Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great Plains geography 1

Stephen Weaver 's photograph of an archetypal Great Plains scene -- sunset over a rolling sea of grass.
Sand Hills of western Nebraska

"North Dakota is a punch line.... I'm surprised, then, driving up out of the Black Hills and along the Etch-a-Sketch lines that are North Dakotan roads, to find the state sorta pretty." ~Alicia Rebensdorf, Chick Flick Road Kill, pp. 103, 106. 

The Place
A Photo-Essay on the Geography of the Great Plains

Even though hardly anyone believes it, I will say it anyway: The Great Plains are beautiful. To go one further: They are hauntingly beautiful, the stage for rich legends and historical memories in the American imagination. To snub it as mere "flyover country," or to complain that it is "monotonous" on roadtrips, is to miss Edenic panoramas of earth and sky. One of my favorite cliches to debunk is that Kansas is flat and boring. Have you ever been to eastern Kansas -- the rolling landscape that was the scene of Bleeding Kansas, our dress rehearsal for the Civil War? Or to the Dakota badlands, where Theodore Roosevelt withdrew from civilization to be a cowboy after his wife and mother died? Have you ever stood on the High Plains of Colorado and felt the thrill of a blue norther' bearing down from the western sky -- an allusion made famous in the beloved Ian Tyson rodeo song, "Someday Soon," performed by Judy Collins?

James Nedresky's photo of Kansas's Flint Hills, late spring
For one photographer's paean to the High Plains, especially as an unparalleled aesthetic experience, take a look at Rick Dunn's website. His pictures and words are those of a true believer who had formerly snubbed the High Plains to chase after images of mountain landscapes.

You know the Great Plains when you see them -- or do you? The natural and cultural history of the region is so rich that geographers resort to staggeringly diverse criteria to grasp it. In truth, this western sea of grass is as elusive as quicksilver. Except in the west where the grasslands slam into the Rockies, most of the region's boundaries are as distinct as fog.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Dakota Badlands
The whole business of defining the Great Plains is complicated, as geographer Alan Lew has shown in his online textbook. The complications multiply when, in popular parlance, such terms as "prairie," "Tornado Alley," "Midwest," and "Corn Belt" sometimes overlap with "Great Plains," but each of these terms can be misleading. Especially misleading is the moniker, "Great American Desert," which the explorer Stephen Long used to characterize the region. That christening dominated the popular imagination for a half century from the Era of Good Feelings (early 1820s) to the beginning of Reconstruction (late 1860s).

The Yellowstone River cuts through eastern Montana.

Self-disclosure: I have always felt a spiritual connection to the Great Plains, perhaps because I was conceived in Kansas, born in Texas, raised in the Lone Star State, and spent my young adulthood in Colorado. During the first 32 years of my life, rarely was I far from the western sea of grass. My sensibilities were largely shaped by the big sky, limitless panoramas, prairie plateaus, and down-to-earth cowboy culture of a remarkable landscape. In 1983 my first book was published about -- what else? -- the Colorado Piedmont, a significant part of which includes the stretch of plains at the foot of the Rockies between Fort Collins and Pueblo. See Gleaves Whitney, Colorado Front Range: A Landscape Divided (Boulder, 1983).

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This photo-essay is part of a series on Great Plains geography.

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