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Big History

When I say that Dr. Kelley and I are flying to Norway, people around here make assumptions. So let me clarify that although I am a card-carrying member of Kringen Lodge of the Sons of Norway, I have no Norwegian ancestry; I’m in it for the pie.

We do travel a great deal, but we don’t do holidays. We travel for family, and we travel for work. Our international travels generally take us to the Pacific Rim, where we have longstanding research interests and friendly associations.

Which means that as we fly to Oslo and thence to Stavanger (capital of the fabled Norwegian petroleum industry), to attend the annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society, we are moving opposite to our accustomed direction. Moreover, I have a paper to present, and this presentation, too, takes me in an unfamiliar direction.

Because here I sit in Prairie Public studios, delivering my weekly essay, which generally focuses on the rich details of regional life. The joys of juneberries, the genesis of a prairie ballad, the dynamics of a box social, the habits of people concerned with lambing, seeding, gardening, that sort of thing. Folkways.

There is in my profession, however, an efflorescence of what people call Big History, telling stories that span continents and millennia in search of larger understandings. I am not by nature a Big-History guy, but I find myself on a program to explain the significance of the Little Ice Age, a climatic regime spanning centuries from the 1300s to the 1800s, to the history of the Great Plains. In fifteen minutes.

The reason for this is, well, somebody had to do it. Those of us concerned with agricultural life on the Great Plains keep nattering on about our pet subjects, but these things are meaningless without circumstance and context, knowledge of the ground under our feet, the atmospherics through which we move, the long span of what Wallace Stegner called the pontoon bridge of history.

Yes, in fifteen minutes — and so I resort to what the armchair historian Bernie de Voto called “history as synecdoche.” This means focusing on small, representative things in order to suggest larger stories and insights.

In the big picture — and I think this of evident interest to plains folk — I argue that the emergence of indigenous cultures on the northern plains was enabled by the Little Ice Age. This is counter-intuitive, I know, but the key is the nature of winter under a colder, drier climatic regime. Winters, the evidence says to me, were cold as the dickens, but dry and open. This made it possible to hunt for subsistence during winter and, this is crucial, keep livestock alive. Despite the cold, herbivores could find forage. Herbivores such as horses — which, Lakota winter counts indicate, arrived in the late 1600s, the very height (or depth, depending on how you look at it) of the Little Ice Age.

The Great American Desert, a regional trope established by explorers and travelers in the early nineteenth century, was a Little Ice Age environment. It really was a desert.

Warming trends in mid-nineteenth century made life difficult for pastoral peoples — witness the Big Die-Off of the range cattle industry during the Blue Winter of 1886-87 — and enabled the influx of Euro American farmers.

You may remember me a few weeks ago talking about “The Cattle King’s Prayer,” a Montana ballad of 1886 imploring the Almighty for “Italian skies and little snow.” Good luck with that, you cattle kings of the open range. You are my synecdoche.

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