Over a decade ago, I lucked into a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar titled The Great Plains: Texas to Saskatchewan. For five weeks, Tom Isern led 19 other teachers and I to read and analyze literary and historical texts, discuss conclusions, and visit iconic sites to better understand what it means to live on the plains.
Obviously, one identifying characteristic of this land is its vast horizon paired with few vertical disturbances like trees or skyscrapers. That distinction made it into plenty of travelers’ diaries and journals as they left locales where coves and hollows or great groves of trees cupped around them, making them feel secure as a babe in its mother’s arms. When my mom worked at the Meade County Courthouse back in the 60s, she discovered records of early immigrants institutionalized because they were unable to cope with the open space and frequent wind.
Fellow seminarians from other regions shared that the vastness of this country disquieted them as well. That reminded me of a Japanese exchange student I took on a visit to Oklahoma City. She exclaimed over and over , “Why don’t you build cities in this land? Why don’t people live here? You should use this space.”
For those of us accustomed to so much sky and so few upright interferences, outsiders’ viewpoints challenge us to think about where we live and what it means to be a plains person. Recently, I’ve traveled the more isolated highways of western Kansas, stopping to explore almost-ghost towns like Densmore, Ogallah, and Edson that were once thriving communities.
I love isolated miles of asphalt stretching infinitely over hills and valleys. I smile to think these trails would confuse anyone who grew up reading Kansas is flat. High spots abound that permit travelers to see across counties. Imagine Indians and other early explorers standing on these ascents to view scores of buffalo, deer, elk, turkey, and antelope. In all directions, they saw a rich land that could feed many.
Seeing crumbling remains of once well-built churches, multi-story brick or stone schools, plaster and lathe homes that housed growing families, and the always peaceful hilltop cemeteries reminds me that hopeful hearts once acted on the thought that this was an abundant land. These little hamlets about every 15 to 20 miles across the prairie remind us of Jeffersonian Democracy in action. Here families worked the soil, tended their businesses, worshipped their God, and educated their children into a better life.
As folks gravitated away from these self-sufficient little villages to cities, they lost something. These small towns tied to the land, these schools that required all students to participate in declamations, plays, music, and sports; these churches that took care of not only spirits but also physical needs of residents created well-rounded citizens who dealt together with whatever difficulties arose.
In forested regions, close-growing trees hold one another upright when the wind blows, and in mountainous landscapes one rock supports another. Nature offers no protection in the open plains, so humans must sustain one another. Neighbors become one another’s cove, hollow, and grove.
When I think back to that seminar and this place I call home, I acknowledge that lifestyles change. We can’t all live in self-sufficient villages, but we can celebrate open space that reminds us this is a rich land that feeds many and a place that teaches us to look out for one another.