Admit It: The Great Plains Don’t Need Us To Survive

I find it difficult to visit the small towns of South Dakota and Nebraska.
As someone who grew up in just such a small town, I find this disconcerting.
I was raised in Crofton, Neb., which was a fantastic place for a child to learn and grow. Between the farm upon which my family lived and the small community where I went to school and took part in many other functions, I was given a warm and loving embrace within which to discover the universe and my place in it.
However, like so many small towns in this corner of the world, Crofton’s population is dwindling at a slow but incontrovertible pace. The Census in 2000 had counted 754 souls within the community. By 2010, that had shrunk to 726. The 2012 estimate set the population at 710.
Death and migration are gnawing away at Crofton and many other small communities in the Great Plains.
And it is this fact that I cannot get out of my head when I visit these places.
It’s hard to ignore.
Speaking in general terms, their infrastructure is aging and the unforgivable impacts of our demanding, fickle climate are becoming harder to conceal. Young people are increasingly rare, and the adults are noticeably, overwhelmingly getting older and older. The young people who have stayed behind are often forced to accept challenging economic conditions as part of their decision, and that can wear down an individual in the same way the weather beats down a structure.
In the larger scheme of things, I suppose this doesn’t really matter. Towns live and towns die. They have for millenia. Humans migrate and civilization carries on, forgetting many of these places even existed.
Maybe what makes this depopulation process more difficult for this region is the fact that it has such an agricultural heritage. As someone who grew up on a farm, I think there is a connection to the land that stems from that lifestyle that is very personal. It’s probably the closest I’ve come in my life to feeling a spiritual, mystical connection to something. The geography of this region is sacred to me. I’ve always felt that way. These rolling hills feel like HOME. I can’t imagine obtaining that feeling from any other place.
It’s a strange dichotomy to watch this land produce higher and higher yields to sustain more and more life, and yet the people are disappearing from the landscape. Some individuals have left. Others have gone to rest in the serene depths of this rich soil.
There are fewer and fewer of us to watch this process take it’s toll. There are fewer and fewer of us to care.
Maybe it’s the best thing for the land. Perhaps other life will spring up to take the place of our domineering presence, extract less from it and create a more harmonious countryside.
I can accept this and even appreciate it.
Humans are a part of life on this planet. They are not life itself.
But I can’t shake the feeling that the Great Plains are increasingly becoming a glorious temple with few left to appreciate its beauty and worship within its elemental walls.
As my temple is forgotten by the larger community, I feel increasingly forgotten, too.
Yes, there is still much joy to be had. There are people to celebrate. We can dance in the dandelions and rejoice in the muddy waterways.
But it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the shadow. Death and isolation creep along the empty roads and decaying farmhouses and lay their cold hands upon us more than we would like to admit.
Sometimes, I think it creates a sort of desperate madness in us to defend our presence here and wonder with indignation why others would not want to join us. How do we hold on to our sanity as this growing shadow seeps into our consciousness?
How do we become oblivious to the obvious?
We are once again pioneers, trudging our way through a new frontier.
But instead of being fueled by dreams and hope, we are being catapulted by reality.
Despite the pain it causes, we know the time has come to commune with ghosts and learn how to say goodbye.
It’s difficult for us to admit, but the Great Plains don’t need us to survive.

© 2014 Nathan Johnson


For an interesting historical perspective on debates over population in the Great Plains, I recommend giving this Nebraska Public Radio interview with economic historian Derek Hoff a listen.

3 thoughts on “Admit It: The Great Plains Don’t Need Us To Survive

  1. Oh Nathan. This is beautiful . . . and heartbreaking, both at the same time.

    I live in St. Paul, Minnesota now, after growing up on a farm near Miller, SD. On weekends I love getting out of the city to wander county roads and visit the small towns. It’s nostalgic for me, and perhaps homage to the people who were such a big part of my social formation. The sadness is real too. I have a romantic attachment to these little burgs.

    Just a couple weeks ago I was driving northwest of the metro and happened upon the town of Eden Valley. The grocery store/butcher shop had a hand written sign in the window that advertised, “Potato Sausage.” I went in to check it out.

    The butcher, a little old guy in a blood-stained apron, showed me a white, paper wrapped package stamped with “Potato Sausage,” and a date. I took the package, plus a couple other items, to the counter in front. A woman who might have been 70 years old tapped numbers into a well used machine. She reached for a plastic bag, but I interrupted her. “It’s going to be quite a while before I get home. Could you put the meat in a paper bag?”

    “I’ll do even better than that.” She laid newspaper down, placed the frozen sausage on top, and wrapped the newspaper around it, securing it with tape.

    It’s the little things like that which speak Small Town to me. Those two, the butcher and the clerk, may not have successors. That brings grief to me, but makes my celebration of that moment even sweeter.

    I theorize that South Dakotans harbor a low level depression, due to exactly what you’ve described here. Now, living in MN, the difference has become apparent. There is a pride and excitement about Minnesotans that is palpable. Although the states share a border, MN and SD are worlds apart psychically. It’s fascinating.

    Sorry that got so long Nathan. Clearly your post touched a personal cord for me. Thank you for writing it.

    • That is a really great story of what can be found in our small towns.
      I haven’t really spent any time in Minnesota for a decade or more. However, I’ll be heading there in the next week. I’m definitely going to be probing this psychic difference in their respective populations. It’s a very interesting theory.

  2. Minnesotans are proud of this state. MN ranks high in many areas and the locals are inspired by that.

    On the other hand, South Dakotans are defiantly proud of their state. Feeling pride requires defying plenty of objective information that puts South Dakota at or near the bottom of several lists. So that pride must incorporate a certain level of resentful defiance.

    I have loved South Dakota all my life, and I’ve always wanted it to be more. Perhaps one day, it still might. I’ll always hope.

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