Plains Folk

Learning from the Lindis


My Suzzanne and I are making the long trans-Pacific flight to New Zealand again, there to present a paper to the New Zealand Historical Association. This is tough duty, so let me explain what a prairie historian is doing in the South Pacific.

For years we have been working on a line of research centered in a part of New Zealand called the Lindis. The region is a high, dry grassland through which flows the Lindis River. You may have viewed some of this scenery in the Lord of the Rings movies. We haven’t even seen those movies. We go to the Lindis to study the history of life in a semiarid grassland, which is what we do here at home, too.

At this point you may be asking the same question my mother does: You don’t have enough grassy places to study here? You have to fly 8000 miles for more of them?

Well, yes. I’ve been researching and teaching the history of the Great Plains of North America for just about forty years. There still are unlimited numbers of interesting things to investigate in my home country. I’ll keep doing that until I cannot go anymore.

At the same time, many years ago I sensed a need to leave comfortable surroundings and go into a far, but somewhat familiar, country—another semiarid grassland. Since then I have been teaching and writing the history of New Zealand and Australia, along with the history of the Great Plains. So now, Mom, and everyone else, here are three reasons for doing this.

The first reason is, I like it. Wouldn’t you do this if you could? It seems like every time I tell someone I am off for a research expedition to New Zealand or Australia, the person gets dreamy and says, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there.” So I suppose my honest reason for going is—because I can.

Which may not be reason enough for my dean, and so here’s another one. All of us who study the history of the Great Plains have ideas and assumptions in common. We have read the same books, examined the same problems. We argue about these problems, but in the manner of an old couple that keeps bickering about the same old things.

The best way to break free of old habits of thought is to go someplace where people think differently. That teaches you about possibilities and contingencies. When I come back, I don’t just tell the same old stories again.

A common fallacy of hidebound historians is to assume that the way things happened in any particular place was how they had to have happened. In fact, there are many possibilities in any place. People go there and make history, and write it.

And speaking of writing, by way of a third reason, I’ll tell you what I told my senior students yesterday, as I charged them to write their research papers. This is a little scary for them, because I make them do things they never have before. That challenge is what makes their work good and fresh. The queasy feeling in your stomach is a sign you are testing yourself.

Doing research in a foreign country, on the far side of an ocean, in relatively inaccessible places, is hard. It is hard logistically, it is hard politically, it is hard intellectually. It is worth doing precisely because it is hard.

If you have been teaching, or farming, or doing any particular thing for decades, then you know what I am talking about. You need challenge, and a little bit of fear, to keep your edge. So here we go again.


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