Imagining the Great Plains
Since 1983 my co-author, Jim Hoy, and I have written more than 1500 Plains Folk columns for newspaper publication. That’s more than 750,000 words spent defining and delighting in life on the Great Plains of North America. And that’s not counting the several hundred more pieces, mostly centered on North Dakota, I have written specifically for reading on radio at Prairie Public. It’s a large effort, and a sustained one; so what’s it all about?
Sometime in the late 1980s Jim and I were pulling together a book of essays drawing on the early years of Plains Folk. We decided we needed a map to answer the question, just what part of the country were we talking about? We roped in our cartographer friend, Bill Phillips, and he agreed to do the map, but he wanted to know where the lines should go.
That led to an interesting discussion. We got out an atlas and debated what places were in the Great Plains and what places were not. Generally we all had in mind the criteria set down by the historian Walter P. Webb: the Great Plains are level, treeless, and semiarid, or at least subhumid. We realized, too, that we had in mind other considerations about how people made their livings and conducted themselves, maybe even how they spoke or dressed.
In the end we agreed substantially on where to put the lines. San Antonio got in, because everybody likes San Antonio, and Edmonton got in to anchor the northwest corner. North Dakota was the only state that we drew entirely inside the Great Plains, as we decided the Red River Valley was so darned level—we never say “flat”—it had to be in.
In general, we used our imaginations, combined with personal experience, to map the boundaries of the Great Plains. Years later the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska published its map of the Great Plains, based on exhaustive study by geographers, and the lines they drew turned out to be—pretty much spot on with what Jim, Bill, and I had imagined.
What we are doing in Plains Folk is imagining the Great Plains of North America, over and over again, and inviting everyone else to come along with us. People in Eastend, Saskatchewan, where the Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner grew up, and Ellinwood, Kansas, where I grew up, have never met one another, and don’t even think about one another, but they are willing to believe they are part of something bigger than all of us: the Great Plains.
What I’m describing is similar to what another scholar, Benedict Anderson, has said about nations. A nation, he says, is an imagined community that holds together because people believe in it. Plains Folk, then, nurtures the belief among prairie people that they are part of something big, and something big-hearted—the Great Plains.
George A. Custer went before us in this enterprise. In the beginning of his memoir, My Life on the Plains, he makes a big deal out of renaming the region that people before had called the Great America Desert. He argues “that the Great American Desert did not exist” and that this tract of country was, instead, “the fairest and richest portion of the national domain.” Don’t call it a desert anymore, Custer insists; call it the Plains. And since it is such fine country, he should be sent out to clear those pesky Indians out of the way of progress.
So Custer had his own motives in the re-imagination of the Great Plains, just as did historian Walter P. Webb, writing The Great Plains in 1931. He said, “let us inquire what has been and what is to be the meaning of the Great Plains in American life.” Webb wrote his book in order to save America from becoming soft, effete, and boring, like eastern cities. The country needed a heartland where people remained true to the values of the land.
As it does, as we do, today. Plains Folk is a reminder of that.