Plains Folk

Advent on the Prairies

The Sixties are a strange time in the story of the Great Plains—a blend of Happy Days and the Last Picture Show. Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, is never so exasperated as when a neighbor woman insists we need to get back to the way things were in 1960. Norris perhaps fails to fathom the lasting luster of those times. As Ian Tyson wrote of rodeo great Casey Tibbs in one of his songs, “The chaps were purple, the Cadillac was purple, the skies were 1960 blue.”

It was a time when the country was on the move. The problem around these parts, though, was that the country was on the move out of here. That was the situation in 1965 when the North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies convened a “Symposium on the Great Plains of North America.” Its report is largely forgotten.

And justifiably so, considering most of the papers contained within it. Some writers saw salvation in new agricultural and energy industries. Others said that the collapse of regional society was inevitable. Few had a clear idea what was going on—but a sociologist named Richard DuWors, from the University of Saskatchewan, sure did. We ought to pay attention to what he said in 1965.

I write this as we near another Thanksgiving weekend, a time when I am particularly receptive to DuWors’s analysis. This traditional time of humility has become the annual watermark for American materialism, when first we eat too much and then we buy too much.

Here’s what DuWors said. First, he described the exodus of residents from the Great Plains in plain language as a “panic from the land,” a rush of people that could not by stopped by any symposium or program.

Second, he pointed out the irony inherent in previous attempts to keep people on the farm by making farm life better. Radio was supposed to enrich rural life with high culture; instead it fostered consumer values that made people restive. Automobiles were supposed to ease the isolation of rural life; instead people used them to bypass local merchants and ultimately to leave the region. Improvements in farm income were supposed to go back into better living on the farm; instead people used the money to help their kids go to college and get out.

Third, DuWors showed it was silly to blame agricultural technology for all these things. Tractors did not drive people from the land; they got into their cars and left.
Finally, though, he explained just what role technology did play in the depopulation of the plains. The technologies taking people from the land were not those of production, but those of consumption. Farm people of the plains wanted to live the way urban people did.

“The world is being swept by values associated with hedonism and rationalism,” DuWors writes. “And the environment that fosters these values above all others is the city. People move to the dominant centers of the increasingly dominant values.”

Moreover, he says, “Hedonistic-rationalistic values will lead people to search out the mildest climates to live in.”

This Thanksgiving I find it impossible to repeat the old story of how we lost our farms and communities on the Great Plains, the old story told alike by hardened agricultural economists and sensitive social workers, the story that technology and economics drove us, kicking all the way, from our land. People in this country make choices.

How happy I am that after Thanksgiving comes Advent, with its promise that we still have choices, that the opportunity of redemption comes every year.


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