Geography Conference

Catholicgauze is in town, and this morning I am hanging out with him at the Great Plains / Rocky Mountain Division Association of American Geographers 2006 Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. The keynote speaker gave a somber talk on the depopulation of the Great Plains. The Q&A immediately following was fascination. Asked about the relative silence about the depopulation on the fact that the plains was settled after the ascendancy of the Eastern Establishment. Audience comments ranged from the insightful — multi-county ranchers as supporters of county consolidation — to the idiotic — blaming the rural-urban shift in America, Canada, India, China, and Asia on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Geographers of the Heartland

It must be conference season in general, as next weak UNL’s Political Science department hosts a Hendricks Symposium on Genetics and Political Behavior. Up to twenty research papers should soon be available online. The conference is hosted by my professor, a genius who I heard speak last year.

4 thoughts on “Geography Conference”

  1. I would have like to listened in on that address. I originally hail from NW Missouri so those issues are germain to where I'm from.

    I was in your area two years ago (picking up my dad after he crashed his plane in Beatrice) and on the drive home I wondered at what would happen with all the land; Multi-county ranchers indeed. I wondered if we would end up with a model similar to the Pampas in Argentina, with huge ranches, almost a county government in their own. A guy could sort of set up his only little kingdom. I think one of the keys would be to diversify the produce and livestock produced on such a large station. Such large ranches could probably facilitate a return to more open range style ranching, maybe even cattle drives?

  2. I hope your father wasn't badly injured in that planecrash!

    I think your prediction for the future is right. The speaker spoke of the “change of scale” the prairie is experiencing, where hamelts are disappearing, rural county seats are becoming hamlets, etc. My state, South Dakota, has already seen her Western grasslands nearly abandoned. The rich shortgrass is next.

    This is too bad, as one thing that makes midwestern culture so wonderful is the history of smallholders. The West never had that — it had Grand Families, and all the Classism that came with it.

    Interestingly, a speaker today spoke of Northwest Missouri. Specifically, he researched the region's towns' presense on maps of the nations through the 19th century. He found some interesting things, such that Far West [1] (which was abandoned in 1838) originally appeared on a national map in 1839, and continued to appear there on-and-off for a generation.

    It reminded me of Phantom Islands of the Atlantic.

    I'm not sure where the rationalization of agriculture will lead, but given the historic trend of agricultural production outstripping population increase, we will need less and less land and people to support our population. Perhaps future generations will look back at the brief flash of time where the plains were meaningfully populated.

    If so, that will be sad.


  3. Far West is two counties south of where I grew up and I have driven through several times (cutting down route D where I was less apt to see Highway patrol, i.e. to speed).

    My county, Gentry, was settled later and passed it's peak in population in the early part of the last century, when the population was more than triple what it was now. Interestingly enough the three major towns there weren't any larger than what they are now, the majoriity of the folks lived in the country side as small stakeholders. They all left, presumably to the city or west, before the great depression even arrived.

    Driving from St. Louis to Chicago this morning it occurred to me that there is another way the change of the plains may undergo. Over the last 10 years there has been a small but significant influx of Amish and Amish-type sects, drawn by cheap land and far-from-Rome feeling. I could see a similar occurance in the more agriculturally marginal (i.e. cheap) land in the plains.

    My own county has already experienced some tension from a large stakeholder. A former baseball player bought up a bunch of land and created a for-pay hunting reserve (with high fence, fancy hunting lodge in all). However, he hasn't really connected with the locals. No one begrudges him the wealth or landholding, but his seeming snobbery and exclusion run some the wrong way (and his son/game warden is apparently a real jerk).

    Ironically, I've spoken to friends about creating a reserve of our own, for profit, but we've always talked about some way of including the community. I don't know, but even with the growth of large stakeholders, I think there will always be a place in the midwest for the leave-me-aloners and tinkerers of the country; and look at the growth of Fargo!

  4. BTW, my father cashed near a highway and was pulled/rescued from the burning plane by some enterprising drivers with a broken hammer seconds before the cockpit was engulfed with flames. He looked rough at that moment but the only long-term damage was in his lungs and windpipe from the fumes, that took a year to heal fully.

    After I picked him up in Lincoln, a week later, I drove him to the Beatrice Firedepartment, where some of the EMT's who took care of him were shocked to see him up and around with nother more than a gravely voice.

    I was to drive him home, but he called his mechanic to fly a plane to meet us and he flew himself, his wife and his mechanic home. Talk about back in the saddle.

    By myself, I got lost somewhere around Oregon, MO.

  5. Vermont/New Hampshire went through a similar process. At one time both states were marked by numerous small stake-holders (at this time Vermont was like California now and home to new religions and communes). Eventually, many, if not most moved west to better land and opportunities.
    Now, Vermont/New Hampshire is being repopulated by those looking for rural life, even if just as a bedroom community to Boston.

  6. ElamBend,

    Thanks for the info on Far West, and the new “settlement” of the Plains. Unlike New England, though, the Midwest does not benefit from geographic proximity to major urban areas. The future is probably closer to Wyoming than Virginia.

    My cousin keeps a place in southeastern South Dakota, between the Jim and Missouri, for himself and his friends. The hunting is beautiful, and the widespread adoption of the Conservation Reserve Program [1] combined with depopulation has allowed wildlife to boom, especially pheasants, foxes, and other game. (Strangely, the jackrabbit hasn't come back yet. Older folks mention how one couldn't drive in the country without hitting one, but I have yet to see “jack.”)

    Your father is very lucky, and very resilient.


  7. Your cousin's place sounds awesome. As for the jackrabbits, it could be the foxes and coyotes. If folks followed the practices of where I grew up, foxes and coyotes were risking getting shot on site if they showed them selves too incautiously. With more people living in the countryside, that could have been a lot of dead predators and thus, more jackrabbits.

  8. ElamBend,

    Hmm… I hadn't thought of it as a consequence of depopulation. Though it makes sense that farmers would be more hostile to predators than to prey, and so once farmers begin to leave, it should be the predators more than the prey who benefit…

    Still, one wonders why the farmer's cats wouldn't've got them. Maybe Jackrabbits are too big for cats to reliably down, but not for foxes and coyotes?

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