Stubborn people appreciate the 'barren' Great Plains

 

When people who don’t live here write about the Great Plains, they usually use the words "bleak," "empty" and "wasteland" to describe it. The writer often suggests that our economy and people are "depressed" because their "lifestyles" are "vanishing." Photographs show sky and clouds above miles of windblown, rolling — not flat — grass.

Prairie residents tired of these negative stereotypes have a rich source of responses: the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, a 900-page, 8-pound treasury of our history and culture collected by hundreds of contributors, published in 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. It tells us the U.S. Plains includes all or part of 10 states: the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico; all of North and South Dakota and Nebraska; western Kansas and Oklahoma, and a chunk of northwestern Texas.

Most authorities agree that three things make the Plains unique: climate, physical environment and distance. My definition would include the people here.

Our climate often makes national news: a tornado the size of Brooklyn, a killer blizzard. Winds that slam airliners into the ground. Lightning that melts your eyeballs. Hailstones the size of baseballs. The annual drought. Not the planet’s worst weather, but extreme.

Physically, grassland has few trees and little water. Now that we understand why plowing up ancient grasses to cultivate invasive crop species is neither profitable nor good, we’re working to weave plants, animals and humans into a sustainable future. We’re still wasteful with water; we probably shouldn’t use it to grow trees here, where they are not natural.

Finally, Plains distances make travel hazardous, mail delivery uncertain, and even Internet hookups unreliable. Thus, people who appreciate space and solitude like it here, and resist change.

Anyone can be inspired by a fat purple mountain or a noisy ocean. Those places shout an easy beauty. "But the prairie only whispers," says Nebraskan Val Peters. "You must listen carefully and not miss the message." To be happy in the grasslands, you must pay attention: hear a whisper, appreciate small things. If you crave a city where cultures mingle, change and learn from one another, the prairie is probably not for you.

The Plains, says Jonathan Raban, has "more space than place." Expanse is essential. Subdivisions, swimming pools, sidewalks, super-malls, highways, traffic — all destroy that essence. A living prairie can support only a limited number of people willing to live within her guidelines.

Let me show you the prairie in a sego lily, rare even with careful grazing. We’ll drive part way through my pasture. The hills and hollows unfold gently, covered in knee-high grasses that reflect blue and lime green, or shimmer bronze as the light changes. Bleak?

Empty? Zing! A herd of antelope runs under a fence, leaves the bottom wire twanging like a guitar string. (They can’t run under chain link or plank.)

Now let’s walk; tires would damage this steep gumbo hillside. Grass whispers against our boots. We listen for prairie rattlers, for meadowlark song flowing in the breeze. No earphones; no talk.

There: beside a lone cedar rooted in this limestone outcropping centuries ago. A magenta heart beats at the center of each creamy, curving petal, a single bloom shivering on each stem.

Sometimes a mountain lion sips from this small pool, leaving only tracks, undisturbed and unthreatening, because she’s far from people.

I once tried to transplant a sego lily; like Plains people, they don’t thrive just everywhere. Similarly, not everyone can appreciate the Plains. Swarms of people would destroy its most precious, most unusual qualities. Only a few of us were present to see the tiny rattler with only one button to shake in warning, wound so tight it would have fit in a teacup. Alone on horseback I saw six downy burrowing owl chicks stacked in a burrow. I’ve seen fox kits playing at a den entrance, a king-sized badger waddling home after a frog feast. These are the local reality shows. You must go alone or with a quiet few or forever miss them.

As writer Ted McLachlan says, "The prairies require commitment, they cannot be delivered in a media bite." The Plains can’t be bought or super-sized, syndicated, mass-produced, overpopulated, paved, or subdivided. If you’re thinking of a ranchette but really love the city, think again. The world is filled with stimulating cities boisterous with varied cultures, where folks who love a metropolis can revel.

Click on "prairie" on your computer’s thesaurus and no synonym appears. We only have one such storehouse of unique plants, animals, people. If it’s crowded, it’s gone.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches in South Dakota and writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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