Unsettled: The Great Plains

Unsettled: The Great Plains

The myths and misconceptions that distort the beauty and problems of the Plains.


As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, and countless Hollywood westerns have confirmed, the frontier always repeats the same story. "It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader…we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by…sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the…city and factory system." Little of the West has lived up to this plot—farms remain scarce in Nevada and Utah, cities and factories are few and far between—but we forgive it. And why not? So much of the region is desert, and we want to flatter ourselves for protecting all those mountain ranges and forests.

Of the Great Plains we expected better, and the Plains failed us. This is a fact we prefer to forget. No less perceptive a reader of nineteenth-century American history than Marilynne Robinson has called the Homestead Act, passed in 1862, "all in all the most poetical piece of legislation since Deuteronomy." Today the basic rhythms of this poetry remain familiar: the yeoman farmers "staking out" (literally with stakes) 160-acre plots of land, free for the taking to anyone willing to stay for five years and "prove up" on a claim; the inevitable conflicts between the newly arrived "fence builders" and the old "open range" cattle barons. But given how the Homestead Act worked in practice, with only a third of settlers gaining title to their claims, and most of these "stickers" driven off by drought within a generation, a better analogy might be the book of Exodus.

Willa Cather, the Plains’ best-known novelist, chronicled the region’s settling, which she lived through. She largely ignored its unsettling, even though homesteaders began quitting the Plains well before she started writing in the early 1900s, and continued to clear out during her most productive years, the 1910s and 1920s. According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, almost 60 percent "of Great Plains counties reached their maximum population before 1950, with most of those peaking between 1900 and 1920." A few counties reached their peak population not in 1930, as anyone familiar with the Dust Bowl might expect, but in 1890. The reason: too little rain falls on most of the Plains to permit unirrigated agriculture. Homesteaders learned this the hard way, and many of them hit the road to try their luck in yet another promised land, California. Those who remained, especially on the groundwater-scarce northern Plains, bought up the land, tore down the fences and tried to piece together ranches large enough to run cattle.

Many writers and artists have focused on the Dust Bowl, but few have attended to this more gradual ebbing of people away from the Plains. The past fifty years of "revisionist" westerns, for example, rarely question the basic premise of the genre—that the cowboys were driven off the Plains by the arrival of "civilization" in the form of the homesteaders. If anything, by choosing so many desert and mountain settings for their stories and films, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx have made the Plains, the place where the cowboy myth originated, appear less western than ever.

As for the two nonfiction bestsellers about the Plains from the past two decades, Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (1989) and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (2006), neither dwells on the long-term failures of the Homestead Act. Frazier focuses on the region’s distant past and sparsely populated present; Egan examines the Dust Bowl, a disaster that, as he correctly emphasizes, drove off a surprisingly small number of homesteaders. Unlike a series of less well-known but far more perceptive books, including Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow (1955), Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl (1979) and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land (1996), Frazier and Egan pay little attention to the decades when the Plains was unsettled.

The Plains often seems like an orphan region, lost between the West and the Midwest. It is "the land that time forgot," but the problems of the Plains—population loss, drug addiction, environmental degradation, unsustainable use of resources—are as pressing as those facing any other part of the country. Like the region’s orphan status, they are further evidence of neglect. But if the region’s history continues to be disregarded, it’s likely that attempts to restore the life and the land of the Plains will find the "sea of grass" as restless and unforgiving as did the early homesteaders.

The term "Great Plains" typically refers to the region encompassing the shortgrass prairies of western Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas; eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico; and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. But ecologically there’s no particularly strong reason to exclude the rest of the Midwest, and one would be hard-pressed to name two landscapes more closely related than the grasslands of Iowa and South Dakota. Farther west, the tallgrass of the prairie becomes the shortgrass of the Plains; the big bluestem of Iowa shrinks to the little bluestem of South Dakota. Michael Forsberg’s recent collection of photos, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, which includes essays by various writers, argues for an even more expansive ecological view of the region, widening the boundaries to include much of Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, and even parts of Illinois and Indiana.

Where Forsberg looks to plant life to link the Plains with the rest of the Midwest, Nick Reding’s Methland and Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle look to people—exchanging the unifying ecological concept of the prairie for the unifying sociological concept of the Heartland. Carr and Kefalas explain that they chose a single town in Iowa for their research "because it is typical of the many towns that are finding it difficult to survive, and its travails could be those of any of the thousands of depopulating rural communities stretching from western Pennsylvania to the Texas Panhandle." Reding also treats one Iowa small town as a case study, and while he, Carr and Kefalas acknowledge the dangers of extrapolating from such small samples, they attempt, through careful observation, to demonstrate that the recent "rural crisis" is no less perilous than the better known "urban crisis" of the past fifty years. The abandoned barns of the countryside, often celebrated as picturesque, are the mirror images of the burned-out factories and apartment blocks of Newark, the Bronx and Detroit; and methamphetamine addiction and production, which became widespread throughout small-town America in the 1980s and 1990s, is as catastrophic as the urban crack epidemic. An emphasis on decades of neglect, combined with detailed stories from struggling Iowa towns, make Methland and Hollowing Out powerful works of sociology and reportage.

Yet by applying their claims to the entire Midwest, and assuming that the Plains should be included in the region, Great Plains, Methland and Hollowing Out the Middle recapitulate, for very different reasons, some of the worst misconceptions of the past. Forsberg hopes that the close relation of flora on the western Plains to that on the eastern prairie will persuade people to protect both places as a single region. This same similarity led homesteaders, a hundred years ago, to believe they could farm the Plains much as they had the prairies: they would simply downsize, following the cue of the native grasses, and plant three-foot wheat instead of six-foot corn. Reding, driving the back roads of the prairie, sees a uniting feature in place names: "The very idea that tiny Plains towns from Iowa to Montana are given names like Harvey and Melvin and Maurice, Dana and Bode and Britt—first names, familiar names—underscores [their] utter humanity." Like Forsberg, Reding hopes the similarity of place names will persuade readers that all of these towns, stretching from Iowa to Montana, are similarly worth saving. It was these same familiar, stolid names that first led farmers to believe they could leave the eastern prairie—or Eastern Europe, as the case may be—for an equally or even more humane life on the Plains.

The reality was quite different: all the analogies broke down. Wheat was far less suited to the Plains than corn was to the prairies; familiar place names were typically not welcome mats left by early settlers but bait scattered by the marketing departments of railroad companies. Forsberg, unlike Reding, Carr and Kefalas, is at least conscious of this past, although he too doesn’t give much consideration to how the very different histories of the Plains and the prairie might hamper attempts to reconcile the two ecosystems and protect them as one.

The problems that arise from treating the Plains and the prairie as a single region are evident enough in the conflicting lessons these books draw from the disappearance of small towns. On the page facing the introduction to Forsberg’s Great Plains is a classic piece of Americana: a photograph of the Scandia Lutheran Church, standing tall and proud in the grass of eastern Montana. What the caption neglects to mention is that this church is as empty as much of the land surrounding it, the first stop on the tour of a buffalo reserve (though not inside the reserve itself). Once a year, as preparation for a commemorative service, the church is tidied up by a congregation from nearby Malta (a name chosen by a railroad official who spun a globe until his finger rested midway through the Mediterranean); otherwise, the building sits abandoned. Nevertheless, the church, along with the flourishing flora, is an image of hope for Forsberg, proof of the resilience of nature, of the ability of the grasslands to recover from the hardscrabble farming of arid land. For defenders of rural America like Reding, Carr and Kefalas, such rewilding is an image of disaster—evidence of what they call the environmentalists’ "nihilistic assessment of the future of small towns" (Carr and Kefalas), the first signs of their plan to "clear out the towns of the Plains…put the land into a national park and reintroduce the buffalo" (Reding).

What the conflict foregrounds, though, are the very different prospects for the western Plains and the eastern prairies. As Forsberg argues throughout Great Plains, there are good reasons to be hopeful about conservation in Nebraska and the Dakotas and Montana, where much land remains unfarmed and close to a wild state; as Reding, Carr and Kefalas show, there are also good reasons to be hopeful about the small towns of Iowa, which still have some of the best public schools in the country. But there’s almost no chance of significant conservation on the hugely productive farmland where the tallgrass once stood, just as there’s almost no chance to save most of the small towns of the western Plains. The small towns of Iowa have suffered from population loss for the past few decades. On the Great Plains, population loss has been a fact of life for a century; today, the population density of most rural counties in the Plains satisfies the criterion—less than two people per square mile—used by the Census Bureau in the nineteenth century to define "unsettled territory," otherwise known as wilderness.

One of the more candid moments in Great Plains is in an essay by Forsberg’s primary collaborator, Dan O’Brien, who recounts a speech he delivered in suburban St. Paul to mark the reintroduction of a few buffalo to a patch of prairie. O’Brien was impressed less by the new buffalo preserve—it "amounted to a clearing," he says dismissively—than by the audience. "The economic and philanthropic power that spread out before the stage was immense. Here, in this land that is often written off in terms of conservation potential, was real strength." Strength not for conservation in Minnesota, since the reserve O’Brien was speaking at may as well have been a zoo, but for areas farther west, where that wealth might be put to better use. The continuing interest in eastern prairie restoration—from John Madson’s classic Where the Sky Began (1982) to Cornelia Mutel’s The Emerald Horizon (2008)—is thus for O’Brien and Forsberg a covert opportunity to emphasize ecological similarities that might lead suburbanites to protect the Plains, even if they can’t do much to reclaim their own grasslands.

Hollowing Out and Methland barely acknowledge the different outlooks for the Plains and the prairie. Carr and Kefalas approvingly cite one demographer on the Heartland as a whole: "If there is an idealized type of the agrarian and small-town image in America, it surely belongs to the Corn Belt and the Great Plains—the land of the Homestead Act, frugal, hard-working farmers….and even occasional strife, but without the degrading legacy of slavery, sharecropping, grinding poverty, and soil depletion that has overlaid the rural South." The obvious error here—that soil depletion hasn’t afflicted the Plains, the home of the Dust Bowl—is characteristic of the reluctance to acknowledge the basic differences between the Plains, where little rain falls, and the prairie, where water-intensive crops like corn thrive. The soil depletion of the cotton-picking South can be attributed to a discredited way of life; to consider soil depletion an essential aspect of life on the Plains is to question the character of the homesteaders, one of the most idealized groups in American history.

The importance of this oversight becomes clear when Methland and Hollowing Out compare their Heartland towns to those traditionally thought of as dependent on scarce and easily depleted resources. According to Carr and Kefalas, many mining towns "have ceased to exist over the years as their fortunes have waned. But this time it is different." Similarly, Reding writes, "Historically, farming communities were models of rural economic health, and mining communities…were an indicator of a crippling system of centralization." But while farmers may once have been famously self-reliant, the homesteaders reached the Plains in the middle of the industrial age. As a result, there are thousands of ghost towns in Kansas alone, each a vacant reminder that on the Great Plains farming has more often than not been a matter of "mining the soil": first, remove the limited water and nutrients in the form of wheat; second, refine the yield into a purer form, grain, and export it through the centralized system of the railroads; and finally, once the claim (in this case under the Homestead Act rather than the Mining Law) has been played out, move on. The Dust Bowl was not an exception but only the most famous of the many exoduses from the Plains that followed the extraction and depletion of the rich vein of natural resources latent in the soil.

Wallace Stegner, born in Iowa and raised on the Plains, offers one of the more moving accounts of a "soil boom" in Wolf Willow:

In spite of my mother’s flimsy pretense that we were farmers of the kind her Iowa parents were, drawing our full sustenance from the soil and tending the soil as good husbandmen should…. It was not a farm, and we were not farmers, but wheat miners, and trapped ones at that…. It would never have occurred to her to think that her family and thousands of others had been betrayed by homestead laws totally inapplicable on the arid Plains.

The cycle of despoliation was repeated in different decades across the western grasslands and continues to this day, at least on the southern Plains, where farmers are mining the giant Ogallala aquifer to sustain a system of "climate-free agriculture." Starting in the 1930s, desperate homesteaders began using centrifugal pumps to draw water from the aquifer hundreds of feet below; the underground rain, as it has been called, is used to irrigate crops otherwise impossible to farm in the region, such as cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, cantaloupes and, of course, corn. It’s hard to know which resource will be exhausted first, the water in the aquifer or the oil required to pump it out, but either way it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the small towns on the Great Plains never resembled the "models of rural economic health" that have begun to disappear from Iowa. When the underground rain slows to a drizzle and the current boom on the southern Plains ends, the landscape will likely become as desolate as that to the north; and Kansas, for reasons having more to do with environmental than rural health, will be the home of a few more ghost towns.

A century ago the shortgrass Plains was known as the West. Of course, a century before that Iowa was known as the West. And like Iowa, but unlike, say, Arizona or Nevada ("the New West"), the West of the Plains became "the West that has passed." This helpful phrase was coined by the cowboy artist Charlie Russell, who is being honored this year by the exhibition "The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell," which traveled to Denver, Tulsa and Houston. In his paintings and his remarks about them, Russell confirmed Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis: the Plains, he declared, was indeed slowly being overtaken by the Heartland. "It is largely a thing of the past now—gone as a result of the country filling up with people from the east. The big ranches have gone and the Indians and the buffalo have gone…. Some day the [rodeo] itself will be a thing of the past…. Then the only record of the wild, untamed life of the plains and prairies will be that written on canvas." Late in his career Russell even began painting exclusively in the tones of twilight, or "Russell light" as the exhibition catalog helpfully describes it, bringing to mind Thomas Kinkade, the West’s other famous painter of light. But while the warm glow exuding from Kinkade’s cottage windows gives "a lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire," as Joan Didion once wrote, the effect of Russell light is nearly the opposite. Look at enough of these paintings and you begin to believe that, instead of burning to the ground, the West of the Plains faded to black.

Writers who consider the Plains part of the contemporary West are invariably polemical, as if they felt obliged to work up enough rhetorical sparks to illuminate the landscape again. Unlike so many writers about the West, they can’t assume people will automatically find the Plains beautiful, no matter the attractions of Russell’s old paintings. This polemical bent often makes these writers much more persuasive; it also, at times, makes their attraction to the harsh landscape seem perverse. Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor write in the introduction to The Wide Open, "It is hard to love the high, cold plains of the American West. They are huge and harsh and demanding…. Perhaps because they are hard to love, [the Plains] challenge the imaginative mind and the adventurous heart." Nothing could be more difficult to reconcile with the soft-focus image of the mountain West peddled by hiking guides, travel brochures and real estate agents that drone on about the "inspiring," "majestic" and "breathtaking" views, none of which they would dare call "hard to love."

Writers like Smith and O’Connor can occasionally sound as if they are from an earlier era, when much of the West was initially regarded as just as hard to love. Clarence Dutton, one of the first writers to describe the Grand Canyon in detail, said of the landscape in 1882, "The lover of nature, whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England…would enter this strange region with a shock, and dwell there for a time with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror." In 1792 George Vancouver, sailing north of the city that now bears his name, on a route often traveled today by cruise ships, found the British Columbia coastline "as desolate [and] inhospitable a country as the most melancholy creature could be desirous of inhabiting." He did not mean this as a compliment. It took Romanticism to teach Europeans to love the "desolate" and "horrible" landscapes of the West; and for a time Romanticism even taught many to love the Plains, attracting Teddy Roosevelt, John Audubon, George Grinnell and an entire generation of East Coast urbanites.

The willingness to renew the imaginative demands of those first encounters is what makes the more recent books to consider the Plains part of the West so exciting. Dan Flores writes in his contribution to The Wide Open, "Nineteenth-century Great Plains paintings and word pictures…serve as a kind of time machine. They function, perhaps, in both directions in the flow of time." Not only do the works of nineteenth-century writers and artists show us how the Plains was once viewed, Flores suggests; they also show how we might yet learn to see the Plains again. Flores quotes the traveler and poet Albert Pike—"The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie"—but a more famous example comes from Walt Whitman: "While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, [and] fill the esthetic sense fuller."

The rhetoric is stirring, but the way these claims get translated into the twenty-first century is often unpersuasive. The Plains and the prairies can be connected directly, through the similarity of their plants, but the Plains is so different from other western environments that it can be likened to them only indirectly. Writers do so most often by asserting that, while superficially the landscapes may look very different, on the level of ecology the Plains is just as worthy of protection as the coast, the desert, the mountains. Or they claim that the Plains may be even more worthy of protection, as Richard Manning argues in another essay in The Wide Open and in his own book Rewilding the West:

Worldwide, about 10 percent of all biomes enjoy some sort of protected status; temperate grasslands—of which the high plains are a shining example—are about 1 percent protected. It is an odd exclusion in that we now understand that the grassland plains are among the most productive biomes for wildlife, as the accounts of early explorers attest.

One sees similar claims in much of the conservation literature about the Plains. A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund refers to the Plains’ "vast and diverse natural amenities"; Daniel Licht, in Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains, published in 1997 and recently reissued, calls the Plains "the most profound of all of North America’s ecosystems." Flores accordingly concludes, in his essay for The Wide Open, that it is among the "supreme ironies of the modern West" that "in our time the Rockies is the fairyland, and the Great Plains is at best the forgotten quarter."

Within all of these attempts to reassert the ecological worth of the Plains, and thus the region’s connection to the West, lies a deeper irony. The Plains, like every ecosystem, undoubtedly deserves protection. But the Plains isn’t nearly so diverse as these writers claim. Take the best-known metaphor: the Plains as a "sea of grass." Ecologically, this phrase is surprisingly apt. The Plains may once have been "among the most productive biomes for wildlife," as Manning suggests, its vast buffalo herds rivaled only by the vast schools of fish in the ocean. But while unquestionably productive, the Plains, like the ocean, isn’t particularly diverse. Licht, a less polemical writer, admits as much in Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains, emphasizing the Plains’ bounty while admitting that the ecosystem is "not necessarily the richest…in number of species." Despite the Plains’ evident productivity, the landscape simply can’t measure up to the ecological richness of, for example, the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, the terrestrial equivalent of an ocean’s center of biodiversity, the coral reefs.

The best reason for considering the Plains part of the West is not the landscape’s richness but, at least by the standards of contemporary capitalism, its relative worthlessness. Manning describes the small expense of establishing a massive buffalo reserve with what sounds like glee: "By buying those fifty to one hundred ranches, land that sells for maybe $200 or $300 an acre, one leverages control of grazing on 3.5 million acres. That is, for about 
$250 million—the price of waging war in Iraq for ten days—we create a Yellowstone of the plains." Yellowstone itself was established according to similar calculations. Before setting aside the land as a national park, the nation’s first, Congress dispatched a team of surveyors to the area to confirm it had no practical value. Yellowstone’s pricelessness is the measure of its worthlessness, and that contradiction, more than anything else, may be what joins the contemporary Plains to the West. While land in much of the West has become expensive, and while instead of population loss many Western counties suffer from "rural sprawl," vast swaths of the region remain in public hands because, especially outside the national forests, most of the land has long been considered too worthless to own.

Whether the Plains is part of the Midwest or the West, our confusion about it has consequences. It means that earnest and important books like Methland and Hollowing Out extrapolate legitimate findings about small towns in rural Iowa to Plains communities with much older and more intractable problems. It also means that visionary books like The Wide Open and Rewilding the West make extraordinary claims that the Plains cannot support. Richard Manning, in his polemical desire to reclaim the Plains for the West, argues that "A sense of the history of the general folly of the West will steer you toward this particular place at the heart of the plains…. Any attempt to undo the damage, any attempt to rewrite western civilization’s founding story, must begin in Phillips County, Montana." Manning’s frustration with the general ignorance about the Plains leads him to place the Plains first at the heart of the American West and then, untenably, at the heart of Western civilization.

"Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out," writes Willa Cather in My Ántonia. Similarly, for Reding, "Prairie is humbling." This may be the definitive Midwestern view of the Plains. The Western perspective on the Plains is the opposite. Wallace Stegner, in Wolf Willow, describes the land that destroyed his family’s homesteading ambitions:

The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.
 It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones. At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.

It would diminish the Plains to judge one of these responses right, the other wrong. Whatever region the landscape may belong to, however profound its ecology or prosaic its appearance, there’s no excuse for drawing blanks when we think about the Plains. The metaphor of the "sea of grass" again proves surprisingly apt: the Plains may be our most protean landscape.

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