By Andy Wilkinson (Lubbock, Texas)
Charlie Goodnight – trail driver, cowman, savior to the buffalo, and my uncle from five generations back – Charlie chose the Llano Estacado as the place in which to situate the greatest achievements of his life, that being the building of two ranches, first, the JA in the Palo Duro and, later, his namesake spread just atop the canyon’s north rim. In an interview near the end of the Nineteenth-Century – later published in Prose and Poetry of the Livestock Industry (1905)– he promised that “the people of the Plains will have to solve the problems of the people of the East, for on the Plains a person is forced to see a great, long distance, and such seeing makes the mind active.”
Goodnight’s sense of this place was more than simply fondness for its bounty of horizon and grass – though he greatly valued those – and more than simple nostalgia for its peoples and history – though he admired and appreciated each. No, his sense of what it means to live on the Plains was to be part of the Plains itself, meaning that where one lived and how one lived were one in the same, each a part of, not apart from, the other. For Goodnight, to be a Plainsman or Plainswoman was to live with an active mind.
I’m with him. Just as I’m with Yi-Fu Tuan, one of the greatest of thinkers on place, who reminded us, as only a scholar could, that “Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.” Since Tuan was merely putting a different scald on the cowman’s notion of the inseparability of abiding in a place and living in a place, I’ll bet Uncle Charlie would be with him, too.
Just as he’d have thrown in with Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry, who – added together – deduced that “no place is a place until it has had a poet”. That is, he’d have cottoned-up to them so long as the cattle-baron had already come across Leonard Cohen’s definition of poetry, that hippest of folksingers assuring us “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Goodnight, fond of a good cigar, would surely grok that.
And while it’s unlikely the old trail driver knew blues music – though it’s a dead cinch he had some familiarity with the blues – he’d grok Henry Vestine, too. The Sunflower – as the Canned Heat’s guitarist was known – was born in Maryland and raised there and in sunny Southern California, but understood the Plains in the same way as did Charlie. On the liner notes for their 1969 album Hallelujah he wrote that out on the Plains people are alone, with nothing but themselves, the land, and the sun, before continuing, “Those who have experienced this sensation have a different look in their eyes than the coastal peoples. It is a reflection of themselves that they see when they look upon each other. These people have something going for them that you have to feel for yourself to believe – a kind of joyous insanity that is unique to these people of the plains. Hallelujah!”
That’s what sense of place is about. Charlie Goodnight. Yi-Fu Tuan. Wallace Stegner. Wendell Berry. Leonard Cohen. Henry Vestine. You. Me. Hallelujah, indeed!