you’ll be able to buy property either place mighty cheap.
Then there’s longitude. Call us what you will, we sure as heck ain’t coastal. In fact, the dividing line between wet east and the dry west pretty much bisects the state.5
Combine our latitude and longitude with our openness to polar blasts and Gulf moisture, and some rain-shadow effect of the Rockies, and what you get is a physical geography of forests and grasslands, rugged and flat, green and brown, dominated by seasonal and long-term wet-dry cycles. Sometimes extreme, even heartbreaking, but rarely dull.
While variety is surely one key, an equal but in a way opposite one is the almost oceanic prairies and plains that together represent our single most dominant landscape feature.
What’s so great about all that empty flatness? Well, look closely and it’s neither all that flat nor empty; it is a profoundly beyond-human landscape.
In that sense the plains are our oceans. Some starry night stop far from town and walk out onto the prairie all by yourself. Sit or stand quietly for a while. Take it all in. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that you will be rubbing up against the infinite, hair-raising but heart-stirring too, and for the same reason. What you will feel is an evocative calling-up of the source of all things, the Always-So.
Our landscape never lets you forget your place in the scheme of things. And in a century all about Me, that’s a good thing.
Till next time, blessings and Memento mori6
1. From Leszek Kolakowski’s wonderful book of the same name.
2. Texas A&M System regents professor emeritus, now living with Lottie, his wife of 50 years, on Oologah Lake.
3. Oklahoma=Choctaw ”red people”. Look around next time you attend a game or go to a shopping mall: so many of us are at least partly original Americans and at the same time look and sound like “rednecks,” and I mean that in the best, salt-of-the-earth, stop-and-fix-a-flat-for-a-lady-of-whatever-color, sense. This sort of double redness is I think one of the most meaningful things about being an Okie in the 21st century.
4. Mythic in the sense of larger-than-life, not necessarily untrue.
5. The famous 100th meridian, once thought to mark the beginning of the Great American Desert is way out at the start of the Panhandle but check out www.okatlas.org/okatlas/biotic/ecoregions.htm for a more accurate if simplified picture of where east meets west.
6. “Memento mori—“remember you must die”—was to ancient and medieval thinkers a reminder to seek your true heart’s desire, i.e., the highest, most permanent, things.
7. Zophar (one of Biblical Job’s blowhard neighbors) Boanerges (“windbag”, the name Jesus gave James and John, the sons of Zebedee) is Jim’s pen name. Send comments and questions to email@example.com