In the following passages, which are accompanied by the photographs of Nancy Warner, David Stark from This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains look more closely at the changing practices of farming and their impact on the Great Plains:
To the city dweller, there’s something curious in the language of Great Plains farmers: they almost never refer to farms. instead, they refer to places: “the stark place,” “the Ott place,” or “the old Feyerherm place.” A place is a farm; but it is more than that, for it is inhabited. It has fields, but it also has buildings, barns, a house, corncribs, farm animals, dogs, and people. crops are grown and animals are raised on farms. But a farm place is more than a setting for agricultural activity. Curtains are mended, windows are repaired, kids are diapered, and families are raised. That’s what it means to be a place.
In the sixty years since mid-century, that pattern has changed. The next time you fly over the plains, look down, and you will see fewer than two farm places per square mile. on many sections you will see only one, and on some sections you will see none at all. The farm places—those clumps of buildings, driveways, and trees—are disappearing. It’s not that agriculture is in decline. in fact, more and more of the land is being farmed. But less and less of it is on places.
Drive down a typical Nebraska country road and you may see coming over the low rise of a gently rolling hill a 32-row planter, crawling across the landscape like a giant mechanized insect. or turn to the other side. There’s a chemical sprayer, trailing dust while racing at breakneck speed, its arms extended like the wings of some dragonfly ready for flight.
In the not so distant past, seed corn was dispersed by a 4-row planter. Today, a 12-row or 18-row planter is on the smaller side—for there are 24-row, 32-row, and 36-row planters. in one pass, the even more gargantuan 48-row planter can cover 120 feet—more than a third the length of a football field.
These high-tech planters have onboard computers with GPS guidance systems. an equipment operator will manually guide a planter around the perimeter of a field. When the planter reaches the starting point, as one of my cousins explained, “The computer beeps, you flip a switch, take your hands off the steering wheel, and it runs itself.” a planter on autopilot can plant seeds on the “a to B straight line” with remarkable precision. With a tolerance of only an inch or so, there are no gaps or overlaps between one passage of the field and the next. Because no further guidance is needed, the equipment operator can use the onboard computer to check on market prices, look for options on grain futures, buy shares of meat-packing firms (as a hedge on falling cattle prices), or just surf the web and play video games.
To someone coming from Manhattan or San Francisco, there is something immediately strange and then later richly appealing in the speech of central plains farmers. To say that their voices are laconic would not do justice to the silences. Like many Midwesterners, they prefer to listen and to wait. Put several of them together and, given this disposition, there will be long moments of silence. To outsiders, that silence might seem fraught with tension. so unaccustomed to, even intolerant of, the shortest break in conversation, we city folk tolerate interruption as an acceptable pattern of communication. our Nebraska friends and relatives, we learned, are comfortable with silence.
When they do speak, it is with an almost deliberate understatement. You’ll encounter the sign language variant of this brevity in the understated gesture of greeting as you pass a car or truck on a country road. The gesture of acknowledgment, whether you are friend or stranger, is not a broad wave, not even a hand of fully extended fingers. simply, the index finger lifts off the steering wheel, is raised for just a moment, and then returns to the grip.
A pattern of wallpaper or linoleum, the slant of a staircase, the view through an open door, or the angle of an attic beam can transport us to a particular moment in time. While Nancy’s photographs evoke memories for anyone with roots in the american Midwest, they also reveal the life cycle of the buildings and objects that are apart from us but are a part of our humanity.
It is true that people inhabited these buildings. But Nancy’s photographs also show buildings that lived with people. life was breathed into them. They were loved. and the proof of that can be seen exactly when they’ve been abandoned. The ravishing damage of that abandonment reveals just how much these rooms were once cared for.
The very harshness of what remains, the crumbling walls and exposed beams, are a kind of archeological survey revealing this past tenderness. The many layers of plaster, paint, patching, and wallpapering are witness to moments when people loved and cared for these rooms. a photograph reveals that even a wall, with its sedimented layers peeled back, has a history. But as it charts the ravages of time, it also evokes very particular moments in that passage: “Henry, i’m going into town on saturday to choose some new wallpaper for the dining room.”
As they are abandoned, the buildings and their artifacts begin to decay. But they do not succumb immediately. Fragile yet somehow strong, for a time they hold on tenaciously. The house that refuses to be torn down. The bleeding wall. The curtain that grips the center of the window frame. The wallpaper that peels back at the edges yet still clings to life.