S OUTH DAKOTA: A S I MPLE LIFE
Lydia Warner’s grey pleated peasant dress is patterned with tiny half-peeled corncobs and worn over a white blouse that, only up close, do I notice is covered in minuscule maple leaves embroidered in pale thread. She has a dark headscarf bobby-pinned over greying hair, and black thongs on her feet. “People would freak out if I wore bright green,” she says. “They would think I was cuckoo.”
The eastern side of South Dakota, with its kilometres of straight, flat road between vast sunflower and wheat fields interspersed with clumps of fast food restaurants and pay-at-the-pump petrol stations, initially seems devoid of human life. But visits to Native American reservations, family-owned cattle ranches, busy country towns and a Hutterite Brethren community reveal a diversity of residents firmly rooted in these plains.
Grasslands Hutterite Colony, near Aberdeen, is a selfsustaining farming community of about 250, founded in 1990; there are six other Hutterite colonies within a 60km radius and hundreds across North America. My visit is in late summer and food preparation is in full swing. Crates of freshly harvested corn, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and carrots are lined up to be washed, sorted, peeled, trimmed, dried, pickled, cooked and cold-stored by young women whose formal education has ceased at age 14. In the mists of the cool room we crunch on watermelon and cucumber.
Outside, in the desert-dry heat of morning, a group of small girls play on climbing equipment in brighter versions of the standard peasant dress. Nearby, playing separately, are boys with buzz-cuts wearing shirts and blue jeans with braces.
“We make everything apart from jeans and bras,” explains Lydia. Although born and bred in the American Midwest, she speaks English with a German accent; Hutterite people maintain the dialect their ancestors spoke when escaping persecution in Europe in the 1870s.
We walk through the school, communal laundry and new machinery shed where Grasslands Granite is produced for kitchen benches and fireplaces, generating income for the community. On 4000ha, part-owned and part-leased, Grasslands has rubbish incinerators, a feed mill for turkeys sold at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and residents do all their own building. My female road trip companion and I are the only ones on today’s tour. We’re invited back to the family home for lunch. In a spacious lounge room, we discuss the construction of the couch we’re sitting on, the sourcing of fabrics from Mennonite stores and how to make a pattern from scratch.
Though the window I see a flock of dark dresses drying around a lone rotary clothesline out on the vast summer-brown lawn between the two-storey housing blocks. Teenage girls ride tricycles along neat concrete paths.
When an announcement over the PA system requests people eating at home to collect food from the main kitchen, I notice the Warners have no cooking facilities. Though, judging by the chicken and vegetables that arrive, they seem to eat well. After the meal we see the rest of the house. One daughter shows us some bright fabrics her mother has helped her sew into long dresses. She spins in the closet for a photograph wearing her favourite, in striking yellow and black. Her parents’ bedroom is the last room we see, and the messiest. “I never make my bed,” Lydia confesses.
Hutterite women return from work on the land, left; two girls play in the fields, above