Thursday, December 30, 2010

The long and winding road

The road swerved drunken from side to side as if unwilling or unable to maintain a straight trajectory. As much constrained by terrain as the machinations of man though without any apparent purpose for its meandering, its muddy ruts wove a complex pattern of slippage as the road dipped into a low wet area sheeted with ice. On either side trees crowded in, gray and leafless and marching in close ranks both northward and south as if planted by some former civilization now passed with only the remnants of its habitations to mark its time upon the earth, the shattered stone structures crumbling into thickets or jutting like broken teeth from the serrated runnels of plowed fields.

Low gray clouds eclipsed the light. An early twilight and already shadows gathering in the margins. I slowed and stopped and let the engine idle as I studied the uncertain road ahead. I wasn’t sure where I was but knew if I got stuck it would be a long walk back to wherever I’d departed the known world. Nor was the last habitation an option for succor for its assemblage of snarling dogs all of which seemed intent on dismantling the car were it to slow. Which it certainly did not. If the car sank in the muck I’d have to find a new route. Maybe my wife was right; maybe it’s time to join the ranks of cell-phone carriers.

To leave pavement in rural Kansas is to abandon the consoling influences of modernity. Much has been said of wilderness but the wild encompasses us here in the hinterlands. Backroads are wild roads, barely tamed and growing evermore wary of civilization’s intrusion. A few are well maintained, graveled and graded to the proper pitch, but more have been turned loose to fend for themselves. Traversed more by small furtive creatures than vehicles, they melt into the land like scar tissue. In terms of rural planning and transportation corridors, they’re feral.

The road before me was almost primeval. And yet the ice shining dully through the gathering gloom hinted at a firm substrate. I stepped from the car and tested the surface and found it slick but solid beneath. A cold wind blew through me bending the trees in a slow stately dance and raising a long low moan from a rusty windmill. It clanked as the blades orbited around bearings long destroyed and its sound a hammer beating an anvil. Sharp and flat without echo.

Beyond the windmill a gray-shingled roof crooked from its original form and half sheared away thrust through darkling woods. I hadn’t noticed it before but my eyes were drawn to it even as they were drawn to the road at its sodden nadir. The house tipped the scale of caution leaving me no retreat; I climbed into the car and fastened my seatbelt and gunned the engine hoping that mass and motion might overcome gravity and gelid quagmire.

At the base of the slope the front tires slipped from a zigzagging ridge I’d tried to straddle and slid into a trench without foundation of any kind and yawed sideways sickeningly before gaining terra firma. Mud clods shrapnelled the trees and drummed in the wheel wells like scattershot but I was through and climbing a low hill. And there a windowless and forlorn house.

A grassy two-track led through an open fence and petered out a few meters into a yard littered with fallen limbs of which some were sizeable. I parked and watched the place for a moment not knowing what to expect but cautious of hounds or their two-legged counterparts. Decades of excursions into Denver slums engendered a wariness that became as much a part of me as a leg or a lung, nor would I want it any other way. I used to say that I didn’t mind running into bad guys but the last thing I wanted to be was surprised. Dogs were never welcome and difficult to judge except when trying to eat me which made them fair game. Just because I’ve left the metropolis doesn’t mean I should let my guard down. I sometimes joke that in the boonies no one can hear you scream.

The house is why I had come. Not this particular house, but the idea of the house, its reliquary importance to a rapidly fading past. Part documentation, part photographic exploration and all adventure, these scenes of abandonment and rural decay were sad reminders of where prairie people had come and where they were going, the middle place of frontier time, neither here nor there but somewhere between. And the road joined them together.

But the real story wasn’t just recording the ruins of the past, I thought. Ruins are static and uncompromising and reveal themselves without artifice; backroads are mutable, subject to change from moment to moment, often risky and treacherous and always lovely beyond words. Each road differs from our expectations. Backroads in particular follow their own dictates and the contours of a land tamed only in our imagination. They are our creations left to themselves. They are the shadows of unfulfilled destiny.

And some will perish in the next 50 years, their traceries subsumed beneath prairie grasses and thickets of dogwood and plum. That some of them remain in this middle time is something of a miracle. Shouldn’t we be documenting them while they last?

After a short while I eased out of the car and listening heard only the whisper of the wind and the rhythmic clattering of the windmill blades vainly striving against the finite hours. I retrieved the camera and slipped the strap over my shoulder and set out, certain only of the uncertainty of my vision in this wilderness I’ve only begun to explore.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My kind of neighbors

Brave new book

If patience is a virtue, I am an unrepentant wastrel.

Waiting for something to arrive in the mail has always been a simmering torture, an interminable postponement of all that is good and right and fair. Life comes to a screeching halt, placed on sustained hold, squandered of potential, swindled of joy. The imminent bliss of the Next Best Thing, however dubious in principle, becomes an exercise in fruitless anticipation. I pace. I fret. I grumble and grouse.

When I place an order, I don’t want it expedited, prioritized, three-dayed or overnighted—I want it yesterdayed.

Which might be why I fell so hard for Amazon Prime, with its promise of two-day delivery. Best of all, it came gratis, courtesy of a listserve catering to mothers; three full months without commitment with a promise of extensions for heavy users. Much to Lori’s amusement I became an Amazon Dad, using my granddaughters to gain inclusion.

Two-day delivery isn’t perfect but certainly beats the alternative, plus it’s had an unexpected benefit: my impatience has become tempered. Somewhat.

Temperament only goes so far, though. When after what seemed the mere blink of an eye a certain package arrived, I tore into it like a kid blitzkrieging gifts on Christmas morning. But it wasn’t Christmas, nor Christmas Eve, nor even within days of that fateful holiday. There were weeks to go, long, agonizing weeks, and what little self-restraint I possessed had bled away in a frenzy of longing.

“Let’s just take a peek to see what it looks like,” I said. After all, a picture on a computer monitor is hardly a substitute for the real thing. Lori allowed a peek.

The box itself was the same size as a trade paperback sitting on my desk. Inside was a slim plastic tablet the length and thickness of a number two pencil and about as light. Scary light. For grins I balanced the Kindle in my left hand and the book in my right. The one was substantial and the other what felt like a toy though a toy that could hold libraries larger than most people could imagine. What immediately came to mind was my iPod, a gadget I first dismissed as hopelessly unrealistic and now find indispensable to the point of having boxed up my collection of CDs in favor of a palm-sized silvery machine. Who’d have thought? I kept asking myself as if there were an answer worth hearing.

“It’s a long ways till Christmas,” I suggested. “Maybe we ought to charge it to make sure it works.”

Lori looked skeptical but granted absolution. I plugged the Kindle into the computer via a USB cable and set it to the side. My eyes kept roving over the tiny keyboard and the darkened window. I wondered what the display would look like with real text. I wondered if it would change my life and make me a better person, more caring, less prone to irritation, able to type with all my fingers.

A little later Lori announced that she was going to take a nap. The timing was perfect, providing a short window of opportunity rarely granted to mortals. With her gone I downloaded several books including a sample chapter of Mark Twain’s autobiography and Thoughts on Landscape by Frank Gohlke. Obviously I needed to make sure it worked, too. It took all of about ten seconds to connect the Kindle to our wireless network and another three seconds (or maybe five) to download the books. Talk about instant gratification! If I suddenly crave a book there will be no more waiting for it to arrive by slow ferry from Hoboken, but I shall have it as fast as my brain can formulate the thought. Maybe faster. And—and!—at reduced prices!

Yes, yes, I hear you say, but how did it compare to a real book? Well, my ten-minute indulgence wasn’t quite enough to make valid comparisons but I will say this: the Kindle is very, very light; turning pages is a snap using the tabs on either side; reading in low light absolutely no problem even though the screen isn’t backlit; the text is clean and sharp and the “page” a creamy off-white, with a subtle grayish cast that accentuates the text. Easy on the eye. More research will be needed for learning how to skip chapters, find indexes, navigate to the beginning or end of a book, or highlight noteworthy. What I found fascinating and not a little spooky is that the Kindle remembers your place and takes you there the next time you open the book or wake it from sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scouted around the house looking for a bookmark. I won’t miss the experience.

That said—with a repeat admonition that the Kindle isn’t just one book but a vast library—a “real” book has a feel and a scent that no mechanism of plastic, glass or metal can replicate. Nor can a Kindle grace a bookshelf with visceral embodiments of your favorite books. A Kindle book cannot be autographed or personalized, which for some authors simply will not be acceptable behavior; books by Jim Harrison come to mind.

It dawned on me that I was once again voicing internal arguments over the various merits and demerits of an electronic reader. There really are none. Like life itself, an e-book is what you make of it. My Kindle—when the time comes, alas, for I reluctantly placed it back inside its box and handed it over to Lori—will be a revelation and a joy. I’ll personalize it and maybe even give it a name. (I like Alexandria, after the fabled library). I only hope I can bide my time. I’m almost finished with a book I thought would last till Christmas, and when it’s done the Kindle goes into service. I might be Scroogish with waiting, but with the Kindle I’m ho-ho-ho all the way.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The only thing that's changed is everything...

The following two articles are about the depopulation of the Great Plains as envisioned by two very wise people from Back East. While in some circles that might be enough to brand them as "outsiders" or "meddlers," their words are true. To deny them is to deny reality. Lori and I had the pleasure of meeting Frank and Deborah Popper once again at the Kansas Farmers Union Convention in Salina, from which the first article was generated. Because of the timeliness of the story and the enthusiasm that greeted it, I'm including the first article I wrote about the Poppers in 2004.

The last romantic capitalists in America – revisiting the Buffalo Commons (2010)

When Frank and Deborah Popper first espoused the idea of the Buffalo Commons in 1987, they were rurally reviled as ignorant outsiders meddling in generations-old lifestyles. During their first post-publication tour of the Great Plains, police escorts were needed to ensure their safety. And then a funny thing happened: rural people began to get a glimmer of what they had spoken about, and they understood that not only had the Poppers been correct, but the changes they foresaw were advancing faster and with more force than anyone could have predicted.

So it was that when Frank and Deborah Popper addressed the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention in Salina on Saturday, their words and ideas weren’t those of outsiders but as members of “the tribe of the Motherlode aquifer,” coining a phrase lifted from a song about the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer by Texas songwriter Andy Wilkinson.

“You are the part of the remaining tribe of the Motherlode aquifer,” Mr. Popper said. “We know how hard it is to be a member of this tribe—and it’s clearly getting more difficult.”

Other speakers at the convention included Karl Brooks, Region 7 Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty, Joe Logan, Director of Agricultural Programs for the Ohio Environmental Council and Chandler Goule, Kansas Farmers Union Vice President of Government Relations.

The Poppers might live and teach in New York—him at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, her at Princeton University—but they’re no strangers to the Midwest. Since the publication of their seminal work, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” they have become associate fellows at the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, and from 2002 to 2009 they were members of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute in Salina. What began as a project they felt few would notice took on a life of its own, sending them crisscrossing the length of the nation but particularly throughout the central states.

On a return engagement at K-State in 2004, former governor Mike Hayden publicly apologized to the Poppers for his fierce antagonism toward the Buffalo Commons idea. “It was the most startling reversal I’ve ever heard from a working politician,” Mr. Popper said.

Rural depopulation, climate change and the draining of the aquifer are only part of the challenges faced by today’s prairie residents, ranchers and farmers, he said. Small towns are disappearing almost as fast as small farms and livestock operations even as the cost of goods and services continues to climb with no end in sight.

And yet, he said, the kind of farming practiced by small producers has a long history on the Great Plains. “It’s how the plains were settled starting in the 1870s with the first homestead in Beatrice, Neb.,” he said. “And it has been proven many times, notably during the Dust Bowl.”

Laboring for something greater than economic gain was best expressed in a term made popular by the Princeton basketball player Bill Bradley, Mr. Popper said.

“He called it ‘romantic capitalism,’” he said. “You’re doing the job, you’re working for a living, but the payoffs are not primarily financial. And you persist. You are, in some ways, the last romantic capitalists in America.”


When in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed, Kansas was more densely settled than now.

In the frontierless vacuum that ensued with the unraveling of the population, efficiency became increasingly required in all things, not merely in animals and plants but in the remaining people, too, Mrs. Popper said. “We’re forced to get more out of the remaining people,” she said. “But you know this better than me.”

The idea of the Buffalo Commons requires restraint, not austerity or the American ideal of overmastering the land, she said. And if the word “commons” was a bad choice, at once divisive and full of unwanted meanings, its use as a metaphor remained more potent than its use in land planning.

“Metaphor unleashes integrated thinking,” she said. “We know that not all of the plains should be set aside with a buffalo on every acre. The best options feature a mosaic of uses. We should think in terms of gradations of agriculture and prairie. The vitality of mixed grasslands relies in its diversity, social and ecological. “

Some shifts in land use are already apparent, Mr. Popper said. Plains-based non-government organizations and conservation groups such as the Grassland Foundations, the Nature Conservancy and the Great Plains Restoration Council have purchased large tracts of land to set aside for preservation, and banks now routinely lend money for bison operations. Native American tribes in the Dakotas have also increased their bison herds. “Buffalo are an essential part of land use programs,” Mr. Popper said.

But, if agriculture plays a lesser role in the future of the Great Plains, how is America going to feed the world, asked Larry Dreiling, senior field editor for the High Plains Journal.

“We’re not giving up on agriculture,” Mr. Popper said. “It might become more regional, such as a shift for cattle to the southeast where there’s more rainfall and better grass. The idea of America as the granary of the world is something we’re getting away from.”

The new farm bill is an example of the diminishing status of agriculture, he said. The majority of the bill involves nutrition over production, a natural outcome of a suburban—not urban—society.

Questions posed to the Poppers ran the gamut from the future of small-owner ag producers to a reworking of suburbia and health care. The latter seemed to take him off guard.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but we don’t do health reform. The Buffalo Commons won’t, either. My wife has a six-acre brain and even she can’t help with that.”

What the Buffalo Commons can do is to decide a sustainable future for the Great Plains and its people as populations fade with the underlying water supply, he said.

In the intervening years since broaching the concept of a vast national park encompassing the heart of the nation populated more by bison than people, “the muscle of reality has intruded,” Mr. Popper said. Two federal censuses have illustrated the continuing exodus of prairie populations, and those that remain have a higher median age than urban residents. “But you’ve already seen that in your families and your communities,” he said.

“This idea that we had, which as I look back was at the right time, the right place, the right people, with perhaps some social comedy about us who look very Eastern, telling people on the Great Plains what they should do with their land—there was great social comedy in that, and I enjoyed it and I hope some of you did, too,” Mr. Popper said. “But there are really important things at stake here.

“There’s things like how we treat this vast, beautiful, characteristically American chunk of land. There’s questions about how we actually learn to live on the earth. There are other American regions like the Corn Belt, the Lower Mississippi Delta, parts of our largest cities that are also being depopulated, deserted, shrinking in exactly the same way the Great Plains have been for more than a century.

“Our lessons to be learned here are about how to live on the land, what sustainability is, what humanity is about, what it means to be American.”

Buffalo Commons – An experiment station in crisis management (2004)

Sometimes a great notion

What to do with the Great Plains, that vast, sprawling area between Alberta and the Rio Grande, where, in the words of one 19th century traveler, one can see all the way into next week? With loss of industry and businesses, environmental degradation, failing farms and an aging and ever-declining population, the prairies are in danger of becoming a vacuum. With no easy solutions in sight, some suggestions seem as fantastical as science fiction.

One idea espoused at “The Buffalo Commons Revisited: Conversations about the Future of the Great Plains,” a public discussion held at Kansas State University’s Forum Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 11, called for converting the agricultural base of the plains into the manufacture of high-grade marijuana for both national and international trade.

The suggestion, made by a doughy young man, was one toke over the line for the crowd, who loudly derided it.

Seventeen years ago, another suggestion was voiced, one that was met with equal derision. So much so that police were called out to protect the authors, Frank and Deborah Popper, when they visited the area to discuss their idea. Then-Kansas Governor Mike Hayden characterized his reaction as a modern-day Matt Dillon gunslinger, pistols blazing. What could a couple of interlopers from back East know about Kansas? he scoffed.

Hayden, now secretary for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, stood on the stage at Forum Hall and looked at the Poppers, who were seated to the right of the podium. “I’m here to say that I was wrong,” he said. “Not only did what Frank and Deborah predict come true, the truth is that the out-migration of the Great Plains, and the depopulation and the aging of the population has been even stronger in many quarters than they predicted.”

While Hayden and the Poppers were speaking mainly of the Great Plains west of the 100th meridian, many of the problems facing that area are similar in Marshall County. The song’s the same; the location is just a little farther east.

Filling the Void

The Poppers were at K-State for a reevaluation of the idea that put them at the forefront of prairie planning – a return to the “Buffalo Commons.” The discussion, sponsored by the Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives, also included Associate Professor Leonard Bloomquist, head of the department of sociology, anthropology and social work; Professor John Harrington, head of the geography department; and Associate Professor Bonnie Lynn-Sherow of the history department. The moderator was Professor Stephen White, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The idea of the Buffalo Commons had its genesis in a trip the Poppers took in 1985. Mr. Popper was interested in writing a paper about the American frontier, so he and his family drove across the plains, talking to people at cafes, city offices and laundromats. They were captivated by the sweeping views, but realized that the area needed to make serious adjustments.

Back in New Jersey – Mr. Popper teaches at Rutgers University and Mrs. Popper teaches at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island – the Poppers sat down to write their paper.

“We imagined the Buffalo Commons basically sitting over an electronic hearth – that is, we’re sitting over our computer,” he said. “We tried imagining what the Great Plains would be like.”

The region was destined to cycles of boom and bust, of agricultural miscalculations, of environmental degradations – and ripe for population decline. It was, as historian John Opie said, “An experiment station in crisis management.” They proposed an ecological and environmental restoration of much of the region. “There should be new uses that fall between conventional agriculture and pure wilderness,” they said, uses that emphasized environmental protection and eco-tourism as a supplement, and possibly as an eventual replacement, for existing agricultural and resource land uses. Buffalo and other native animals, plants and grasses should replace cattle in many areas.

The Poppers never mentioned anything specific. It was, said Mr. Popper, more metaphor than blueprint.

That’s when the fur began to fly.

Unanswered questions

It all seems so clear now to Hayden.

What he saw back then was a bunch of Eastern intellectuals sticking their noses in his business. Fiercely proud of his heritage – “Born, bred and raised west of the 100th meridian,” he said – he lived and worked on a farm that went back generations in his family. But two things in particular made him see the shifting demographics of the Great Plains around Atwood, in western Kansas.

In 1963, he said, there were 16 family members whose primary source of income came from that farm. In 2003 there were four people and three of them were over 80 years of age. “Same land. Same farm,” he said. “Producing more than we ever did. But there are twelve of us who had to do something else.”

Projecting that number another 15 years, he said there would be only one person left whose income came from the land.

Another factor related to when he and his family moved into a house at 201 N. 7th in Atwood. He was nine years old. “My parents still live there,” he said. “For fifty years, if you sent my dad a letter he’d pick it up in the same mailbox. If you sent me a letter in those fifty years, you would have had to send them to twenty-nine different addresses.”

Those two examples show the changing social structure of the Great Plains, he said.

“It’s very hard for me because my family came from the land, came from the soil,” he said. “They loved western Kansas. But most had to go somewhere else to find economic opportunity.”

Kansas is not alone in its plight, he said. From Canada to the Mexican border the problem is the same. Some places are even worse.

For many years, he said, he drove the 321 miles between Atwood and Topeka, sometimes daily. He passed through many towns, many communities, and as they rose and faded from view he thought of them and of their uncertain futures.

“I remember one time when I was running for governor,” he said. “I drove through Courtland and a train came and I had to stop, so I had a minute to think before I had to rush on. And I thought to myself, if I do get elected governor, what can I do for the people of Courtland? And I’ll tell you the truth: in seventeen years, I’ve never been able to answer that question. It still eludes me today.”

You can see the future from here

Hayden likened the economy of southwestern Kansas to a three-legged stool. It’s held up by the Hugoton gas fields, the Ogallala aquifer and the influx of Hispanics, he said, but two of the legs “are going the wrong way.”

The gas fields, once the third largest in the world, are now declining at the rate of eight percent annually. The Ogallala aquifer continues to drop, and there are places around Cimarron and Sublette that in 20 years will not have mineable water. On the other hand, the Hispanic population continues to grow.

Hayden said he read recently in the Atwood newspaper, The Square Deal, that the first baby of the year born in Rawlins County was Latino. He’d never seen that before.

“It wasn’t a quirk,” he said. “It’s a sign of the future.”

An imperfect map, but a start

The idea of the creation of a Buffalo Commons does not mean a wholesale displacement of farmers and rural communities, though some suspect such a conspiracy. Hayden, the Poppers and the other panelists presented their strategies for reversing the decline of the Great Plains, all the while insisting that much more research needs to be done.

Mr. Popper noted some of the changes made since their first paper was published: Ted Turner has restored millions of acres to a more natural state, replacing cattle with buffalo; organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Great Plains Restoration Council and the Conservation Alliance are strengthening; and government agencies are not only providing technical and financial assistance to buffalo ranchers, but also sponsoring conferences dealing with regional depopulation.

But the government must do more, Hayden insisted. There must be an investment by government at some level, whether federal, state or local. Kansas needs more public land, he said. If you go to one of the state-owned lakes around any summer holiday, there will often be more people there than in many surrounding towns. “We haven’t made enough of those investments,” he said, “but in the communities we made them in, there’s a whole lot better economic health than in those communities without them.”

Art, science and geography must be an integral part of the solution, Mrs. Popper said. Restoration will come when we can see the prairie as Walt Whitman did in 1878 when he wrote, “I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America's characteristic landscape.” Then, she said, we need to go back to our arts and our literature and redefine how we see the region.

Some form of the Buffalo Commons is inevitable, Mr. Popper said. “There are a lot of questions of detail, of timing, of mechanism still to be settled, but intellectually speaking we believe it’s a done deal. It’s going to happen.”

The poem is ours to write

“Today, the small independent farmer who makes the majority of his or her income from farming is not just in trouble, she’s in a coma,” Lynn-Sherow said.

Mark Twain once quipped that history never repeats itself but sometimes it rhymes, she said. Songs from 16th century England and 19th century America are remarkably similar in terms of showing farmers being driven out by landowners, just as history has proven. What’s taking place on the Great Plains today is an illustration of Garrett Hardin’s theory of “the tragedy of the commons,” she said.

The theory holds that any common, whether a field, a fishery or a water source like the Ogallala, is only sustainable if everyone limits their consumption. Decay occurs when someone takes more than their fair share. Eventually, as everyone tries to grab an extra portion and the incentive for limiting oneself seems foolish, the resource upon which everyone depends is destroyed.

A number of commons on the Great Plains have been destroyed, she said, like the buffalo herds, riparian woodlands, topsoil and clean water. Now, middle-sized farms are disappearing while large agribusinesses expand. Towns that once had businesses and schools now consider themselves lucky if they can sustain a convenience store on the highway. The rural communities of the Great Plains are being over-harvested, she said.

But even as middle-sized farms disappear, over 7,000 small farms have been created since 1997, many operated by women. This new type of farmer, she believes, is one who is committed to producing products for a local rather than an international market. Their goal is not to compete with the giants of industry but to provide an alternative, a case of recreating and remaking the commons.

“The USDA knows that the most efficient farm on the plains is not 4,000 acres, but 400,” she said. Farmers are beginning to reconnect with the people who depend on them. Those farmers, she said, are the best hope for the Great Plains.

“As an historian, I do not pretend to know what the future holds,” she said. “I can only hold the past up to view. The next verse in the poem is up to all of us to write.”