Plainly Written

Great PlainsCarleton isn’t exactly “home on the range,” but the prairie and farmland around Northfield is familiar scenery for writer Dan O’Brien, a wildlife biologist, South Dakota buffalo rancher, and Headley Distinguished Visitor-in-Residence at Carleton last spring. O’Brien accompanied nature photographer Michael Forsberg on a three-year (2005–08), 100,000-mile odyssey in the Great Plains, the vast region west of Minnesota. His personal essays about this uniquely American landscape are published in Forsberg’s new book, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, to be published in October by University of Chicago Press.

“My job was to ask questions and get a feel for the places that we found and documented in photos,” says O’Brien. “What does it mean to be part of the Great Plains? Why is [this region] important?” The book, which touches on the history, ecology, sociology, and public policy associated with the Great Plains, is a wake-up call to “grab the American public by its lapels and shake it,” he says. “The deterioration of habitat and loss of species diversity in the Great Plains are urgent and extremely complicated.”

During his visit to Carleton, O’Brien shared his writing experience—he’s the author of more than 10 novels and memoirs—with students in a one-credit, two-week seminar titled “Writing the Great Plains,” in which they explored the role of literature in the conservation of the Great Plains. “Carleton is quite a rest from my usual life,” O’Brien says. “It’s so academic and civilized. I’m usually alone writing or I’m running a ranch, so this is a great change of pace.”

O’Brien’s stay at Carleton was funded by a gift from Angus and Margaret Wurtele, friends of the College whose support brings to campus distinguished authors who write about the environment, conservation, natural history, and natural landscapes.

Web Extra: Read more about Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild at

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