Old Winter's Song

By Fraser Harrison

Fraser Harrison is a British writer with a long-standing interest in South Dakota, its history and culture, which dates from his first visit to the state in 1992. His most recent books are Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota, published in 2012 by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, and ‘Yankton, Portrait of A River City’, published as a special issue of the South Dakota History journal in 2014. This essay was the winner of the Herbert S. Schell Award.

 

He has published nine other books and has written for many national newspapers and magazines in the UK, including the travel section of The Sunday Times, to which he was a regular contributor in the 1990’s.

 

In March 2014 he was awarded an Arts Council grant for a project bearing the title Searching for Fado in Thetford, and he is currently gathering material with a view to writing a book about Thetford in Norfolk.

 

After turning 70 he decided to return once again to South Dakota during February and March 2015, in order to experience winter on the Great Plains, and to think about winter as a metaphor for old age and death. The result is a new book called Old Winter’s Song

“Fraser Harrison is among the best truth-tellers. He has written a thoughtful, tender, and funny guide, a book that is an arresting journey at the center of a nation and goes deep into the human heart.” Tim Dee—Chief Producer, BBC Radio, and author of A Year on the Wing (about Infinite West)

 

Fraser Harrison has had an infatuation with South Dakota, U.S.A. for many years, and has visited the state many times, but never during the winter. In the February of 2015 he stayed in Yankton, a small town on the Missouri River, where he hoped to learn more about the blizzards and polar temperatures that make South Dakotan winters so dreaded.

 

He also wanted to think about winter in another sense – winter as a metaphor for old age, the last season in our lives. He had just turned 70, and his birthday disturbed him profoundly, causing him to think seriously for the first time about old age and death.

 

He found himself haunted by the last months of his father’s illness, fifteen year earlier. His relationship with his father had always been malign, but he hoped, in vain, for a reconciliation before death intervened.

 

He grieved for the first time, not so much for his father, as for lost opportunities, and he resolved to find a way of finally laying his father’s ghost. He was also preoccupied by his mother’s recent decline into dementia at the age of 98, which brought her independence to an end and left him in the paradoxical position of acting as her parent.

 

While meditating on these difficult experiences he recalled other deaths, including the inglorious end of a magnificent cock pheasant, which had taken up residence in his Suffolk garden, and whose death he was able to mark with an obituary in The Times.

 

On a long drive across the length of the state, east to west, he tried to analyse his love for the South Dakotan landscape in the light of its modern history, which has often been as volatile and violent as its weather.  He found a kind of resolution by meeting a South Dakotan writer and rancher, the daughter of a very difficult father, for whom South Dakota, despite its troubled, bloodthirsty past and problematic present, was the centre of the universe.

 

In a final chapter he gathers together his thoughts about ageing and death, and decides that, for him, the only true riposte lies in the lives of his grandchildren. (His three grandchildren and their parents live in the same Suffolk village as he does, giving him the chance to see them every day.)  

 

Perhaps, after all, time does not flow one way, like water; small children are a defiant counter-current. Ignorant of life’s finitude, they point forward towards an infinity of time, which is why they can afford to be so gloriously extravagant with it. They supply a trade-off to aging: the slower you walk, the faster they run, but they are running on fuel you provided. The irony of being a grandparent is that while you are ever more aware of your own dwindling funds of time, you are delighted to identify with your profligate grandchild’s habits. With a child holding your hand you learn that the way to pass time is not slowly or quickly, but intensely.

 

In the event, the March of 2015 did not bring blizzards, but a heatwave, and the state was officially declared to be in drought. Sunburnt rather than frostbitten, Harrison returned from South Dakota with his obsession intact, but with a very different view of old age.

 

 

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