Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Brookings

The weekend was fast approaching and I had one more day of work on the Monday to finalise everything before I caught the overnighter back to London from Dallas.  Gray kindly invited me to join him for the Saturday and he would show me some of the countryside.  He lived not in Sioux Falls but in the town of Brookings, about a 50 mile drive up the I29 to the north.  I drove steadily up the Interstate; I always do despite the roads being huge and empty, the troopers have little else to do but find an excuse to book a foreigner for speeding.  I29 ran along  ground which was higher than that to the west, and I began to realise the humpy bumpy terrain around EROS was part of a fat ridge, barely 100m above the rest of the plain, but enough to make a difference in an area of little relief. Only the Sioux River cut through it.

I took the Brookings exit and drove along a main road into town; it was the usual anonymous mix of gas stations, eateries and motels.  Then they dissolved away and I was in a pleasant urban landscape.  Gray met me at his favourite coffee shop and, since I had skipped breakfast that morning,  we had a muffin and cappuccino.  Gray was a calm, thoughtful guy, and he looked totally at ease here; this was his usual habitat.  He said he preferred the small town feel of Brookings to Sioux Falls, but it was no hick town.  Brookings was the seat of the State University of South Dakota so had a sizeable student body, as well as the staff, and had attracted in a wide range of people, including several of Gray’s colleagues from USGS.  It also had a number of art galleries and museums; more than you would expect for a town of barely 20,000 permanent residents.  We visited one, the Agricultural Heritage Museum.  When I had been a schoolkid in Liverpool we had spent a couple of terms learning about American history which included a big part about the enclosure of the Great Plains and the life of the homesteader.  The grainy old black and white photos gave a rather bleak picture of life out here, and there was no denying it was tough, but this museum had brought it to life with full colour exhibits.  Everything was here from the life of a South Dakotan from the 1850s to the Second World War.   As well as scrupulously restored farm equipment, from mammoth traction engines and tractors to ploughs and harvesters, there were all the domestic items; mangles, cleaning brushes, preserving jars, beds, chairs, and most revealing, photographs, letters and mementoes of the people who had lived through this period.  As well as the glass cabinets and mounted exhibits, rooms had been set up as an example of how all these pieces came together in the draughty old log cabins that people lived in out on the plain.  Apart from the fact the artefacts were in pristine polished conditioned, you could imagine the family had just stepped out for a moment for a walk.

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As if the family were still there

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