Essay by Lea Page: Previous History

There’s something springlike in Lea Page’s essay in the current issue of North Dakota Quarterly: “Previous History.” It offers a view of the agrarian landscape that is as full of life as it is contradictions, frustrations, false-starts, and flickers of hope. I hope you see in it the same smell of spring as I do.

Check it out below. Check out more from this issue here. And if you like what you’re reading, consider subscribing or submitting something to us (although we’ve pressed pause on poetry submissions for a while to allow us to catch up with our backlog). 


Previous History

It’s not that I can’t say thank you—I can and do. And it’s not that I don’t trust words—well, truthfully, I don’t—but thank you is so easy, so impersonal. I like to be clear.

 Pot roast is clear.

 When I hear trucks turning into our driveway, I close the door to the oven, wipe my hands on a dish towel, and step outside in bare feet.

 Our friend Sidney and his son had some legal business to attend to in town with my husband Ray, and now they’re here for dinner.

 In 2018, Ray, along with a slew of political newcomers, threw his hat into the election ring, running for the position of District Judge serving three rural counties in Montana, including the one made up in large part by the Crow Reservation. Based on Ray’s previous years as a tireless advocate, Sidney, a Crow Tribal Commissioner, offered his support. During the campaign, the phone would often ring in the very early hours of the morning. It was Sidney, whose check-ins would begin with a long, cheerful salutation in the Crow language, which he then translated so that we—I could hear him well enough, lying beside Ray in bed—would know just how much of the morning, the day, the world, all of it, he had called upon and gathered together into his voice.

 In the end, Ray lost the election—politics. We still get the early morning calls, just not as often.


Sidney’s son is talking with Ray, both their heads bent together in appreciative contemplation of the various pieces of diesel equipment that litter—or grace, depending on your point of view—our driveway.

 While they are waylaid by the machinery, Sidney comes up to the step and gives me a big hug. When he lets go, he looks over me—he is very tall—taking in the vegetable garden where a front yard would normally go and the rolling fields beyond. Bound only by the Absaroka Mountains just miles to the south, we are surrounded by hundreds of acres of pasture, seemingly empty as far as the eye can see but for an abandoned barn and the collapsing remains of two log cabins.

 “Do the bears disturb the garden?” Sidney wants to know.

 “Not yet,” I say, and then he asks about deer, and in an exaggerated gesture, eyes wide-open for emphasis, I draw my finger across my throat to indicate that we will not conjure the presence of deer and their potential garden predation by speaking their names. We have a fence, but still.

 Sidney throws his head back and laughs. Then he asks, “How did you find this place?”

 “Most of it isn’t ours,” I say, aware that all the land we are standing on and looking at was recently populated by the Crow people, the transfer of which was based on all manner of cheating, stealing and worse, but I don’t suppose he means that. Our piece—the one we claim as ours, anyway, because our names are recorded on the deed at the courthouse in town—is a few oddly shaped acres.

 “A neighbor bought everything around us at a foreclosure sale,” I tell Sidney, “but this lot wasn’t included because it was the original homestead.” I pause at the irony of telling him this. He holds his expression still, only missing one blink of his eyes.

 The area is known for its winds, the road notorious for getting drifted in with snow. The leftover lot itself was too small to farm, with no obvious place to build. “It was cheap,” I say, “so we jumped on it.”

 Also, I explain, we had a previous history with the place, a history involving cow shit.

 Sidney raises his eyebrows. This is unexpected.


When we first moved to Montana in 1997, we bought a twenty-acre lot that sits only a mile away from us as the crow flies, although around here it is more often a raven. Ray and I, fresh off of signing the bill of sale, were driving around with our kids, Nina and Thomas, in the back seat. We eventually found ourselves at the gate of a derelict ranch at the end of a winding road. The house was gone from its foundation and the outbuildings and fences were sagging into the soil. Shoals of refuse—rusted machine parts, tangled wads of orange baling twine and bleached bones—littered the ground as if exposed by a low tide.

 There was also, to my delight, a giant pile of sun-baked cow manure. Just what I needed to fertilize the new vegetable garden I had already begun digging in my mind. I was confident that any soil, no matter how tired or overworked, could be built up again with time, patience, and plenty of rotting organic matter. I was comfortable with sifting and digging, with having a tired back and dirt under my nails. I knew that a garden does not produce—it gives back. I knew far less, however, about how to transplant my family into a small rural town. Is there a compost equivalent for loosening the soil of a human community? I still don’t know the answer, but back then, I did know a shit bonanza when I saw one.

 Figuring no one would care, or rather, no one would notice, we returned to the abandoned manure pile with shovels and were loading the pickup when a neighbor drove by on her way to check irrigation ditches. She introduced herself, barely able to contain her laughter at catching us. Who steals shit?

 While I am telling this story, Sidney has been looking past me, and I wonder if he has even been listening. The sky, the shifting light, compels attention. I can’t even begin to fathom how Sidney feels. I won’t ask—I figure he’ll tell me if and when he wants me to know.

 “You don’t go into town much, do you?” he says.

 I understand it as more of a statement than a question. Only a fool would voluntarily leave this place, and I am not a fool, or, more accurately, I am not that fool.

 But I was.

 The pilfered cow manure did wonders for my garden, as did the composted leaves I scavenged. Out where we lived, the wind blew them away, so I would cruise the back alleys of town each fall and collect the hefty bags full of leaves people set out for garbage collection. Arriving home with the pickup bed full of damp bags, aware of the picture I was creating, I’d say to Ray—joking because I knew he never would: “I hope you don’t plan on running for public office.”


 Despite snowstorms in June, hail every July and a killing frost every September, my plants flourished. My family, not so much. But I don’t tell this to Sidney. I don’t tell him about our daughter, the only one in her kindergarten class who had not been born and raised in the county, who became a lightning rod for bullies, as did I, and then our son. I don’t tell him about my frustration at the seamless way in which Ray, in his capacity as a lawyer—a male lawyer—was accepted, even respected. Surely, I thought, with time and patience and effort, we would all find our place . . . but, no. I don’t tell him how I retreated from the small-town gossip and manipulations, how Ray and I pulled the children out of school and tried to make a life for them that did not rely on a human community whose machinations were as baffling as they were cruel, whose rules we never mastered.

 I don’t tell Sidney how I would lie awake every night, filleting myself with the words I heard from every corner: “There’s something about you,” they said. “There’s something about your daughter, something about your son.” Meaning: You don’t belong here. You deserve this.

 I don’t tell Sidney about how I would watch the moonlight traverse my bedroom or how utterly exhausted and alone I felt. I don’t tell Sidney that, after fifteen years, we gave up and left Montana, which is a wholly bland and inadequate description of what actually happened, but we did give up and we did leave.


When I had gone in to the local U-Haul dealer to reserve the truck for our move, the owner asked me why we were leaving. His eldest daughter had taught our daughter traditional Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian dances for the town’s yearly Festival of Nations. Ray had coached the owner’s youngest daughter in soccer. That’s how small towns are: interconnected on a good day, petty and vicious on the others.

 It’s not that I am ashamed we ran, but now, I hardly recognize myself, the one who felt so cornered. At the time, I did my best to kill her off. I thought I was just streamlining, paring things down so we could fit our belongings into the back of a small U-Haul van, but the level of focus and determination with which I approached the job, the almost unholy glee I found in selling off, giving away and throwing out, would indicate there was more going on. But you can’t scour away the part of yourself that has been deemed unworthy. You can’t downsize misery, divest yourself of memory or strip away your desire to feel welcome. You can’t unhear the voices that haunt you.

 But I tried. I tried to do all of those things.

 My purge succeeded on one level. On moving day, the U-Haul and our pickup had room to spare. It takes courage to follow a dream. I can’t say what it takes to move forward without one. Desperation comes to mind. Resignation. Stupidity, perhaps. Some might say trust, but I had no basis for that.

  I don’t say any of this to Sidney, but I am pretty sure he hears it anyway.


And then, five years after fleeing Montana, Ray and I were back, driving around looking for a new place, a place that would speak to us, that, perhaps, already had. How else to explain our return?

 “I can do it,” I had said to Ray. “I can live there again.”

 “It’s the same people, you know,” he said.

 “But we aren’t the same,” I said. “I’m not the same.”

 Thomas was settled into college. Nina was in New York City. “New York or Paris!” she had declared before she had visited either. Sometimes, you just know.

 We hadn’t had any success yet in our search. As a last resort, we decided to check out a place the real estate agent had put last on the list. “You don’t want it,” she had said. “There are problems with the deed, and besides, you can’t even get there.”

 We drove down a familiar winding road and left the car when the snowdrifts became unnavigable. We slogged the last half-mile on foot to stand shivering on top of a little knoll. The wind, like the snow that followed, was blowing so hard we could reliably lean into it for support. There were issues with the deed. The county didn’t plow the road—obviously. It looked like the area might be swampy where it wasn’t sloped. It was perfect.

 Perfect—except that the soil, very different from that of our old place just a mile away, was the finest of clays. If I were to have any hope of growing anything, I would need a biblical amount of manure, which, of course, I had removed from this very spot back in the day. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

 “Here,” I said, indicating the only flattish space atop the knoll. “I call dibs here for the garden,” which was, if you squinted your eyes, something resembling a plan. You could even call it the beginning of another dream.


I stop pattering about soil and manure. Sidney and I stand, comfortable in the silence, looking at the garden. The “how” we got here is less important than the “why,” and the “why” is, I believe, patently clear.

 Sidney’s son and Ray trot up to us, having gotten a whiff of the pot roast, and we all go inside. When the food is on the table, pot roast pulled from the oven, salad picked from the garden, Sidney blesses the meal—us, everything—in Crow and then in English, although by now, we don’t really need the translation.


Mostly, when people come to this place, they stop, one foot out of their vehicle, as if they are seeing the mountains for the first time, as if they didn’t just drive past the Beartooth Front Range to get here, as if they had never noticed the dome of the sky before, or the sun or the moon—sometimes both—watching them make their way along the dips and whorls of dirt and gravel.

 Their first comment is always about the beauty of the landscape. They whisper their second: “It’s so quiet . . .” Third: they glance at me, and I hear their unspoken question: Don’t you get lonely out here?

 Of course, I do. But not for the reasons they might think.

 I may not see another human all day, but I am not alone. It may be quiet here, but there is plenty to hear.

 First: the birds. So many birds. Not just their songs but the muscular wfff, Wfff, WFFF of a raven’s wings beating the air, the insect-like whir of the hummingbird, the almost imperceptible not-sound of an owl dropping into flight.

 When I visit my daughter in New York City, I love to take the subway around town. “You’re so nosy!” my daughter will say to me as I look around, to which I reply, “No, I’m interested,” because the subway feels, in some way, very much like home to me.

 The young man singing on the platform in a high clear voice could be the meadowlark, cracking open the sky with joy. The older man in tattered, dusty clothes and downcast eyes could be the rough-legged hawk, who sticks around in the worst winters as long as there is food to be had. The nannies and young mothers pushing strollers could be the Sandhill cranes, attentive on their long, jointed legs, bobbing their heads towards their offspring. The brother and sister, half over-tired and half-wired, could be the bobolinks, chattering riotously up and down the scale in mock irritation. The dude with his pumped muscles, chain necklaces and overly tight pants is most definitely the pheasant, who is all about the strut—we can’t help but look at him. And the rest, the tired commuters and the bewildered tourists and the high school kids, the woman with a dog in her backpack and the man in a lime-green ball gown, the long-locked Hasid and the woman in a hijab, they are all here, too: the bluebirds and blackbirds, the curlews and the snipe, the mourning doves and nutcrackers, the harriers and the hawks. They are not there to talk to me, but I would never call them—the subway riders or the birds—peripheral to my life. They are my people, and I revel in their presence.


Here, then, there is also the wind, one of the great conversationalists. Wind, of course, does not have its own voice, but the timbers of the house moan when slammed with winter storms, the leaves of the aspens tinkle like those cut-glass wind chimes in a breeze, and the grasses—well, the grasses can play a full symphony, depending on which winds are blowing which way. Just the other day, on my morning walk, I lay down in the long grass on the side of the road to listen. The ranchers already think I’m crazy for walking aimlessly, so I doubt it would change their opinion much to find me lying down by the road.

 Did I mention the bees? And thunder? And the woodstove, creaking and crackling? But I think I’ve made my point.

 I am not alone out here—technically not an answer to the visitor’s question—but it isn’t aloneness that makes a person lonely. UPS delivery people, tax assessors, plumbers, friends and family: none of them have ever asked me if I felt lonely when I was growing up in a city among a million people. If they had, I’m sure I would have lied and said, “No.” But I was. Desperately.

 It is quiet, here. And I am quiet here, but that is not the same thing as being lonely. It is a quiet that has taught me how to listen. Because, I will tell you, I have been listening for the wrong reasons. I have been listening for—waiting for—acceptance, for an invitation, for welcome. I’ve been hoping to hear the words that mean: you belong, you are home. I’ve been listening for that moment when I can slip in and be part of—something, I am not quite sure what.

 Don’t get me wrong—I have always been a good listener. Since I was a child, people have told me things. Hard things. And I carry all of those stories, each and every one. How could I not? When someone trusts you enough to put a piece of themselves in your hands, you must treat it with reverence. You can’t just toss it aside. It’s a gift, an honor. It’s also exhausting. And it was never more so than during Ray’s campaign, when we knocked on roughly 8000 doors over six months.


“Hi,” Ray would say, after each door opened. “My name is Ray, and I’m running for District Judge.”

 People would take his campaign postcard and concentrate on it, almost grimly, as if there might be a pop quiz, but when he said, “This is my wife,” invariably they would look up, break into huge smiles and push open the door again to shake my hand. We would talk about their garden or their dogs—there were always dogs. Big dogs and little dogs. An abundance of old and cherished dogs. “Chewy,” the fat dachshund, comes to mind, and an eighteen-year-old Aussie, whose owner took her fishing every day, even though she splashed in the river and scared the fish. At one house, we met five rescue Pomeranians, one of whom had no back hip joints, so he had to pull himself along on his hind end when he made jailbreaks down the driveway with the others, no problem. Once, a dead dog lay in the middle of the road, blood pooled around its head, and two little girls, oblivious, played make-believe in the yard not twenty feet away.

 We cut our day short that day, demoralized, and drove home in silence. The only other time we threw in the towel early was after Ray got into an argument with a man who insisted that there were, indeed, some children who deserved to be caged. That was another quiet ride home. Mostly, though, on the drive back, we would tell and retell the stories of the day, sometimes because they were hilarious, sometimes because they were touching, and sometimes because they were so bizarre, we had to confirm they had really happened. Inevitably, I’d fall asleep with my head against the window until our tires hit the gravel of our road. At home, we’d restock the car with postcards and dog biscuits, ready for the next day’s canvass.

 Two brothers outside their trailer—all three showing marks of long years and harder living—were game for a lively streetside conversation, but when the younger brother veered toward the benefits of relocating to Mars, the older brother tenderly steered him back to Earth. Many stories we heard involved abandonment and abuse, meth and alcohol addiction and a whole kaleidoscope of human overwhelm. We heard even more involving adoptions—some formal, most not—of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. A tapestry of makeshift family, a collage of care.

 On another day of knocking, it quickly became clear that something was off when we met an older woman on the road near her farmhouse. Ray and I exchanged a glance, but after a few moments, we realized she was having a panic attack. The source: a giant spider in her bathtub. She hadn’t been able to take a bath in days. “Could you . . . ?” she asked Ray. He looked at me. I said, “We’ll all go.” While Ray took care of the spider, I chattered, hopefully in a soothing tone, and steered the woman by the shoulders away from the bathroom. Then the deed was done, and we all went back outside to find the woman’s dog sitting in the passenger seat of our car with a self-satisfied grin on its face. We had left the car door open, and it had helped itself to all of the dog biscuits.

 Once, we were told to “Git!” Often, we heard “Come in!” sung out from somewhere inside. On our first day, we were offered homemade apple pie, which we accepted. Later, we were offered water, Gatorade, wine, banana bread and, once, landscaping rocks. We took the rocks.

 A few people asked questions. Some actually read my husband’s judicial philosophy, printed on the postcard. Most had a story to tell. A blind former mechanic spent his days in a recliner in his garage, listening to books on tape, the ’58 Packard Golden Hawk he kept in mint condition parked next to him for company. A Vietnam veteran who had “messed up a lot” after coming home thought he was just bad until he learned about PTSD. He now runs a support group for other vets. One man pushed a button on his throat and “laughed” off losing his voice to cancer because that was nothing compared to losing his child, who had been drowned by his mentally ill wife. Another man, just that morning, had taken his daughter to hospice after she had survived past Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and then Valentine’s Day. A Crow grandmother, whose father had been taken from his family and “reeducated” at a boarding school, told me, “They stole his voice.” She reached out and touched my wrist. “The men who suffered this way, they cannot speak of it yet. But we women can. We must tell the stories.”

 Ray and I stood together on porches and broken steps, among pots of petunias and cans of sodden cigarette butts, and we listened. People told stories full of pride, and they told stories of pain. So many stories of pain. Do you see me? they seemed to ask in a hundred different ways. Do you see my beauty? Do you see my pain? Will you excuse me from jury duty?

 After each conversation, I would check the names off our voter list and read out the next address. We forgot the names and numbers, but we haven’t forgotten any of the stories.


But here’s what I’ve noticed: when someone chooses you to hold a story, one they cannot leave with anyone else, they may not want you around too much afterwards—sort of like seeing a therapist in the next booth at a restaurant. It’s awkward. Your presence can feel a little like an ambush. Maybe they regret, just a little, telling it to you—telling it at all. So they keep you at a distance to protect themselves. I understand this. In the wrong hands, their story could be abused, so I try to show that my hands are not the wrong hands, and the best way I know to do that is to be quiet.


Ray was disappointed when he lost the election, but two days later, I found him under his truck, replacing the block heater. He had one of his big campaign road signs folded underneath him for padding.

 I, on the other hand, felt so very full—full of stories—I could barely manage to leave the house. I wasn’t so much burdened as unable to carry any more. I needed to find a way to set those stories down.

 It seems obvious, now, how to do that. The only place that can possibly hold it all is not my memory, which is limited, but the earth, which is not. The earth can and will keep these stories in trust for as long as there is time. I can plant them here, in this heavy soil, which itself holds stories older than the glaciers that came and went, grinding rock into the finest silt, the heaviest clay, which, in turn, leaves me with blisters on my hands, which still sometimes makes me want to weep with frustration, but regardless, this is the place where I have chosen to live. Which has chosen me.

 I can turn those stories into the soil along with all of the manure that I can beg, borrow or steal. I can exhale them into the wind and rain. I can set them aloft in the sky to soar with the cranes or rise ever higher with the thunderheads. I can let them pass through me into the tireless and receiving landscape.

 Isn’t that what time is—passing through a story?

 Isn’t that what home is—a place to witness that passing? A place that hears all that I hold—and has room for more?


Lea Page’s work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes and has appeared in The Rumpus, Sweet, The Pinch, Sycamore Review, Pithead Chapel, High Desert Journal, and more. She is also the author of Parenting in the Here and Now (Floris Books, 2015). She lives in rural Montana with her husband and a small circus of semi-domesticated animals. 

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