“There were a lot of suicides,” he says. “I think in many cases it was financial—they were down and out—and in other cases, it was the loneliness.”
You crawl down into a cellar in another town, walk past a dead badger, then climb the sagging stairs to the debris of an abandoned life. On the floor is a handmade book, its buckram cover with the crayoned title, “MY SHOWER,” and dated Saturday, June 9, 1951. It is illustrated with images cut from magazines, and the first one is of a young woman, lips red, hair blond, and written in a clear hand in ink, “The Bride.” Now it is refuse along with children’s toys and other things left behind. Or you enter another house where clothes hang in the closets and a dead cat shares the floor with a funeral book, Abiding Faith, that lists those in attendance and what floral arrangements they gave. The wind blows and outside two figures dance across a field, creatures that look like wolves through binoculars but could be dogs. Moose have also returned, along with the mountain lion. North Dakota has a feral edge to it.
Melvin Wisdahl is just shy of 83 and lives with his wife, Morrene, in Corinth, a town of six. When he was a boy, it was a town of about 75. He’s spent his life with wheat and work and politics—a supporter of the prairie populist group called the Nonpartisan League, which influenced the state for decades. He’s a solid man in his flannel shirt and torn jeans, with hands that show a lifetime of labor. His two sons now work 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) of wheat, canola, and other crops, plus cattle on the side, but Melvin figures that after them, with ever larger operations needed to make a living, well, it will all go to pieces.
“It was economics and drought,” he says softly, “drove everybody out. The drought of the late ’30s, then the war—everyone left for the defense industries. I’m 82 and never left and never wanted to leave.”
He contents himself with growing white burley tobacco in his garden, though he has never smoked, and fiddling with two stills, though he does not drink. And reading—sometimes he climbs a knoll by the house so the cell phone will work and calls the Progressive Populist magazine down in Texas to give them a piece of his mind. He’s also been a board member of a bank. He is the survivor.
“You can imagine,” he says, “some of the trauma the first people went through here. I remember my mother telling me she never got used to the wind because in her valley in Norway there was no wind.”