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Mary Alice (Webster) Haug

Will Memory’s Ground be Solid?

I wonder about people who believe in the imperative of filling empty spaces.

I am standing on a balcony at the Odu-San Observatory overlooking the DMZ. The clouds hang low over the thick tangles of grasses and shrubs that spread over the North Korean hills. In the mist, the colors and shapes of the hillside are soft and dreamy as a Monet landscape.

No cars travel the two-lane highway behind the Observatory, no whine of tires, no drone of engines, no sirens wailing, sounds I hear every day in Daejeon where I teach English at Chungnam National University. People peer through telescopes lined up on a low concrete wall speaking in soft voices, if they speak at all. Most do not, but rather study the hills in silence. I reject the narrow perspective of a lens preferring to see the entire landscape. Although I’m looking at enemy territory, I feel at peace.

A woman next to me, her face smashed against the telescope’s glass, moves the scope back and forth across the hills and says in a British accent, “I can see why nobody lives in this desolate place.”

Her words startle me. Why would she think that this place is desolate?


I grew up on an isolated piece of grassland in central South Dakota. On that prairie, I learned the paradox that nature is both dangerous and beautiful. I learned this lesson by walking a narrow cow path to The North Dam, a small, natural pond in the pasture where my father grazed his White-Faced Herefords, my favorite place to escape a house filled with five stair-step children. As I passed the bleached bones of mice and birds and the skulls of cattle, I knew that I shared the prairie with predators, including rattlesnakes that might be coiled in the grasses along the path. I walked in stops and starts, a few steps and a pause, listening for a shushing sound like wheat sheaves rustling in the wind until I reached the safety of the pond’s shore.

I would wade through the water trapping minnows in my cupped hands or rest on the bank under the brilliant summer sky. At the end of the dam, red wing blackbirds chirped and swayed on the cattails, and prairie dogs barked in the next pasture. Now and then, a jackrabbit would zigzag through the grass, or a fish would break water, the ripples fanning out toward the shore.

This was the landscape I knew and loved best. Still I sometimes succumbed to the innate impulse of children to inflict cruelty on the more vulnerable of those who shared this place with me. I remember smashing a baby sparrow’s skull against the barn wall and watching with cold curiosity as a bullhead thrashed on the muddy shore of the dam. Years later, I would see birds lying in the grasses and fish floating on the water, choked by fertilizer and pesticides, and feel as if I were suffocating.

While we splashed in the dam, our shouts drifting across the prairie, the screams of men in bloody battles echoed over the Korean peninsula. In the years since the Korean War fizzled to its inconclusive end, few humans have inhabited the DMZ, a narrow spit of land that stretches on the diagonal across the peninsula.. With so little human interference, the DMZ has become a rich and viable ecosystem. Today, over 1,100 plant species flourish there and the pristine wetlands provide a rich habitat for birds such as Manchurian Cranes, White-naped and Red-crowned cranes, eagles, and thousands of migratory birds that rest there. Asiatic Black bears, wild boars, Chinese gorhals, leopards, lynx, roe deer, and antelope now roam the region, and more than 80 species of fish swim the rejuvenated rivers, lakes, and streams.

The woman on the observatory balcony saw a desolate landscape because no humans lived there. I saw a landscape once burned and battle-scarred, now fertile and healthy, now as silent and peaceful as the North Dam once was long ago when a little girl found solace on its banks and companionship in the birds and the fish that inhabited its rushes and waters.


My father died in 1968. I was twenty-two, a bride of two months, and a first-year teacher leaving home permanently for the first time. A few years later, my mother sold the farm, a common story, but singular for our family, and we scattered to start new lives across South Dakota and Minnesota. For several years, I returned to the farm, wandering through the house and following the path through the north pasture, never thinking to ask permission to come on the land now owned by a neighbor who was my father’s childhood buddy. I keep a grainy photo of my father, his two brothers, and that neighbor on my sofa table. Four little boys in high-button boots, overalls, and tattered newsboy caps stand on the packed dirt of a treeless farmstead. Two boys hold opposite ends of a long cane pole; four tiny fish dangle from a stringer. My father stands with his hands in his pockets, head tilted; he looks at the camera with steady eyes. Behind him, two chipped and peeling corn cribs rest on four-by-fours and lean toward the ground; an unfilled hay wagon sits between them. They seem ephemeral, these fading buildings with no foundations, this empty hay rack. But my father, his boots planted in the sod, seems anchored to the ground. Fences, boundaries, and names on deeds could not keep the child of that little boy from her place.

In the years following my father’s death, there were wild parties in our house, and the partiers kicked in doors, broke windows, and spray painted obscenities on the walls. Eventually, the owner threw gasoline on the house and burned it. I quit going back to the farm then, lacking the courage to face the ashes of my home or to walk a prairie where my father’s cattle did not graze.

And then one fall, the biologist from the Lower Brule tribe told my brother Kevin that he had spotted bald eagles raising two eaglets in a cottonwood near the dam. Inspired by his story, my husband Ken and I traveled to the farm, hoping to spot the eagles, proof that something still lived on the deserted farmstead. We whizzed west down Interstate 90 and crossed the Missouri River before turning onto the stretch of gravel road that twists and dips along the river breaks for twenty miles. At Sunny Slope Farm, the old Hamiel place, the road turned north past a stand of small trees; further on, abandoned combines and tractors rusted in the weeds. Finally, the road angled west again, and the car bounced over the washboard ridges of the one-track, dirt road that led to our farmyard.

We parked the car and walked through clumps of buffalo grass and over broken chunks of concrete past the granary, its weathered boards scattered like bones in the scraggly grass of the feedlot. Further on, we passed the creaking windmill and piles of tarnished tin cans. We crawled over the gate to head north toward the dam. Thick, matted grass covered the cow path, but I could feel the old trail beneath my feet guiding me. Abruptly, the trail disappeared into long, straight rows of towering sorghum, their dry leaves rustling in the wind. I was disoriented.

          Ken, this isn’t the north pasture. I don’t know where I am.

And then I realized that the sorghum stalks blocked my view of the skyline. I had never walked that cow path without the wide expanse of prairie sky to guide me. Without that horizon, I was lost.

Why didn’t I know they had plowed this pasture?

Further down the trail, we pushed our way through thick brome grasses, willows, and chokecherry bushes to reach the dam. For several years, Lyman County had suffered from a severe drought, and the pond’s banks had shrunk, leaving deep, wide cracks like spider webs across the shoreline. I knelt to wedge my thumb in a crack, the soil crumbling at my touch, and leaned over the puddle to scoop up the rank and lifeless water with my cupped hands.

As I knelt by the dam, I thought of how often I had played near the stock pond. Generally, Mother ordered us not to wander down to the dam. Drowning was among the dangers she listed in her daily litany of disasters---rattlesnake bites, rusty nails, tetanus, bb guns, bee stings, badgers, and bucking horses. The last one she offered on principle. We didn’t own a horse. But having warned us, she generally stayed in the house while we ran wild. If she knew I sneaked down to the dam by myself, she didn’t let on. If she knew my brothers rambled the prairie with bb guns, she didn’t protest. Maybe she felt she did her duty by warning us. Maybe she assumed the older siblings would care for younger ones. Maybe she simply craved an empty house.

But on rare, inexplicable days, Mother drove us to the dam to lifeguard for us, despite being unable to swim and being terrified of the water. She would sit in the car and honk the horn whenever we ventured too far from shore. Most often, we would turn around at the first blare, but sometimes we would dog paddle away from the bank as the honking grew more insistent, until finally, it became one long, mournful wail, as Mother watched her children swim out to deeper waters.

While we splashed in the dam, our shouts drifting across the prairie, the screams of men in bloody battles echoed over the Korean peninsula. Since the Korean War, those battlefields have become rich and viable ecosystems with over 1,000 flourishing plant species and pristine wetlands now provide rich habitat for Manchurian Cranes, eagles, and thousands of migratory birds that rest there. Asiatic Black Bears, wild board, Chinese Gorhals, leopards, lynx, roe deer, and antelope roam the region, and more than 80 species of fish swim the rejuvented river, lakes, and streams.
Ken’s voice calling me broke my reverie, and I followed him to an immense cottonwood at the west end of the dam. Near the trunk lay a pile of bones, feathers, and fish skeletons; in its highest branches was a nest as big as a hub-cap woven of thick twigs. Ken and I stood still listening for the stuttering chirping of an eagle, but heard only the drone of a corn picker from a nearby field.

We walked back to the car in the hush of mourners. On the way home, we stopped to visit my mother at the assisted-living facility where she now lived. When I told her the pasture had been plowed, she said, “Your father would never have plowed that piece of land. That was his favorite pasture.”

Who knows if my father would have left that prairie untouched? He was a pragmatic man who might have been swayed by the failed crops and falling markets to lay the blade of a plow against that sod. Still I hadn’t known my father favored a particular piece of our land. I thought of the times I crawled into the pickup with him to check cattle in the north pasture. How the pickup rattled over ridges and ruts; how my father pointed out the window at a calf sucking at its mother’s teat or at a belly-swollen heifer. How could I not have known what that pasture meant to him?


There may be a second assault on the Korean landscape. The South Korean government, determined to become an economic powerhouse, has loosened laws governing pollution. A reclamation project along the Yellow Sea may destroy one of the few remaining estuarine tidal flats essential for rare birds, plants, and animals, and plans to expand Incheon airport may erase mudflats. In North Korea, timber production, firewood consumption, wild fires, insect attacks associated with drought, and conversion of land to agricultural production have decimated the forests.

A professor who teaches environmental economics at CNU told us that developers and industrialists, eager to improve their profit margins, eye the region for potentially cheap real estate. He said, “Land across the border has been set aside for an investment zone where factories and plants can be built once peace is declared. Some developers are even talking about building a theme park in the DMZ.”

When I asked him what kind of theme park, he shook his head and said, “I don’t know. It’s ridiculous.”
No more ridiculous perhaps than the commerce now creeping into South Dakota’s pristine wilderness. Several years ago, the state’s largest newspaper ran an advertisement for a “conservation living” housing development in the Black Hills. The quarter-page ad pictured a mountain valley nestled in pine-covered hills and an elk gazing across the flowery meadow. Beneath this image was a smaller photo of a massive house of logs and floor-to-ceiling glass perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the meadow. The caption read, “After billions of years, this Historic Black Hills property is ready for occupancy.”

The advertisement’s insensitivity to the native people and the wildlife that have moved through the Black Hills for centuries is evident in the language that suggests that a landscape without buildings is uninhabited. The phrase “conservation-living” to describe a housing development is a shameless oxymoron.

While many Koreans hope for reunification, others worry it will be the death knell for the DMZ’s pristine beauty. Recognizing the potential risk of unrestricted development to the thriving biosphere in the DMZ, environmentalists worldwide have begun an effort to register it as a trans-boundary preserve with UNESCO. They argue that preserving the integrity of the land is essential for reintroducing and maintaining species and habitats largely eliminated from the rest of Korea. They also argue that an environmentally healthy DMZ will be an enduring symbol of peace.

For now, the Korean skies are often thick and gray. I remember looking out my office window at the mountains just a few miles away; they were shrouded in haze and smog. Below me, students and faculty walked the campus wearing surgical masks to protect their lungs from acid rain and the emissions from hundreds of thousands of cars that drive the crowded city streets.

Even the children seem to accept the mask culture of smoggy Korea. One hazy April day, Ken and I had a picnic along a river just outside the city. All around us, children played on swings and merry-go-rounds, their faces covered with tiny masks stamped with Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse.

I think of the day we left the Observatory and drove further down the road past a slough where a White Crane fished. Balancing its large luminous body on reed-thin limbs, the bird lifted one willowy leg, held it above the water, then lowered it as delicately as a ballerina en pointe. The crane was such a striking image of tranquility, I almost forgot the land mines buried along the border and the one million combat-ready soldiers who stand at its barb wire fence. As British author Simon Winchester wrote of the DMZ, “. . . so much that is beautiful and rare flourishes. . . where human anger is greatest.”


The Harvey Dunn Grassland Preservation Project, named after an artist famous for his paintings of the South Dakota landscape, hopes to raise funds in order to buy 24,000 acres of grassland now held as easements by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Should they succeed, the funds will help establish breeding and migration habitat as well as protect native plants and grasses. In addition, individual land owners are modifying grazing practices and replanting native grasses in order to restore the Northern Prairies.

But these efforts come too late for the North Pasture where the plows have already turned the sod and the trucks that haul grain over the cow path have buried the grass in the ruts they left behind. Where a dam that taught a little girl lessons about land is now a shriveled and lifeless puddle, so shallow and narrow she might wade across it without frightening her mother.

There are tribes that bury the baby’s umbilical cord, forever connecting the child to that place. I too was rooted in the grasslands of South Dakota. Now having walked across an ancient pasture buried by plows, having felt the muddy water of a dwindling pond slip through my fingers, I feel displaced and rootless. I close my eyes and see the muddy waters of the North Dam, and I imagine Medicine Butte rising in the distance. I remember the stories of my place. But I wonder if memory’s ground will be solid enough to tether a little girl securely to her place.

[Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, p. 270]