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Deserts on the March


Years ago I had the honor of meeting Paul B. Sears, the ecologist from Oklahoma, author of the 1935 jeremiad, Deserts on the March. He came to Emporia State University as a consultant in the founding of the Center for Great Plains Studies. At the time I was unaware what a giant this slight old man, Paul Sears, was.


His message--that there is a desert in the middle of North America, and it is “on the march,” as we were being called to account for abuse of the land--seems both quaint and resonant today. 


Fast forward to the afternoon of January 2, 2020, when I sat in a deer stand on the edge of a winter wheat field in western Kansas, a Winchester Model 94 30/30 on my knee, awaiting a fat whitetail. Peering off to my right I espied some strange animal lumbering up the dead furrow toward me. The creature passed directly beneath my stand and waddled on, as I sat there amazed. I had just encountered an armadillo, in January, at a place where in my experience, he did not belong.


And then this week, in God’s Garden that we call the Red River Valley of North, I took the canine contingent of our household--the Ladies, as I call them--out for their afternoon ramble down the section road, but after a minute, I called it off. The blowing dust was just too thick for man or beast. I loaded up the Ladies, turned on the lights of my F150, and drove home.


I am venturing into a discussion that I generally avoid, because the arguments get heated and pointless, but here goes. It has to do with changes in the land, in the Great Plains of North America, the land in which Plains Folk is grounded. When in 1931 Walter Prescott Webb, in The Great Plains, laid down the first principles for thinking about the history of our land, he assumed a geography--level, treeless, semiarid-- that was static and stable. It was not, and it is not. The ground is moving. With armadillos in Kansas and cornfields in Manitoba, we know this.


Trouble is, we get high-centered with a blame game. Capitalism is to blame, machinery is to blame, farmers are to blame. Donald Worster’s book, Dust Bowl, won the Bancroft Prize for laying blame. As I see it, Worster’s argument is pretty much destroyed by Geoff Cunfer’s book, On the Great Plains. Cunfer shows us that dust storms are a fact of life on the plains, the simple cost of doing business. The trouble with his argument is that he, too, assumes more stability than is evident in our experience.


It seems about eighty percent of farmers believe our climate is changing. About the same percentage insist that the cause of change is natural, not human.


They have a better argument than they know. As a historian, I have come to regard 1840, the time when the Little Ice Age ended and the warming of the plains commenced, as the inflection point where the modern history of the Great Plains began. We are living on a trajectory that dates from that point.


As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, however, I have sat through enough Old Testament lessons to know that human actions have consequences--what in History we call agency. What we do with the land matters.


As do the stories we tell about the land, and about ourselves. Laying aside blame, we need stories that situate us in our changing land. Stories that speak for our better angels. May the stories we tell in Plains Folk so speak. Let us tell good stories.

-Tom Isern

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