Looking for the curve on the Great Plains

  I grew up in South Dakota, but spent my summers in Portland, Ore., with my mom. As an adolescent, I enjoyed how my city experience pushed me ahead of the curve when I got back home for school.

I had my classmates beat by at least a year on the overalls-with-one-strap thing. It wasn’t all that hard to stay ahead of a state whose curve, many observers say, slopes downward.

In later years, addicted to being a pioneer, I followed the logic of the curve to its extreme. My philosophy: The instant someone declares a trend a trend, it’s done. So when the fashion arbiters say "white is the new black," it’s red all over.

That’s why a recent series in the New York Times caught my eye. Three articles pondered population trends out in my neck of the weeds, lamenting losses on the rural Great Plains. Just about everybody has been playing this dirge in one minor key or another for a decade and a half -- at least since Rand McNally omitted Oklahoma and both Dakotas from its travel guide in the late 1980s.

The first article described for the hundredth time the "slow demographic collapse" and "quiet crisis in confidence" in the region. Yawn. The dying Plains are so passe.

Frank and Deborah Popper — the New Jersey professors who forecast this decline and prescribed returning the prairie to a "buffalo commons" — were the Dying Plains trendsetters back in 1987.

When the 1990 census came out, Americans were startled to learn that the Poppers were right; the population of many Plains counties had plummeted to frontier levels. Perhaps Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 elegy for the ending of the frontier — inspired by the 1890 census — was null and void.

Open space again existed in America, but without the possibility the word "frontier" suggested a century ago. Now, the frontier is a vast, unpeopled factory for agribusiness giants like ConAgra and Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. Another decade and another census inspired another suite of Dying Plains dirges. But the Times has now added a twist: Some of Superior, Nebraska’s departed youth (kindred spirits: I split five years ago to attend college seven states east of home) had returned, giving the town a fighting chance.

There were also whispers of hope in Kansas and Oklahoma. Some small towns survive by resurrecting an informal, "make-do" economy, where neighbors share extra garden produce, maternity clothes and even houses with those in need. Some towns have zoned industrial parks-to-be and conceived new festivals with a sort of Field of Dreams logic. The last residents of the Plains hang on with a determination to preserve the communities they grew up in. Tenacity, the paper suggested, might just turn the curve around.

I’m not sure what’s unsettling about these articles. Maybe I’m afraid that with its Midas touch, the New York Times will jinx the good news by printing it. Or maybe it’s that when the Times says "white is the new black," it isn’t long before the Gap and then Wal-Mart (the only clothier left on the Plains) start bleaching their racks and bring supercenter prosperity to the region.

I just left a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where young hipsters have converted empty warehouses into expensive loft apartments. After a year of gagging on the new residents’ stylish mullet and mohawk hairstyles, I fled — only to move to a small Colorado town that’s gentrifying in its own way. I couldn’t bear to watch the Plains re-fill with classy Californians, either.

I may be loyal to the charm of a dying place. "As memory, as experience, those Plains are unforgettable," wrote Wallace Stegner in 1963, long before anyone cared to notice; "as history, they have the lurid explosiveness of a prairie fire, quickly dangerous, swiftly over." The Plains, with their droughts and their hard seasons, with their long drives to the multiplex, may be destined to lose their people. There’s something comforting about that; if my home would simply disappear like a landlocked Atlantis, nobody could steal it — not even the people who still live there.

But maybe I’m just jealous, because the Plains have sparked a trend for once and done it without me. Caught up in my own momentum, like so many of my peers, away from the broad flats, I may have missed a turn for the better. Maybe, I’m behind the curve.

Josh Garrett-Davis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where he was most recently an intern for the paper.

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