Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mystical Horizons

There is a Stonehenge in North Dakota. It wasn’t built by Druids. Or Mandans or Ojibway. It originated with my father.

My father spent his final years living in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He and his wife Georgia bought a modest, two-bedroom house overlooking a small woodland lake whose serene waters were only occasionally broken by a landing mallard, the churning webbed feet of a red-necked grebe or blue-winged teal, a northern pike or largemouth bass dimpling the surface as they fed on various insects, or a beaver moving a piece of birch or cottonwood to a nearby den. Two wild turkeys lived next door, sometimes gobbling on his rooftop, upsetting the TV antenna. He erected a sign at the entrance of the little dirt road that led to the house that identified this little Eden as Tranquility Base. This was a tongue-in-cheek allusion to his job as an aerospace engineer at Boeing, in Seattle.

My wife and I visited them in 1997. I remember, on one of our trips down to the prairie for a sightseeing tour, my dad mentioning something about a site for a Stonehenge he had envisioned. This was not unusual, coming from my father. He loved space, animals, and innovation. He was curious about everything. He painted, photographed, and sculpted. He was always busy doing something. Especially making designs. Inventions. Schemes. Sketches and drafts. His brain was constantly churning up ideas, tools to make life easier, designs for implements that he felt were awkward or just plain ugly, vehicles for exploring space, doodads for the kitchen.

He did not like the occult. He loved science. Facts. Data. Observable, quantifiable phenomena. Most of all, he liked being busy. He hated being idle. His last months were torture. The cancer that finally killed him laid waste to his body and made it impossible to remain active.

I forgot about his Stonehenge. I had only heard him mention it as he casually pointed to the site where he had planned to put it. Then, one evening, it popped into my head. I wondered if anything had come of it. I fished around on the Internet, and found some images of it. I was eager to find more information. How had it come to fruition? It even had a name: Mystical Horizons.

It surprised me to see the word ‘mystical.’ It was not a word normally a part of my dad’s vocabulary, and if he did use this word, it was more apt to be in a disparaging tone. This bluff overlooking the prairie where he had chosen to imagine a modern-day Stonehenge had, it would seem, ignited a reverence for the mystical, a significance that exceeded the bounds of the quantifiable and pragmatic that were so closely identified with the man. I found this highly intriguing, since his appreciations of our universe were always so sober and scientific and had so rarely acquired the more elusive hues of the celestial and otherworldly. Nine years after his death, I was still discovering things about him. In Mystical Horizons, my father had managed to combine science with the sublime, the explicable with the inexplicable.

Mystical Horizons is located 9 miles north and 4 miles west of Bottineau, North Dakota, along the Scenic Byway, or Highway 43. It is on a bluff, overlooking the vast prairie extending to the west as far as the eye can see. You can see the curvature of the earth. Buildings are rare. With the aid of a pair of binoculars, you might make out a grain silo, copse of trees, barn, dust from a harvester or steeple of a white, clapboard Lutheran church.

I called the Bottineau Chamber of Commerce and waited for the usual menu of options. Press one if you’d like to make a payment. Press two if you’d like to speak to the mayor’s office. Press three if you’d like to speak to a representative of human resources. Instead, within one ring, I was speaking to a human being. A woman. Who remembered my father. And was delighted to hear I was his son. I asked her about Mystical Horizons and she gave me the number of Brad Robertson of Wold Engineering, P.C., who had been the engineer in charge of bringing my father’s design into reality.

Brad Robertson was a friendly man who was quite enthusiastic about my father’s project and offered to send me a Power Point display of its evolution from sketch to stone. The CD arrived a week or so later. I slid it into the tray on our computer and pressed the enter key to go from slide to slide, taking in information about the difficulty in finding true north, calculating where to put the stone slabs so that their position would frame the setting sun during the winter and summer solstice and autumn and vernal equinox, and positioning a tube for viewing the north star.

My dad’s “Rough Layout” Sketches of October, 2000, do not look rough at all. They’re full of precision, meticulous calculations and arrows and angles and mathematically precise sites for the structures designed to register the sun’s movements in stone and shadow. At the very bottom of one of the sketches, in parenthesis, is the phrase “sculptural ideas welcome,” which implies my dad’s intent to talk about his project (not surprising, considering my dad’s natural garrulity), and says something also about the creative process. A monument this size implies community. Each time a faucet is turned and water flows out a statement is made about the level of organized effort to create and maintain such a luxury. It is the same with a modern day Stonehenge. Vision thrives on affiliation.

When Brad Robertson began the project, my father had passed away. I don’t know the particulars of how my father’s sketches managed to find their way to Brad’s office at Wold Engineering, but the sketches must have passed through a number of hands before wonder, curiosity, and enthusiasm acquired the kind of momentum that garners sponsorship from state coffers. This in itself must have been an interesting story, and one that suggests how strongly knit a rural community can be. I wonder how much longer communities such as this will endure in the face of global corporatization and agribusiness.

The first task was to find true north.

There is more than one north. There are four: Magnetic North, Grid North, Polaris North and Geodetic North.

Magnetic North is a point on the North Pole at which the Earth’s magnetic filed points vertically downwards. The points are not very accurate because their location and intensities vary with altitude.

Grid North is a navigational term referring to the direction northwards along the grid lines of the map projection. Polaris North is the star that the earth’s axis points toward in the northern sky. All other stars seem to revolve around the north star. Hence, its efficacy as an aid to navigation and to chart navigational maps.

Geodetic (True) North is the direction for an observer’s position to the geographic North Pole, or the north direction of any geographic meridian. Determining Geodetic (True) North is the key to properly placing the structures to view the sky’s wonders. What the Druids used to determine true north is a mystery. Brad used a GPS. An experiment was conducted on Wednesday, May 5th, 2004, to confirm Geodetic North using the sun’s shadow at Solar Noon and the calculated north direction.

Solar Noon (the time when the sun reaches its highest apparent point in the sky and is equal to true or due geographic south) was calculated to be at 1:38:44 p.m. central daylight savings time.

High Noon is a movie starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and may be viewed at any time of day and in whatever geographical location, be it Ireland, Ethiopia, or the swirling gases of Neptune. It is worth noting since it was one of my dad's favorite movies. That, and Bad Day At Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy. Dad didn't go for antiheros. He liked heros with a clear sense of purpose. Nothing ambiguous. Nothing murky. Nothing ironic or detached. Pole stars.

Another experiment was set up to confirm the position and time of the sunset for the summer solstice. This experiment was performed on June 21st, 2005. Sunset was calculated to be at 9:50:03 p.m. central daylight savings time.

Sunset on the North Dakota prairie is a phenomenon of astonishing beauty. The sense of open space is acute on the plains. There is a majesty to the slow dissolution of the sun on the earth’s edge that is charged not just with solemn beauty but the cosmos itself. One can feel the earth move beneath one’s feet. Not literally, but in a deep, transcendental sense. It is not arcane. It is a signature of universal proportion available to anyone who is paying attention. It is written in the rocks, the grass, the wind, the stars, the graceful shimmer of the northern lights. It is an awareness that anyone willing to open their eyes can fully grasp as evidence of immutable laws in a universe of vast, inscrutable phenomena. To witness such an event as the sun’s light narrows through columns of stone or concrete, is to see proof of events put into motion long before you - before human beings - began to rise up and take notice of such things.

The next step in Brad’s exploration of the site was to complete a comprehensive topographical survey of the area. A 3-D Surface Model Design was created to help shape the bluff overlooking the prairie (the property on which the site is located was donated by the North Dakota Forest Service) and to create plans sheets for construction.

My dad’s plans included a center viewing pad and a wall on which the sunlight would be slashed into a ribbon of light as the sun set during the vernal and autumnal equinox. Stone slabs with gaps for viewing the sun during the winter and summer solstice were inserted at each side of the center equinoctial slabs, flanking them at precisely calibrated angles. Plans also included a Polaris Sighting Tube, a telescopic looking device set at the exact latitude of its geographical position to view the north star. The base was set at 6 feet high so it can be viewed by tourists of all sizes and ages.

There would also be a sundial. The sundial was set for Central Standard Time, and the angle of the gnomon had to be set at the exact latitude of its location.

The druids had included a sacrificial slab at Stonehenge, but my father no doubt saw the practice of human sacrifice as inappropriate to his overall designs. He just wasn’t into that sort of thing. He preferred the gentler art of kinship and conversation. If sacrifice were needed, it would be more apt to be an unforeseen expense put on his credit card than a human being.

Brad had hoped to use stones from the foundations of the local barns to construct the slabs for my dad’s Stonehenge. These stones had been very neatly chipped and sculpted to fit together in a manner not unlike the polygonal stones of the Incan towns and palaces, such as Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo on the Urubamba River. There were worries, however, that these structures would not prove stable enough, and someone might get hurt. They decided instead to use concrete and make a mold to create a shape that resembled stone.

Pictures included in Brad’s Power Point display included shots of a bulldozer blazing a trail, men in a trench with shovels, men laying concrete stones like bricklayers. An immense amount of work went into the project. Bottineau County being a farm community, generous amounts of time, sweat, machinery, and skill were provided by the local citizenry, many of whom, no doubt, had known my father.

A dedicatory medallion reading "Mystical Horizons, Century 21, Stonehenge, October 14, 2005" was installed upon completion.

Another dedicatory plaque reads: Mystical Horizons, Dedicated to Jack Olson’s Vision of a Century 21 Stonehenge, built in partnership by North Dakota Forest Service, North Dakota Department of Transportation, North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, Bottineau County, Wold Engineering, P.C., Federal Highway Administration and Turtle Mountain Tourism Association, October, 2005.


Passionate Ornithology said...

Absolutely wonderful, John. What a great soul. I'm a bit of a megalith-ophiliac myself.

John Olson said...

Thank you, PO. My father also once found a round stone with a perfect hole in the center out on the prairie near the family farm. Anchor from a Viking ship? Did Hudson Bay once extend that far south?

lori said...

What an informative write-up and a beautiful tribute to your father. I found this post by googling Mystical Horizons yesterday. We live about 20 miles from it and had visited several times but never during an equinox. We'd debated heading up last night, because my son had just fallen asleep, but this post tipped us over the edge, and we left Nana in charge of the baby. My husband, daughter, and I joined about 35 other folks, waiting in hope that the storm system directly in the setting sun's path would break. It did, at the very last moment, and just for that moment. Knowing your father's role and having a sense of his spirit and personality made the experience all the more magical.

John Olson said...

Thank you for your comment Lori. I'm really happy my article insired you to visit the site.

Denise said...

Thanks for sharing this story in your blog, I was just reminiscing on my trip to Mystical Horizons in a blog post and linked here. The horizons made my one summer in North Dakota more fun & interesting.

George said...

This is absolutely gorgeous. Heart-stirring. Your writing is beautiful and poignant. As "chance" would have it, I was listening to a Bill Evans cd as I read this--something that arrived in the mail just hours ago. Suddenly, about three-quarters of the way through reading this beautiful tribute of yours to your father, a song came on the cd that moved me deeply, one with which I'd been unfamiliar. I was so moved by the song, that I had to interrupt my reading to look at the liner notes to see the song's title, and--wow--it's called "Solo--In Memory of His Father." An amazing synchronicity! What a gorgeous gift you've given to your father with your remarkable tribute, himself a gorgeous gift-of-a-man with this vision!

Anonymous said...

Hi, John. Thanks for posting that information about your father. We visited the site a couple of weeks ago. We would have skipped it (the word "Mystical" didn't do anything for us, either) but the tourist brochure said there was a great view, so we thought it worth a stop. In addition to enjoying the view, I learned about your father's book, Once in the Middle of Nowhere, from an information sign. Later in the day we stopped at the Pembina museum bookstore, but they didn't have the book. However, I got the Kindle version from Amazon, and enjoyed it very much. And having those stories in my head will add to the enjoyment of the country if we ever get to visit it again.