You are not deeply attached to a place until you know it thoroughly and accept it for what it wants to be. A bold statement you might argue with, but bear with me.

Consider the dustbowl misery of the 1930s. The disaster on the Plains was created by policies marked by ignorance, and surely by hubris as well as wishful thinking. Programs were built on the orthodoxy of ploughing and farming methods of the white farmers of the time. We now know that when the plains were grasslands with roots reaching down four feet—four feet—the land had been productive (think about the fattening of the grazing buffalo). Not at all a waste land, and safe from disaster for eons. But the settlers saw only empty unused land, a vision bolstered by their faith in white industriousness. Surely the bad old times were behind them as they pushed into the West. They weren’t ready to think that the people who already lived in the West had any wisdom in their way of life. They proudly saw, or thought they saw, only limitations Native peoples hadn’t the means to overcome. The weird thing is how little we learned from the dust bowl disaster about our hubris.

While many are gaining an appreciation that soil shouldn’t be treated like dirt, a strong current of belief continues today that our agricultural methods, simply because they are newer than those of the 1920s, are transferable anywhere, such that, for instance, watermelons can be grown commercially in arid Arizona. Well, there are aquifers, aren’t there? As long as they last, there are.

You know that the Oklahoma panhandle is sparsely inhabited. But I hadn’t known of a repeating pattern until I happened on Annie Proulx’s “That Old Ace in the Hole.” This is a novel with a core of compelling historical reality. Just as the dust bowl disaster thinned the population that had swelled in the earlier land rush, so the oil boom brought in people that in turn melted away in the oil bust.

Now, contemporary residents in Proulx’s book struggle with land degradation all over again via massive hog farm operations. A character says of the seduction of money and technology, “has kept us from adjustin to the bedrock true nature a this place . . .” And observes that the water of the great Ogallala aquifer is now drying up, like the oil of the previous boom. The native Indians? Oh, they never lived there. In their hunts they roamed through but didn’t reside in the drylands. And by being uninhabited, these dry lands also served as a buffer between groups, holding down fighting. Proulx leaves the implications to the reader.

Sounds to me like a good use of this type of land. A land that is precious in its own right.

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