Wheatcountry Introduction, by Richard Manning
To the people who know it only as “flyover country,” it is a flat, barren land. They are wrong about this, as anyone who has walked or even driven the high plains and the Palouse Prairie knows. Roads wind and wrap wide, round hills. A hiker loses the horizon by dipping into valleys, coulees and draws. What appears flat and featureless from the air is undulating and sinuous at ground level’s more human scale.
People fly over mostly because they think this place is vacant of humanity, and in a way they are right, and in a way wrong. There is perhaps no landscape on earth more revamped, reworked and reshaped by humans. Almost no part of humanity lives here, yet most parts of humanity feed their lives from here. All humans live in this uninhabited place by extension. Layered within this paradox is another: Wheat country’s real face surely does appear different to those few who inhabit the place, but it has been reshaped to reflect the imaginations of those who don’t. A close look of the landscape can be read no other way.
Wheat country in America is easy enough to define, and not simply by the tautological: Where we grow wheat. More than half of all the food energy consumed by humans on this planet comes from three grains, which is to say, three domesticated grasses: corn, rice and wheat. Of these, wheat is the toughest, survives the harshest, coldest and driest, least profitable, most marginal, all of which says we grow wheat on plowable land that won’t grow rice and corn, on the ragged edge. Draw a south-north line from San Antonio, Texas to Mitchell, South Dakota, roughly the 98th meridian. From here west to the Rockies, the rain shadow from the continent’s premier cordillera is dark enough to allow only wheat. Hop over the Rockies and the pattern repeats in the lee of the Cascades to create the Palouse Prairie of eastern Washington and Oregon and bits of Idaho.
Of course, nature had options other than wheat. These very places, now regarded as monotonous and desolate of creature comforts, were in fact among the continent’s most productive ecosystems, great grasslands of short- and mid-grass prairies. You’ve heard all the stories: bison, elk, grizzlies, wolves, Nez Perce ponies, skies black with geese. The early accounts of the first white eyes to see all this traveled back East and made for wide eyes. None of this detail, this scale fit within the treed and sheltered imaginations of former Europeans removed to the treed, settled, sheltered, rain-washed East. What would not fit imagination was re-imagined as a flat, blank slate on which to rewrite Jeffersonian Democracy. People who had never seen it decided it was a vacant land to be cut into the mile-square sections of the rectilinear cadastral survey, then peopled with stout-hearted yeoman farmers, each with his birth right of forty acres and a mule. Europeans were people of marginal agriculture, steeped in the northern extremes of the temperate zones, which is to say, long-time wheat people. So in their newly claimed land they planted wheat.
The business of the 19th Century was realizing the dream of “settlement.” By 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed, meaning settlement had occurred. All of wheat country was peopled with at least six white faces per square mile. Unsettling began immediately. Since the 19th Century, most counties in the region in question have lost 50-90 percent of their population.
Those who remain are not the independent yeomen who Thomas Jefferson imagined would pillar democracy. The nation’s treasury paid out a total of $26 billion in farm subsidies in 2000, with wheat, as always, serving as the leading subsidized crop. Consider the view from Choteau County in the heart of Montana’s stretch of wheat country. Here all but three of the county’s 5,000 farmers received subsidies to support the price of the wheat they grow or payments to not grow wheat at all. Of these, 15 percent took more than $300,000 per year. The average is $36,000 per farmer. In 1993, a single Palouse Prairie farmer took an annual federal subsidy of $1.1 million for farms in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Simply, this is the cost of enforcing a people’s limited imagination, an abstraction, a flat vision, a monoculture on a land with a different design, the cost of working against the grain of the place.
Literally a design, and in the end, this is the real beauty of this broad, open-faced sweep of a landscape. Forget the statistics and the history books. If design is real, then one ought to be able to stand in a place, look closely, intensely, like a lens, and read what is written, both as history and intent. Design reads in the lines, in the geometry.
We ought to have known that this place is hostile to habitation simply by the scale. Let your mind place a single human in any of the photos that follow and attempt to read the presence as more than a speck against the from-here-to-hell-and-gone horizon. Fly-overs misread this scale from the commanding position of an airliner. At ground level, it is humbling. They also fail to see the roll and roil of the landscape, which properly considered is topography’s promise of diversity denied by wheat’s monoculture. See now the great sweep of sky that superintends all this and understand it contradicts the artificially imposed order below, that it promises chaos, Arctic gales, hellish weather in all seasons.
Meanwhile, the human imposed lines of furrow and windrow print out history. We so wanted them to be straight, straight as the section lines and section-line roads we see from the air. But from any human vantage, the sweeping scale curves these lines in parallax as they run toward that long-gone horizon. And most of these artificial lines aren’t really straight anyway, but contoured, of necessity, to follow the roll of the land.
Beyond the lines, the few artifacts in these scenes, the fenceposts and barns, lean in decay. This landscape was not meant to be inhabited, so it shrugs off our structures. A tractor dealer in Montana laments that even with the flow of federal money to his community, no one buys tractors anymore. The farmers instead buy Winnebagos and go south to Florida and Arizona.
So given all this, why do we look at what is nothing so much as a hugely writ record of folly. Because it truly is beautiful, a terrible beauty, a natural beauty. The land wears its furrows the way a lion wears the bars of a cage. The picture is the record of a hard lesson taught by an unforgiving landscape. Properly considered, such scenes can teach us our place in the creation. What could be more beautiful than a landscape larger than our ideas? What is more beautiful than a brutally honest face?