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The Great Plains are Not the Midwest / COMMENTARY

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma (Photo by Mike Fuhr, The Nature Conservancy)

Numerous books have been written about the vast prairies and wide open spaces of the central and western United States. In his 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Way West, A.B. Guthrie describes a pioneer's first view of the Great Plains by writing this: "He couldn't believe that flat could be so flat, or that distance ran so far, or that the world stood so empty." Guest Commentator Julene Bair picks up the story from here.

Julene Bair is the author of The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry. She grew up on her family's farm in northwest Kansas.

Learn more about the importance of the Central Great Plains from the Nature Conservancy

(commentary transcript)

This pioneer on the Oregon Trail had just reached what is today central Nebraska. Guthrie writes, "He never had known distance until now. He had lived shut off by trees and hills and had thought the world was a doll’s world and distance just three hollers away and the sky no higher than a rifle shot.”

It’s been 30 years since I read The Way West, as a returning student at the University of Iowa. But that passage has stuck with me ever since because it perfectly describes the way I felt whenever I drove the 800 miles back to my family’s farm in the Colorado-Kansas border region.

About the time I reached central Kansas, I would notice the sky lifting and the earth widening. With each breath of lighter, dryer air, I drew the sunny expansiveness of the Plains into my lungs and knew I was home.

On the map in my sixth grade geography book, the Great Plains region began in Texas, reached all the way to the Canadian border, and was signified by a few stalks of wheat. The Midwest, to our east, had an ear of corn, a crop that didn’t grow too well on the Plains because we didn’t receive nearly as much rain.

Today it jars me when someone from a Plains state, especially from the dryer western half of one, refers to him or herself as a Midwesterner. When I think “Midwest,” I envision tree-lined rivers winding through bucolic hills covered in emerald green fields of corn or grass. I see church steeples poking up between the hills, which nestle hamlets of stately white houses.

Think “Plains,” on the other hand, and I see flat, treeless expanses interrupted only rarely by a modest creek or river. While plains towns have plenty of churches, these are dwarfed by tall white grain elevators that can be seen from many miles away. Streets are straight and wide, never curved, and open onto sunlit stretches of lime-green buffalo grass or yellow wheat.

I still envision my homeland the way it was in my childhood even though I know that, today, those streets often end in walls of corn. That crop has marched down off of the Iowa hills onto the Plains – an invasion enabled by government incentives combined with the willingness of plainspeople to use up their only water source, the Ogallala Aquifer, to grow a crop that’s ill-suited for their climate.

Today we hear a lot about climate change. But how are we to notice and take responsibility for changes in our climate if we have not, as yet, even learned to accept and work compatibly with the climate we already have?  

Another renowned writer, Wallace Stegner, once famously said “I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from.” I have always taken this to mean that he actually considered who he was and where he was from (the American West) to be one and the same.

If those of us from the Plains identified as closely with our region, would we have made a different decision about growing a Midwestern crop? There was money in corn, of course. But we knew from the early 1980s, and probably before then, that the aquifer could not sustain such massive withdrawals.

As near-desert people, we certainly knew that over-pumping our groundwater would inevitably lead to self-eviction. Why didn’t that prospect frighten us into making a serious effort to conserve our water?

Does it frighten plainspeople enough for them to make that effort now?


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