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Jessie Veeder, Published August 31 2012

Coming home: Grandpa’s story explains return to land

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Last month a documentary filmmaker came to the ranch to visit with my family and I about what makes our community special and to try to get to the root of why the people who chose to stay or come back to farms, ranches and small towns in western North Dakota are so passionate about the lifestyle here.

He asked us what it is about the landscape that inspires us.

He wondered what it’s like to watch a community you know so well boom and bust, boom and bend, mold and grow in front of our eyes.

He wanted to know about our roots.

And in between the lighting checks, the questions about the economy, the oil boom and what it was like to be a child surrounded by all this wild space with an unspoken expectation to get gone someday, he wondered what it was that brought me back.

I have many answers to this question:

The promise of a sunrise over a landscape that grew me.

The need for the wind in my hair.

The hope that my children might be born to dig in this dirt and smell the first rain of the season.

The fact that I was planted here and that I belong nowhere else.

I sat in front of this inquisitive journalist and wondered how to explain these things to a stranger when I might not fully understand them myself.

And then my father, seated on a chair next to me, looked straight into the camera and began to tell the story of his mother’s father, his grandfather, Severin, tall and lean from the fjords of Norway.

A homesteader.

A farmer.

A husband and soft-spoken, good-natured, father of 12 who made a living with his family by plowing fields and raising a few farm animals for milk and meat.

In those days when farmers like my great-grandfather were sectioning off land and turning up dirt in the more fertile landscape north of the Little Missouri River, there were major cattle operations still present that would use those acres to drive a herd of hundreds across country to the big operations in the badlands to the south.

And so the story goes, and it isn’t a long one, that Severin woke one morning to find his cattle missing. My father was quick to point out that the quantity of cattle raised by Severin’s large family likely consisted of only five to seven milk cows – not a large herd worthy of the drama of a Western novel and apparently not significant enough for the cowboys to take notice or any action to sort them off from the herd.

But no matter the numbers, they were Severin’s cattle, and he was determined to retrieve what had mistakenly and indifferently been taken from him.

So the tall and soft-spoken Norwegian homesteader from the clay-packed fields of western North Dakota, the man who rode his bicycle 93 miles over the North Dakota prairie from the train station to his homestead, left his farmstead that day carrying a big stick as he embarked on a seven-mile hike over rugged buttes, under what I imagine to be the hot prairie sun.

He walked to face those cowboys, to find his cattle, to sort them off from the herd that tried to own them and to turn them around and bring them home.

Seven miles.

To the land he laid claim.

To the home where his son raised his family, where his grandson has raised his and where his great-grandchildren are likely to return.

My father laughed as he completed painting an image of a man from another time – a time when you gave everything inside of you not only to belong somewhere, but to survive there.

And as my father’s voice moved through the oak groves that surround the home where we were raised, I listened and I understood.

Severin’s blood pumped through the veins of my grandmother just as it moves with every heartbeat inside the body of the man who raised me.

And inside the body that I can’t seem to move off of this place – not because the land is mine, but because it is me.

Jessie Veeder is a 28-year-old musician and writer. She lives near Watford City, N.D., with her husband, on the ranch where she grew up. Readers can reach her at .