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Big love, bad lands

The Wide Open makes a case for the Plains

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How do you get people interested in a place that’s so supremely intolerant of people?

When the Homesteading Act of 1862 went into effect, it took the promise of 160 acres and a lot of dubious pamphleteering about advances in “dryland farming” to draw settlers to America’s inhospitable Great Plains.

The blizzards of the 1880s turned a lot of them around. The droughts of the 1890s knocked off even more. By 1900 the Plains’ vast bison herds were long gone. There wasn’t a lot of fat on the land.

The government upped the ante in 1904 to 640 acres. Maybe settlers could make a living off that.

Barely, it turned out. Drought, locusts and the Great Depression knocked dryland farmers’ dicks in the dirt again during the ’20s and ’30s.

America tried to settle the Plains one more time in the 1950s, and with huge federal subsidies and enormous irrigation support, marginal agriculture has managed to hang on by its hyperindustrialized fingernails in the million square miles of America least well suited for it.

The population of the Plains—which cover a rough swath of North America from Texas up into Canada, primarily just west of the dry-line hundredth meridian—has famously decreased by a third since 1920. People—white people anyhow—have been throwing themselves at the Plains for more than a century, and failing in most cases to stick.

It was 1987 when an academic New Jersey couple proposed to “deprivatize” the Plains and return them to their presumably sustainable pre-settlement condition as a so-called buffalo commons—an idea widely mischaracterized as a wackjob envirofantasy.

But if you can get past the sentimental attachments of the relatively few living flesh-and-blood people who by now belong as wholly to that environment as the buffalo did before them, the logic of a largely depopulated commons is compelling. The land’s carrying capacity for people is extremely limited. The Plains account for one-fifth of America’s landmass, but only 1/60 of its population, and it’s bleeding people still.

And yet if this land is to be saved, or rather reclaimed, or even more particularly declaimed, it will require the awareness and eventually the money of people who will probably never come closer to the Plains than a transcontinental flight or an episode of “Little House on the Prairie.”

That’s the challenge faced by the recently published The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie.

The book is occasioned, as described by Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs in her preface, by the American Prairie Foundation’s ongoing purchase of large chunks of prime unplowed Montana Glaciated Plain (plains and shortgrass prairie being more or less synonymous in much of eastern Montana). Close to 100,000 acres have already been acquired between Malta and Lewistown, and a seed group of 16 genetically pure American bison from South Dakota were reintroduced in 2005.

The book’s conflicted agenda is to simultaneously draw you in and repel you; to convince you to value this land and to leave it be.

It’s an approach that happens to work with the Plains, which are “hard to love” according to the editors’ very first sentence of introduction, and which suffer mightily in the national imagination from association with the word’s double-duty as an adjective. To the unobservant eye, there’s no there there. No mountains, no ocean surf, no charismatic mega-terra. The Plains are wide and they’re open, not quite as empty as desert, but frighteningly empty enough. In western Montana, you can hike out of your town into a reverie of teeming earthly wilderness. On the plains of eastern Montana, you can step out of your door and right into the sky.

And yet it’s impossible not to romanticize the Plains. It is intolerable not to. That the romance of the Plains is the self-defeating romance of human failure makes it no less romantic.

And if there’s one thing these 21 contributors and photographers share, it’s that conflicted embrace, that love despite. Memoirist Judy Blunt loves the Plains she left behind. Poet M.L. Smoker loves the Plains to which she returned. Novelist David James Duncan imagines trout fishing in the muddy rivers of eastern Montana, and you know how David James Duncan loves to imagine trout fishing. Even Richard Manning loves the Plains, if only for the respite they offer him from people, whom he mostly hates.

Montana Plains folios by photographers Lee Friedlander, Lois Connor and Geoffrey James linger lovingly on the empty landscapes, but there’s a preponderance too of the man-made in their viewfinders—mostly rusted things left behind, or else concrete roads and tire tracks in the dirt, an archaeology of escape.

It’s more than clear from these words and pictures, thoughtfully assembled by Missoula editor-writer Annick Smith and American Prairie Foundation board member Susan O’Connor, respectively, that people—contributors and readers alike—are plenty capable of falling in love with the Great Plains. But the book’s prettiest pleasure is in wondering just how much of that love can be accounted for by the fact that the Plains don’t even know—and wouldn’t care if they did—that we exist.

The Missoula Art Museum (MAM) hosts a reading of The Wide Open Thursday, Oct. 16, at 7 PM. Lois Conner and Geoffrey James give a gallery talk at MAM Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 6 PM.

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