I was asked to speak to a local church on Easter Sunday concerning the joys of living on the Great Plains. There are a couple problems with this request: first, I have never been a big celebrator of Easter and second, putting one’s finger on the joys of living on the Great Plains is a difficult job. I can deal with the first problem by looking back about fifty years to the time when I did celebrate Easter, forgetting some of what I had learned about other religions and ideas over those years, and recalling that one interpretation of Easter is a day of renewal, optimism, and belief in a fresh start. Who among us does not want to believe we have a chance at getting life right?
Okay, so Easter gives us an opportunity to re-think it all and maybe that is what we should do with our search for the joy of living on the Great Plains. It would be easy to launch into a litany of wonder about the unique and burgeoning life on the Great Plains in this month of April. There are certainly thousands of examples of joyous and astounding marvels, from migrating birds to the tremendous diversity of fauna responding to the precious moisture that always blesses us with not quite enough. I could apply T.S Eliot’s generalizations about April with descriptions of lilacs breeding out of a dead land and stirring dull roots with rain. In fact, Eliot’s description seems particularly apt to our situation here on the Great Plains when you consider that he forever stigmatized this Easter season of April with the moniker of The Cruelest Month and that the name of the poems from which I am quoting is, The Wasteland.
Perhaps before we re-think our quest for joy on the Great Plains we should first consider the nature of our attraction for this place where we live. While there are a great number of people who were born out here in this mixed grass prairie who left it with little more than a “good riddance” mumbled over their shoulder, there are many others who profess their love for this place with the intensity of the most furious biblical zealots. There are also hordes of people from every continent that are inexplicably attracted to the Great Plains of North America. It is hard to qualify what any of them see in this place. After all, winters are harsh, summers are hot, wages are low, luxuries are rare, racism thrives, and some brands of ignorance are epidemic. Books are hard to come by and seldom read. The economy hangs on the twin threads of weather and the economic whims of a distant world. We are short of capital, education, and opportunity. We are long on scenic views, wind, and for some ineffable reason, hope.
I believe that it is some of our chronic shortfalls that contribute to that irrepressible sense of hope. “Next Year Country” they call it. Next year it will rain, next year new industry will move in, next year we will elect more enlightened legislators, next year agricultural prices will raise, next year the kids will move back home from Minneapolis. But, in reality, the record doesn’t indicate that much of that will actually take place. In fact, there is not much in the climatic or economic models of the future that could lead us to believe that the Great Plains will find remedies for its perennial problems before catastrophes of much larger scale overtake us. Still, there is hope. Still, there is joy.
There is a question that I like to ask people when they talk to me about their love of the Great Plains. “How much time do you spend out IN it?” I have a theory that everyone who professes deep envy for Great Plains people who work outside, have never, themselves worked outside. I am forever amazed at how little time my neighbors and friends actually spend out of doors. I am even more amazed how often I run into non Great Plainsmen, with little or even no experience “out IN it” who insist that their love of the sweep of vista, the wind in their faces, the movements and migrations that are so much a part of the Great Plains are near and dear to their hearts. I meet people who insist this and who have never been west of the Missouri or east of the Rockies. I meet people who feel these things intensely and have never set foot on this continent.
I believe that much of the attraction for the Great Plains is ineffable and cannot be condensed into a list of sights and events, or measured on the popular scale of materialism. On that scale Col. Long was right to label this land the Great American Desert. On almost any contemporary scale the Great Plains are suboptimal. From rain to limousines we barely register. Yet the empirical evidence I collect from admirers, and indeed many who may read this essay, says something different. I can only conclude that there is another scale of measurement on which the Great Plains ranks high indeed. I suspect that scale is internal and scientifically unprovable, like our ability to see in a person’s eyes if they are lying, to detect the rays of love or strength that emanates from some people. I suspect that there are some people who understand – sometimes without the need to actually see the Great Plains – that this land is home and that, for all it’s inhospitableness, it is where they belong.
It is likely that the breed of humans who can understand such things are the same ones that can find joy on these cruel plains of North America and of the mind. But being one of those people who can look at a windy sage flat, a prairie dog town, a dry riverbed, or a dying town and know that there is something good and necessary in those things is not a guarantee of a life of real joy. What the Great Plains is truly good at is stripping away the finery of place to its essentials and exposing the truth beneath. Perhaps only on the Great Plains of North America can we come to understand that nothing is constant but change. Cities and oceans and the puny accomplishments of humanity obscure the undeniable fact that there is no sweet spot of history that freezes itself for all time. The cycles of decay and re-birth are more constant than the tides, and the Great Plains reveal that fact for all who are brave enough to submit to it. Willa Cather, one of the Great Plain’s most prophetic bards, put it like this: “We come and go, but the land is always here, and the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it – for a little while.”