Were you less in contact daily with people when you were living in the country? If so did it make you think any differently about them and, more specifically, in a way that shaped In the Land of the Dinosaur?
—David Douglas, St. Paul, Minnesota
I certainly saw fewer people and saw them less often during the fifteen years I lived in the country. Western Wisconsin to be specific. It’s a really beautiful place, by the way. Our four acres were surrounded by farm land and for most of the year we couldn’t even see another house. We also had a long driveway with the house set far back from the road. It was very isolating in terms of other people, especially since my writing work was work at home. But the physical world was absolutely present.
It was the land there that taught me something very important: things always change. I had an extraordinary view from my study windows of our valley and creek. The year after we moved in, a flood swept away the cottonwood tree that stood at the bend of the creek and anchored the whole scene. It was devastating having that tree go down, just as it was hard, years later, when our neighbor stopped putting his heifers in the valley, and the brilliant green of cropped grass they maintained by overgrazing gave way to an unruly growth of long grasses and weeds and a strange scatter of young saplings. I had wanted to keep the view as static as a painting; I had no control over it. I was forced to see it as it was: always becoming something new.
Certainly that knowledge was a part of what helped me realize how much the land shapes the people who work it, how it brings a certain fatalism to them. Every day has a relentless clock of chores, a routine set against the moods of weather, much of it very harsh up here in the northern states. In a sense, living so much in my own narrow world of work and the seasons outside my study, I did begin to see the people I met in a new light, particularly my neighbors. I realized how alone they could be. A man plowing fields until midnight. A woman by herself for the whole day except for the mandatory time with the animals in her charge. Children without a neighborhood of children to play with.
I think there is something about the combination of routine, aloneness, and the brutal unpredictability of the weather that made my neighbors place a very high value on things that don’t change and, perhaps, more often to feel the stress of things they felt should be constant but were not. Seeing their discomfort, I became more aware of a particular kind of human vulnerability. It’s written into In the Land of the Dinosaur just as the land is.