A Good Story
Well over a half-century into my life on the plains, sometimes it feels like I am only beginning to be native to the place. It’s a work in progress, but I feel like there is still personal progress.
Formal study of the Great Plains as a region establishes certain understandings, but sometimes it gets in the way, too. The foundation of historical writing about the prairies is Walter P. Webb, The Great Plains, published in 1931. It sets down the obvious but important idea that adaptation to the Great Plains environment—in agriculture, in law, even in habits of thought—determines the culture of the plains.
The problem is, this adaptation is always thought of as an inventive response to negative conditions. The Great Plains are a hard land, which forces people to adapt or die. Thus in our histories we tell survival stories and talk about how tough we are.
We could think about this another way, but the thought has to come from observation and experience. The past few years we have invested a lot of study and time into historic houses made of earthen material—either cut sod or clay formed into walls and roofs—mainly in western North Dakota. It was only after working with a few tons of this material, forming habitations with our hands, that we thought about what this meant. Gumbo clay, which sticks to everything, is something we love to cuss. If you were an immigrant from Russia, though, where people lived in houses of earth, then this same sticky gumbo is a wonderful resource, offering promise of homely comfort. It is literally the stuff of home.
A few weeks ago we were driving Highway 281, which links the states of the plains from Mexico to Manitoba, and the landscape out the window taught me a similar lesson. North of Hoisington, Kansas, we entered post rock country, where pioneers quarried their fenceposts from Greenhorn limestone. Again, the way we commonly tell the story is that the country was timber-poor, and so the unlucky pioneers had to make their fenceposts out of stone.
Think about this another way, though. Those posts are still standing, neat and strong, mile after mile. Think about the sentiments that accompanied exhaustion on the part of fellows who placed those posts. They could say, with satisfaction, there’s a job that won’t have to be done again. And if they remembered, they would have thanked God for the Greenhorn limestone in their hillsides.
My point is that many of our stories we insist on telling as stories of deprivation and survival can be just as well told as stories of competence and satisfaction. Adaptation to the Great Plains environment may have been mostly a matter of seeing the virtues in an unfamiliar landscape.
Then, as we drove along 281, we came to the little town of Portis, and I hopped out to take photographs of a little corner bank building constructed of post rock. Admiring the craftsmanship in it, I particularly noted the artful decorative dimpling of the window enframements. Some forgotten craftsman, handling that stone, thought to himself, this is wonderful stuff, I can do something beautiful with it. So he did.
And now, more than a century later, that stonemason has taught me something about life on the plains. Work with what you have. Bring out the potential in the things at hand. Tell a good story. Make yourself at home. Act like a native of the place.