Friday, October 07, 2011

The new frontier

       We entered from the north though I could not say with any certainty where we were. A small town, a dead town, a town with no future and no past worth remembering, its broad main street devoid of marker or traffic or vehicles or any sign of life other than the cartwheeling swifts zippering the cloudless blue vault pressing down like an unbearable weight. Most of the few businesses had collapsed entirely or burned to charcoal stubs and the others shuttered. Not a breeze stirred the dry air nor in any way relieved the sense of oppressiveness that hung like a shroud over the town, only the road leading beyond the last fractured ruin yielding of any hint of release or escape.

I was reminded of spaghetti westerns where the protagonist rides for endless days and nights through a preternaturally empty land until cresting a low rise where in the distance shimmering like a mirage the outlines of a town emerge from nothingness, insubstantial and otherworldly, more menace than promise, and upon entering what few residents brave the harsh midday sun scramble indoors as if fearful of being seen, their closeted presences marked by the merest shift of a curtain or the creak of rusty hinges as doors slivered open and slivered close again.

Other than the obvious lead-in to a Westernized version of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the parallels between the settings are becoming evermore narrow and aligned. Our passage had taken us from the interstate somewhere west of Abilene, the concrete ribbon bisecting the rolling wheat fields designed to shuttle travelers past without slowing as if to screen them from rural America’s dawdling antithesis of hurry. The severance of modernity and antiquity was as abrupt as it was complete, for within a mile of our departure point we folded back the fabric of time to traverse a former era. A small clean town rose with the dawn, its streets lined with pickup trucks, the only cafe a mom-and-pop with specials scrawled on a chalkboard by the front door, the whitewashed grain elevator a beacon throwing back the aslant morning sun. It could have been the 1950s, or the 1930s, men in overalls and baseball caps, a woman in a summery dress, children swinging in the park, the ages having stumbled and faltered into something found only beyond the far peripheries of sprawling cities. With a little imagination it could be any decade since the invention of Ford’s wheeled chassis. Increasingly, it’s becoming more like the mid-to late-1800s.

According to the latest census figures, the Great Plains are emptying out. Rural America accounts for just sixteen percent of the nation’s population, the lowest ever, and the numbers continue to slide. And unlike a laid-back sense of time characteristic of small towns, the rate of depopulation is staggering. Washington County, where I work, lost ten percent of its population in the past decade (and, indeed, possesses not a single traffic light within its 900 square miles). Other western Kansas counties have been hit even harder, but we’re not alone. The other Great Plains states suffer similar declines. The concept of establishing a buffalo commons in the heart of the nation, once reviled as the mad ravings of eastern elites, now gains traction as businesses collapse, residents age and services crumble. 

When Americans pushed to the Pacific Ocean, Frederick Jackson Turner declared, the frontier was officially closed. There was nowhere left to go except inward, and census figures proved him right. That outward expansion built what would be known as the American character, self-sustaining, immune to hardship, innovative, hardworking, disdainful of government, and for decades to come it would be most abundant in those bound to the land. By 1850 fifteen percent of the population were clustered around burgeoning cities and towns, the rest scattered in small enclaves. That number has reversed. The frontier has returned.

For Turner, the frontier was not so much a place as it was a process of adaptation and change, of savagery supplanted by the beneficial forces of civilization. Native Americans had a different word for it but a white-dominated world view predominated in Turner's day. Manifest Destiny was nothing less than God at work, divine, ordained, sanctified. The idea still resonates among a subset of people whose grasp of reality remains firmly planted in an Old Testament notion of predestination, evidenced recently by a statement by presidential contender Rick Perry wherein he declared America “the last great hope for mankind.” 

If that includes the political farce now being foisted on the American people, most of whom are urban or suburban, then the world is doomed. As for rural America, hope is a nebulous concept, and rapidly fading.

Recently I attended several public hearings about proposed post office closings. While each has its own ambience dependent upon the mood and make-up of the attendees, they remain sad, angry, incredulous affairs reminiscent of gladiator days, a lone and beleaguered U.S. Postal Service representative pitted against an indignant mob. Odds I would not favor except that like Belshazzar I’ve seen the writing on the wall and the ghostly message is not favorable. Your days are numbered, your kingdom will be divided.

Other than a few voices quickly silenced I see none of Turner’s American character, and I wonder if connections can be made between the depletion of the populace and the can-do spirit of its people. And like the stilled voices vainly trying to rally the besieged community to action, whether combat or creativity, my own musings have been met with vehemence to the point where I wish only to cover the meeting as a reporter and swiftly return home to get hammered. 

I am, however, uniquely ill-suited for mandated silence. These people are the new pioneers, their lands and their homes bordering a reclaimed wilderness, and the sooner they realize this, the better. As the great emptying continues services will be lost, isolation tightened, permanence jettisoned. What remains even now is fragile and tenuous, but not gone, not yet.

We choose to live and work here. This is our home. But everything around us is changing and we are changing, too, and need to change even more. Never before in our nation’s history have we reversed course so radically as we have in the populating, or depopulating, the interior frontier. Every step we take from here on will be into virgin territory, uncharted and unmapped, against the odds and with no surety of success. But then, the odds weren’t very good for our ancestors, either.

Fight we must—but we must choose our fights. We must plan and seek alternatives and work together for solutions. Somehow, before all of this is nothing but a fading memory, we need to become a community.

Communities that do have a fighting chance. Those that don’t will within a generation or two be as deserted as the unnamed town we once stopped at, but only in passing, and for only a short while to stretch the miles from our bones before taking flight toward a ribbon of highway that would lead us home.

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