The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

13 July 2004

At the very edge of civilization

Tom Isern is a professor of history at North Dakota State University, a couple of miles from my temporary perch in Fargo, and basically, he's had it up to here with doomsayers:

North Dakota now holds in eastern perceptions the position held by Kansas in the 1890s and Oklahoma in the 1930s — a gray place on the plains abandoned by anyone with any youth or gumption left. I get calls from reporters all the time (the last one was from Japan) asking where they can go to find the most human tragedy in the least amount of time and space. They have their lists of things to cover: abandoned churches and schools, dusty main streets with stores boarded up (preferably with a yellow dog lying about), old people reminiscing about the good old days, young people complaining there's nothing to do here.

The writers also all have their pat explanations for regional decline — big farm machinery, fast cars, harsh climate. They are strong on description, but their explanations are clueless.

Not that it would ever occur to me to tell you that North Dakota is doomed. Yes, the rural areas of the state are declining in population; the same thing is happening in most of the other forty-nine. And while it's very easy to issue romanticized pronouncements about the family farm, the fact is, we don't need millions of folks to work those farms anymore; what determines the quantity of farm production these days is not the number of available field hands, but the unsteady balance of market economics and government subsidies.

And I don't believe for a moment that having a population of ten per square mile, as North Dakota does, is some sort of tragedy. (Oklahoma has around fifty; factor out the two largest metro areas and the figure drops into the twenties, with Lawton, about the same size as Fargo, as the largest remaining city.) Maybe it's inevitable that a place called the Peace Garden State is going to be rather sparsely populated. But I figure that the people who live here are ingenious enough to keep themselves afloat; after all, they manage to get by without voter registration just fine, and this is the sort of independent streak that usually means a finely-tuned survival instinct.

I talked to at least half a dozen Fargonians (if that's the term) today, generally with kind words for the place, and always with the qualifier: "Of course, this is July. Had I arrived in February, I might think different." All of them understood, but none took umbrage, and the general impression I got was "Yeah, we have horrible winters, but so what else is new?" Not that Oklahoma in February is particularly wonderful. And given the delights of a July in Fargo — people are all over the place, while back home in the Okay City everyone is indoors cranking up the air conditioning — it might be worth enduring that February. It is, after all, three days shorter. Usually.

When Dave left Oklahoma for Montana, he didn't announce that he was never coming back. But once he got into the Great Falls groove, living anywhere else just seemed, well, silly. I saw some of that during my brief stay in Montana; I'm seeing the same sort of thing in North Dakota. Not everyone can live here — not everyone should live here, perhaps — but the place has its rewards, if you know how to look for them.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times evidently doesn't:

It sounds cruel to say so, but towns like Rawson are a reminder that the oversettlement of the Great Plains has turned out to be a 150-year-long mistake, one of the longest-running and most costly errors in American history.

Ten per square mile — a figure which has remained more or less constant for more than half of those 150 years — doesn't constitute anything resembling "oversettlement."

What Kristof wants, as it turns out, is the Buffalo Commons, the entirety of the Great Plains turned into a giant theme park, a vacationland for lawyers in love. If Bismarck and Pierre and Helena don't sneer at this, well, they should. Tom Isern does:

At the heart of this consensus is the conviction that human civilization has failed on the plains. People failed, and they left. This leads to a logical conclusion: the plains are empty of people whose wishes need be taken into consideration. The region is a frontier again, a place in need of a plan. So all sorts of people from distant places propose their plans.

Me, I like North Dakota just the way it is.

Posted at 4:29 PM to World Tour '04


TrackBack: 8:49 PM, 14 July 2004
» Fargo Talk from The Fat Guy
I'm kind of out of the link-n-look bidness lately, but you gotta read this one by Big Chuck Hill, out......[read more]

They should be careful about closing off the red states -- all those red-state voters would play hob with blue-state political climates.

<wicked snicker>

Posted by: McGehee at 9:05 PM on 13 July 2004

Any person who would knowingly use the following phrase (read and laughed at for minutes on courtesy the Buffalo Commons site):

"we humans"

Seems quite likely to have a very narrow scope of humanity; namely, those who agree with the aforesaid person.

Posted by: Robb Hibbard at 1:59 AM on 14 July 2004