Dance on the Lawn - No. 6 from Scenes from Childhood Op. 62

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As the glaciers moved south, the animals were forced to flee to warmer lands. Soon the ice mass had covered all of North Dakota except a very small region in the southwest corner beyond the Killdeer Mountains. When at length it receded, it left in its wake boulders, gravel, and till—a drift soil composed of clay, sand, gravel, and boulders. Much of this now has been worn away; on the west side of the Missouri only a few scattered areas remain, and on the east side the till, though more continuous, is often merely a veneer a few feet in thickness.

The early glacier was followed by the Wisconsin ice sheet, the Dakota lobe of which covered a large part of this State, pushing back the Missouri River, which had previously flowed north into Hudson Bay, into its present channel. Eventually this glacier, too, melted and receded, leaving a great lake about feet deep, nearly miles long, and miles wide, with an area of not less than , square miles, including the region now known as the Red River Valley.

This lake has been named Lake Agassiz, in honor of Louis Agassiz, first prominent advocate of the theory that drift was formed by land ice. Lake Agassiz existed some 10, years ago, lasted for probably 1, years, and covered an area greater than the present Great Lakes. Productive soil and ground water, closely allied resources, are North Dakota's greatest assets. The Wisconsin glacier and Lake Agassiz are largely responsible for the fertile soils that cover three-fifths of the State's surface. Through the Red River Valley the lake left a fine claylike silt 20 to 30 feet deep.

The successive shore lines of the lake, showing its gradual recession, can be plainly seen in the ridges of sand and gravel that rise 10 to 25 feet along the western edge of the valley.

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Also on the west border of the valley are three extensive sand plains, the deltas of the Pembina, Sheyenne, and Elk Rivers, formed by glacial debris mingled with river silt. The Souris glacial lake bed, in the loop of the present Souris River, resembles the Red River Valley in geological history, but covers a much smaller area. Immediately under the silt of the old lake beds and on the surface of the Drift Prairie is glacial drift or till. In much of the southwestern part of the State, particularly along the western tributaries of the Missouri, there are no glacial deposits; the topsoil is composed largely of shale and sandstone, and, though not so fertile as the old lake beds and glacial plains to the east, provides fine range country.

Especially valuable to those who depend on the land for their livelihood are the numerous artesian wells and natural springs which furnish necessary water supplies. The artesian basin on the southern border of the State and extending into South Dakota has been designated by a Federal authority as the most important in America and probably in the world.

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People of the State have been awakened in recent years to a consciousness of the need for water conservation. Long abuse of seemingly unlimited artesian supplies resulted in lessening pressure in the wells. Simultaneously, drought, high winds, and the broken unwooded plains conspired to deplete the surface waters left by rains and winter snows. Within 20 years one-third of the lakes in North Dakota became extinct. To counteract these disastrous effects, a program of Federal, State, and private water and soil conservation has begun.


Trees are being planted to hold the soil and conserve the moisture of rain and snow. A program of dam construction is under way in every county in the State. Dry-land farming and supplemental irrigation have been adopted to conserve the soil and return to it the elements which it has lost through constant cultivation. North Dakota is indebted to the ancient seas and glaciers not only for the fertility of its soil but also for many of its most important mineral resources.

Almost inexhaustible is the vast supply of lignite, estimated at billion tons, which underlies the western half of the State. The veins, once the luxuriant plant life of a far distant age, vary from a fraction of an inch to 40 feet in thickness. The southwestern corner of the State contains excellent beds of clay, deposited by the seas and now used for building materials and pottery.

Two beds in the Dickinson vicinity, each containing approximately 29 million cubic yards, yield the finest clays in the State.

A layer of yellow sand clay overlies the whitish plastic variety here; the two combine to form a number of colors, and have the added advantage of being free from iron. Plastic clay beds of importance, although not so valuable commercially as the Dickinson deposits, are found throughout the southwestern corner of the State. They yield one of the rarest and most valuable types of clay for pottery and other specialized purposes. Shales found near the western clay beds are used in the manufacture of cheaper building materials. The discovery of two large bentonite fields in southwestern North Dakota in opened up a new mineral resource.

This [Pg 12] claylike mineral is used as a binding agent and filler in many commercial processes, such as the manufacture of soaps, paints, and cosmetics.

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The larger deposit—in the Little Badlands—covers 25 square miles and contains about million tons of the mineral, while the Chalky Butte deposit near Amidon contains about 60 million tons. The beds are easily accessible, being uncovered in many places. Extensive sodium sulphate deposits have been formed in old lake beds in the northwestern corner of the State, where the mineral-bearing waters have evaporated, leaving a deposit of sodium sulphate crystals.

North of the town of Grenora, 1, acres are covered with sodium sulphate beds ranging from a few inches to more than 30 feet in depth. Sodium sulphate, also known as Glauber's salt, is commercially valuable, especially in the pulp and paper industries. Owing to lack of knowledge of its existence in this country, it has been imported largely from Canada. Although geologists have doubted that oil exists in commercial quantities in North Dakota, considerable interest has been shown in the wells near Marmarth in the southwestern corner of the State.

Their proximity to the Montana oil fields increases the possibility of the success of these wells. Much interest has also been shown in the development of a potential oil field south of Ray in northwestern North Dakota. Hidden beneath the earth's surface are other minerals deposited during the geologic formation of the various strata. These include fuller's earth, sandstone, granite, gneiss, and gold; but because of their limited quantity and inaccessibility, they are commercially unimportant.

The glacial deposits are important because they include the sand and gravel used extensively for road surfacing. Some of the eastern lake beds contain marl, a clay from which Portland cement is made. The extent and purity of the deposits are not definitely known. North Dakota falls into three distinct zones of plant and animal life: the Turtle Mountain region and a few scattered areas in the Canadian, or cold, zone; the Missouri and Little Missouri Valleys in the upper austral, or warmer, zone; and the remainder of the State in the transition zone.

Because of its semiarid climate, the State has only square miles of wooded area. Native forests are found chiefly along streams and lakes, and in the Turtle and Killdeer Mountains. Throughout the Red River Valley, Turtle Mountains, and Devils Lake region plant life is similar to the Minnesota type, while such trees as the elm, green ash, box elder, poplar, and cottonwood are also common.

Although the cottonwood's ability to withstand drought makes it one of the most desirable species of trees in North Dakota, efforts are being made in many towns to eradicate the tree because of the ubiquitous soft white "cotton" which floats from its branches like summer flurries of snow. During the fall and early winter, the thickets of the northern Red River Valley are aflame with the highbush cranberry, which lent its Indian name to Pembina, first permanent white settlement in the State.

Other berries grow profusely along all the eastern streams, and many families assure themselves of a winter supply of jams and jellies by picking the June berries, chokecherries, wild plums, and wild grapes. In the woods along the Missouri and Little Missouri grow trees of the Missouri type—the broadleaf cottonwoods, willows, ash, elm, buffalo berry, and flowering currant. A trace of the Rocky Mountain type of forest is found in the Badlands and on the buttes of the Little Missouri, where the yellow pine and red cedar grow.

Not only trees but other forms of vegetation differ widely from the eastern to the western sections of the State. The long Indian-grass and blue grass typical of the east is replaced on the western ranges by short buffalo grass and grama grass, the two forming a dense mat over the ground. Due to differences in rainfall, the western grasses are much duller and more grayish in color than those of the eastern section.

From early spring to the first frosts of autumn, thousands of wild flowers brighten the prairies.


Many species are general throughout the State, while others are typical only of certain sections. Before the last patches of snow are gone, the blue-gray pasque flower, so like the crocus that it is often called by that name, appears on the rolling prairies and the northern slopes of hills. It is soon followed by the wild parsley, Nuttall's or yellow violet, and the vivid plumes of the purple avens.

Most of the spring flowers are of soft, delicate hues, such as the white meadow rue, parsley, false-Solomon's-seal, silverberry, squaw-weeds, meadow parsnip, blue-eyed-grass, and harebell. With the coming of midsummer, the colors become more brilliant. The fragrant prairie rose, the State flower, blossoms profusely in fields and along roadsides. The showy oxeye or [Pg 14] false-sunflower, the flaming prairie mallow, wild blue and yellow flax, the vivid flame lily, the purple coneflower, and the black-eyed Susan emblazon the summer fields.

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Water lilies float on pools and shallow streams in the western part of the State. In the Badlands grow the rabbit brush, butte primrose, false-lupine, and prickly pear, and the scoria lily which resembles a thistle during the day and opens its fragile, waxy petals only after the sun has gone down. Yellow is the color of the prairies in autumn, as amid the fading foliage the goldenrod, sunflower, aster, and blazing star dominate the scene. Some wild flowers, such as the wild morning-glory, are so common that they are regarded as weeds.

These are not so obnoxious to the farmer, however, as the Russian-thistle, pigeon grass, quack grass, pigweed, mustard, burdock, and sow thistle which often invade the grainfields.

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The seeds of most of these plants were brought in with seed grain from European countries, and their eradication is a difficult process. Another obnoxious plant, against which a strong campaign has been conducted by farmers, is the common barberry, on which thrive the parasitic fungi that cause wheat rust. Many weeds, however, are considered a valuable asset to the fields and pasture lands where they grow. These include the American vetch or wild sweet pea, which forms an important addition to hay, and the white and violet prairie clovers, which, although too tough to be used for fodder, serve to enrich the soil.

When the first settlers came to this section of the country, they described the land as being covered with innumerable varieties of wild flowers. Since that time, cultivation and drought have changed the picture. Efforts to preserve the native plant life in its natural setting have met with cooperation from Federal and State agencies alike. The reserves that have been established are also sanctuaries for bird and animal life, upon which recent drought and severe winters have had a disastrous effect.

Under the auspices of the State game and fish commission, 2, acres of land have been set aside as five game and fish farms, while , acres of privately owned land have been designated as game refuges. The Federal Government has established some 60 sanctuaries on , acres, of which about 90, acres are privately owned. Animal life zones in the State are more marked than are plant life zones.

The woods of the Turtle Mountains, at the meeting point of the Canadian and transition zones, abound with wild life [Pg 15] of both regions. More than varieties of game and song birds live here, including the Dakota song sparrow, the black-billed cuckoo, the oriole, and the blue jay. In the deserted holes of badgers, foxes, and gophers live those queer prairie birds, the burrowing owls. Grebe, ducks, geese, heron, and occasionally swan inhabit the lakes of the region.

Deer, red fox, rabbits, red squirrels and northern chipmunks are common; and at night the bright-eyed, mousy Richardson shrew and the silver-haired bat can be seen. Lynx are occasionally reported. In the Red River Valley and the central prairies of the State, once the scene of buffalo hunts, very little large game is found today. Game birds abound in this region, however, and with the restoration of their breeding places they are now being propagated in huge numbers on the many reserves. Early travelers in the western part of the State were astonished by the prairie-dog villages which dotted the country.

Some of these villages still exist, in the extreme western sections. Their inhabitants are typical of the upper austral zone, as are also the coyotes whose long melancholy wail can be heard across the prairie at twilight or daybreak. Chipmunks, squirrels, gophers and ferrets also make their homes here.