Over a decade ago, I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar titled The Great Plains: Texas to Saskatchewan. For five weeks, Tom Isern guided 20 teachers as they read and analyzed literary and historical texts, discussed conclusions, and visited iconic sites to better understand what it means to live on the plains.
One identifying characteristic of this land is its vast horizon with few vertical interruptions such as trees or skyscrapers. That distinction found its way into pioneer diaries and journals as early travelers moved from coves and hollows where tree groves cupped around them, making them feel secure as a babe in its mother’s arms. That sense of sanctuary vanished for those entering the Great Plains as my mom who worked at the Meade County Courthouse in the 60s discovered in early immigrant records. Many were institutionalized when they couldn’t cope with open space and frequent wind.
Fellow seminarians from other regions shared that the plains’ vistas disquieted them as well. Their responses reminded me of a Japanese exchange student I took to Oklahoma City. On our journey, she exclaimed repeatedly, “Why don’t you build cities in this land? Why don’t people live here? You should use this space.”
For those accustomed to much sky and little upright interference, outsiders’ viewpoints challenge us to consider where we live and what it means to be a plains person. Recently, I’ve traveled western Kansas’s isolated highways, stopping to explore almost-ghost towns like Densmore, Ogallah, Clayton, and Levant that once boasted thriving communities.
Those isolated miles of asphalt stretching infinitely over hills and valleys bring a smile as I think how these trails confuse those who believe all Kansas is flat. Frequent high spots permit travelers to see across entire counties. Imagine Indians and early explorers standing on these ascents to view scores of buffalo, deer, elk, turkey, and antelope. In all directions, they saw a rich land that could feed everyone who crossed it.
Crumbling remains of once well-built churches, multi-story brick or stone schools, plaster and lathe homes that housed growing families, as well as peaceful hilltop cemeteries remind us that hopeful hearts believed in this abundance. These little hamlets every 15 to 20 miles across the prairie remind us of Jeffersonian Democracy in action. Here families worked soil, tended businesses, worshipped God, and educated children to create better lives.
When folks gravitated from these self-sufficient villages to cities, they lost something. These hamlets tied people to the land that fed them, schools required students to participate in declamations, plays, music, and sports; churches cared for not only spirits but also for physical needs of residents. These communities developed well-rounded citizens who united to survive.
In forested regions, close-growing trees hold one another upright when the wind blows. In mountainous landscapes, one rock supports another. Nature doesn’t offer such protection in the open plains, so humans must sustain one another. Neighbors become one another’s rock, cove, hollow, and grove.
When I recollect that seminar and a place I call home, I acknowledge lifestyles change. Not everyone can live in self-sufficient villages, but every Kansan can celebrate open space that reminds us this rich land sustains many and offers space enough to teach us to look out for one another.