Thursday, December 5, 2013

Plains, Desert, Perception

The writer and academic Dan Flores (who, interestingly, also used to do some hook-n-bullet, mostly bullet, freelancing back in the 1970s before apparently realizing what a creative wasteland it truly was) has long been one of my favorite environmental historians, not coincidentally because he tends to focus much of his considerable scholarly insight on the plains and the near southwest, a region generally devoid of advocates amongst the Greenie Weenie Save the Forest set. His books Horizontal Yellow, Caprock Canyonlands, and The Natural West are all uniformly excellent and required reading for anyone interested in the cultural and environmental history of the region. He's published a number of book, and even co-wrote an excellent little book on one of my favorite birds, the Mississippi Kite.

Anyway, recently I was re-reading his excellent essay from The Natural West entitled "A Long Love Affair With an Uncommon Country: Environmental History and the Future of the Great Plains", but reading it concurrently with some essays from Ed Abbey's classic Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside.  The juxtaposition of opportunity is striking. Abbey, as a lover of the largely public desert southwest, is free to amble over large chunks of threatened, yes, but still largely intact public land while ruminating and raging as only he could. It is not hyperbole, therefore, to say that that particular nexus of opportunity and voice gave rise to a national environmental awareness and appreciation for the desert southwest that continues to this day. Lucky for John Ford country, eh?

But not so much for us lowly plains dwellers. While Abbey's evocative words spawned generations of adoring acolytes whose devotion transformed our perception of the southwest, us flatlanders remain stuck with cows, crops, tractors, big hats, the Dust Bowl (and no, fellow Okies, it's not John Steinbeck's fault. Give it a freakin' rest), smaltzy pap like fucking Oklahoma! and other various and sundry false mythos that continue to make people both here at home and across the nation simply not give a shit about the region, on any level, really, but especially on an environmental level.

Why? Well, it all boils down to ownership. Specifically, a lack of it; an almost complete absence of public lands over which to traipse,discover, love, and then rhapsodize poetic and angry. It's damn hard to kickstart a national environmental movement and make people care for a region that is, at best, about three percent public lands. Flores recognizes this, and part of his essay explores the cultural and political reasons for why there are no large national parks or significant public lands in the great plains region, especially the southern plains.

"If the Great Plains as a whole remain pathetically underprotected ecologically, the central and southern plains are almost entirely so. Citizens of places like Texas and Kansas (and Oklahoma) are today among the most divorced of all Americans from any kind of connection with regional nature. With midheight grassland ecology represented by existing parks on the northern plains, however, the pressing need in the future is for large preserves in the shortgrass high plains and the tallgrass prairies."

Sadly, that is all too true. The Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is an exception, but if you are interested in seeing a true, unsullied, native, short or mixed-grass prairie biome on the southern plains, good luck. Maybe a leprechaun or a billionaire absentee landowner can show you where to look. I personally know equal numbers of both.

Which makes me wonder: would more people appreciate the plains today, and perhaps see the region as something more than just a giant agro-industrial wasteland, if more of the region had remained public and therefore given people more of a vested reason to fight for it? It's certainly not strictly an issue of mere aesthetics, because if you can just get past the feedlots and the packing plants and the center-pivots and the grubbed-out, worn-down, plowed-to-hell industrial-scale aglands, you will find breathtaking, heartbreaking scenes of  raw beauty out there on the plains, areas so staggeringly powerful in their sweep and grandeur that were someone to see them for the first time, they might very well have exactly the same kind of transformative moment that Abbey did upon his first view of the desert southwest.

Or are the plains simply too spare and ugly for most? Their charms too subtle, their warts too obvious, their attributes simply too much an aquired taste for most? Is there no voice powerful or riveting enough to make people care? I don't think that's it, either It's not like there aren't regional advocates, artists and writers out there trying to drum up some love for the region, many of them extremely talented and compelling.Again, it all goes back to communal space, or lack thereof. I won't go down the rabbit hole of discussing the Poppers' mostly misunderstood, wildly mischaracterized, and wholly dead Buffalo Commons concept, but the fact remains that more people would care about the region if more people had sense of ownership enough to care about the region. 

Of course, it's a moot point, really, a purely academic question, because so little of it now belongs to us to ever find out the answer to the question. All we have, and all we will ever have - at least until the next great man-induced natural catyclism scours us once again from the landscape - are tiny little islands scattered here and there upon a vast and rapidly disappearing sea that appears destined to remain unexplored, unknown and unloved. There will be no Shortgrass Ed to save us, no mass spiritual awakenings or pilgrimages of self-discovery into the dark, mysterious heart of the plains to follow in his righteous path, because, well, you'd get your ass shot for trespassing. And being a hippie.  

So I guess all us prairie rats and itinerant bird hunters and other lovers of silence and isolation will just have to make do with those small, scattered islands of communal property, hang on to them, and try our damndest to protect them as best we can. That, at least, is still be a winnable battle, if an increasingly difficult one. Even without a guru to follow or a place to follow him to. Purpose is where you find it, no matter how big or small, and on the plains we're forced to find it in ever-shrinking areas.  


  1. Very nicely done. You are neither old nor fat, as you sometimes profess, at least not in your passion for the truth. There is plenty of fire in your gut. Thanks for making it available!

  2. Like I read somewhere once (no idea who said it): Any fool can love the mountains, but it takes soul to love the prairie.

  3. You know, Chad... there's always room for a "Dustbowl Ed" to live alongside "Cactus Ed" on the bookshelf. Someone needs to advocate, rant, and rail. It could be you. "Prairie Solitaire", by Chad Love. I'd read it.

    The desert west was saved by its own nature, by the way... it is desert.

  4. Thanks for this excellent post. Chad, by any chance have you been following Trevor Herriot's post's on "the Canadian government [abandoning] its commitment to conserve our Federal grasslands"? Many good posts since, yikes, July of 2012, like this one: link. And this: The Stegner Legacy.

    Thanks again for your fine post.

  5. Why I am glad for the Comanche National Grasslands and, ironically, the Army's PiƱon Canyon Maneuver Site, both in SE Colorado -- because you are right.