Pharyngula

Livin’ on the edge

There’s a great story in the Rake about the Dakotas—that place just a few miles west of where I’m sitting. This is an odd part of the world, where population is actually contracting and drifting away to leave our rural communities standing rather lonely and empty.

Quite obviously, North Dakota has a problem. Even as some of its cities grow and become more cosmopolitan and diverse, namely Fargo and Grand Forks, which huddle against the border of Minnesota, the rest of the state seems to be returning to nature. It’s a conundrum across the country, this decline in rural vitality, but the matter is especially dire in greater North Dakota, which threatens to empty out completely. Various survival plans have been floated. The more mundane involve tax breaks and other financial incentives for those willing to move to, say, the town of Tioga, in the northwestern quarter of the state. Other proposals are more unusual. One suggests turning the better part of the state into a federal grassland, where buffalo and prairie dogs could roam free. Another would make North Dakota a “four-seasons war games zone.” Proponents of that plan talk of the plethora of abandoned houses and barns and silos that the military could use for target practice. These are the people who refer to North Dakota, with very little irony, as “Dakistan.”

It’s not all bad news, though, and these old empty farmlands aren’t a dreadful place to live, as Tara attests. You have to like living at a slower, quieter pace, and you have to think it’s not such a terrible thing for human residents to move away and other beasties to move in.

You also have to be tolerant of interesting weather. Extremely cold temperatures (which we haven’t had much of this year), strong winds, occasional blizzards, tornadoes, the usual. And sometimes we get spectacular sundogs and weird phenomena I never heard of before, like this recent occurence of snow rollers. When the conditions are just right, high winds and temperatures right around freezing, Mother Nature rolls snowballs on the local fields.

i-372be6b3c79f01c3654a0decd8f1d59e-buffalorolls1.jpg

(via MNSpeak, and the snow rollers story was from some lady named Mary Gjerness Myers)

Comments

  1. #1 justawriter
    January 31, 2006

    Good (fictional) Lord! I never knew I was so miserable! Anyone out there in the real America care to adopt a middle-aged Prairie Refugee? Reminds me of one of the choir trips to the East Coast put on by my alma mater where a woman hosting some of female students felt the need to explain that this was scented soap.

    Truth is, nearly all rural economies in the US suck and have sucked for a long time. (with exceptions of course, generally bedroom communities for urban areas or areas with exceptional outdoor recreation) North Dakota just the bad luck of being the most rural state. For a view of rural America that is as gritty but is less patronizing I recommend Miles From Nowhere. I actually know many of the people in the Montana and North Dakota sections of the book.

  2. #2 Joe
    January 31, 2006

    Whats the hunting a fishing like, there is always a shortage of land to hunt on in the morw crowded states. Even here in north western PA there is so much “Posting” of prperty thats it’s hard to find somewhere to hunt even if you have been a resident your whole life. Letting the army blow up good houses and farms seems like a wast though having a manouver area in parts of the states would make some sense.

  3. #3 colin roald
    January 31, 2006

    Saskatchewan, just to the north, is in a similar situation. I’ve seen a couple of articles, though, commenting on the interesting consequence that this may leave the province with an Aboriginal-majority population by mid-century. The white man may be leaving, but the First Nations have some enthusiasm for the idea of gaining control over a substantial political jurisdiction.

    The link I had has unfortunately disappeared behind a subscriber wall. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20030616.nesask0616/BNStory/Front/

  4. #4 The Monorailist
    January 31, 2006

    “The more mundane involve tax breaks and other financial incentives for those willing to move to, say, the town of Tioga, in the northwestern quarter of the state.”

    Bah! What the residents of Tioga need is a monorail! The splendor of single track mass transit is what will be the savior of the Dakotas! Then the apostate Seattle will rue the day it left the true path of Monrail Consciousness! Lo, even Chennai has awakened to the glory of the monorail! Must the Dakotas be left behind?

  5. #5 justawriter
    January 31, 2006

    Joe – well we have more deer than we can shoot. In some areas folks can get as many as five permits, if they don’t mind shooting does. We have pheasants and wild turkey in the west and about 80 percent of the prime duck habitat in the US in the east. We have a couple of nationally recognized perch, walleye and pike fisheries, plus non-native salmon in the Missouri river reservoirs. But we already have people complaining that “rich easterners” are starting to buy up all the good land and the good conservative farmers are demanding special protections for their “lifestyle.”

  6. #6 Samnell
    January 31, 2006

    While I’m never happy to see people living in impoverished conditions and so forth, having read the article the best I can muster is a shrug. I desperately hate crowds. I’m extremely antisocial. But I’d give my right eye for any environment more urban than I’ve got right now. I suspect the people fleeing the rural counties in droves agree.

    So far as the concerned Congresscritter’s worries about family values and such, let ’em decline. Let’ em vanish. The world would be better off without rural and smalltown ideas about values.

  7. #7 Charlie Wagner
    January 31, 2006

    Sorry if this is not in the appropriate thread, but the Dawkins thread seems to have scrolled out of range.

    But then again, that has never bothered me before 😉

    Anyway, I acquired the Dawkins program “Root of All Evil?” and I must say I now have a new respect for Richard. It turns out that I agreed with almost everything he had to say about the evils of religion and “faith”, being a long-time adherent to the view of Bertrand Russell that “every single bit of progress of humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that…religion,…has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”
    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell0.htm

    That having been said, as right as he is about religion, so he is equally wrong about evolution. He cannot seem to grasp the fact that his unyielding and adamant belief in darwinism is no different from the religious fundamentalists belief that God created the earth in 6 (or is it seven?) days.
    He claims that there is a “mountain of evidence” for darwinian evolution yet the truth is that there is not one shred of empirical evidence, either observational or experimental that connects mutation and selection to the emergence of highly organized structures, processes, systems and organisms. It is nothing more than a huge “leap of faith” that is in many ways no different from the religious fundamentalists belief in miracles. In fact, darwinism is *his* miracle and evolution is *his* religion and he appears unwilling to consider any evidence that opposes it. This makes him no different from the religious fundamentalist who denies clear and obvious facts that conflict with his faith.
    So the need to explain the world is hard-wired into our brains. Everyone needs his own “weltanschauung” to make sense of the world. Dawkins’ miracle, that life “evolved” by a series of small steps and his unwavering faith in evolution’s cumulative effect lacks no scientific support and is really no different from the belief that God “poofed” it all into existence from nothing. Why is Dawkins’ miracle more valid than that of Mike Behe or Bill Dembski?
    Many argue that intelligent design and religious creationism are not science. That’s true, they’re not. But the same rules of science must also apply to evolution and when measured by that standard, the scientific method, darwinism falls just as short as creationism for consideration as respectable science.
    The simple fact is that neither science or religion has the answers to the most basic questions that trouble human minds, where did we come from and why are we here? Each thinks they have the answer but in fact all they have is “faith”. Empirical evidence is conspicuous by its absence in all cases.
    If I had to choose between science and religion to eventually answer these questions, my money would be on science. Will science ever be able to answer these questions? Perhaps. But we may have to resign ourselves to the possibility that we will never know. And that’s a concession that few humans are willing to make.
    By the way, even though Richard and I disagree strongly on darwinism, I took no pleasure in seeing him get his ass kicked by a christian fundamentalist, an orthodox Jew and a Muslim. I would have edited those painful moments for sure!

  8. #8 Hans
    January 31, 2006

    I’d be very interested to hear a more thorough consideration by an evolutionary biologist, or a Jared Diamond, on this issue of rural depopulation. i guess one might ask why humans ever ventured out onto the great plains (nee Great American Desert) in the first place. As William Prescott Webb suggests, it was technology– the revolver, the windmill, and barbed wire. But it’s possible that technology (or tools) in some cases put their operators into biologically disadvantageous positions. We can go to the moon, but you know, we can’t live there.

  9. #9 Dave S.
    January 31, 2006

    Did someone run Demski’s explanatory filter on those rollers? I’m not so sure they’re natural and I think they must be designed.

    Even weirder…the sliding rocks of the Racetrack Playa.

  10. #10 Ocellated
    January 31, 2006

    The thought of real, native grasslands being nutured to their return sounds too good to be true.

    I once found a spot in Pawnee National Grasslands, in NE Colorado, where I could turn 360 degrees and see nothing but grassland. No roads, no power lines, nothing but native shortgrass prairie. It was an amazing experience, one that I’ll never forget.

    Real heards of buffalo? Enormous colonies of prairie dogs, with buring owls!! And do Black-footed Ferrets make it up that far north? If you had solid grassland habitat that large in area, you might get a truly functioning ecosystem, not just some small park in a sea of farmland.

    If nobody wants the North Dakota, give it back to nature!

  11. #11 Ick of the East
    January 31, 2006

    I’m pretty sure if you just left it alone, the native grasses would return. They are evolved (never mind the idiocy above) for that area.

    We left our “ranch” in South Dakota alone to see what would happen with the grasses. After five years a good portion of it is covered in beautiful short prairie grass. It is really lovely stuff.

    But then comes winter and I’m oh-so glad I’m in Bangkok.

  12. #12 Ick of the East
    January 31, 2006

    Oh, and I’m really tired of this crap:

    “North Dakotan traits like trustworthiness, a strong work ethic, and an adherence to family values.”

    Yeah, people in New Jersey and Arizona and Oregon don’t have a work ethic or family values. And you just can’t trust them.

    But I guess if you’ve got nothing else, you have to pretend that you’re special.

  13. #13 J Bean
    February 1, 2006

    So maybe some of the redundant states could be rolled up into fewer, larger states? Maybe just “Dakota”? That would mean two fewer red Senators and one less red Congresscrook.

  14. #14 tim gueguen
    February 1, 2006

    North Dakota as a military range, yikes! I wonder how long it would take some yutz of a pilot to accidently fly across the border and drop a practice bomb on Cypress Hills or Estevan.

  15. #15 Samnell
    February 1, 2006

    Honestly, I don’t think there’s any rational reason (and there isn’t, it was a compromise between rival political factions that let them both realize a great deal of their mutually-contradictory goals) to allow states that don’t have enough people to field two congressional districts to have two senators.

    A constitutional structure that would make far more sense to me would involve statehood at a certain minimum population (some fraction of the total national population seems fair) which grants seats in the House. Once one qualified for so many House seats, one can move on to electing Senators. If your population falls below the benchmark numbers (which could be assessed with the decennial census) then you lose seats, even down to devolving back into a territory. This would leave most of the existing structures intact, and cause a drastic reduction in the overrepresentation of sparsely-populated rural constituencies. To avoid partisan fiddling every few years, hard-code the proportions into the amendments necessary.

    It will never happen.

  16. #16 peon
    February 1, 2006

    We can always reestablish the native tall grasses in the empty midwest and then burn them to fuel our SUV’s as biofuel. I must confess I am plagerizing George Bush’s marvelous SOTU for this idea. Funny how the anti-science people keep looking to science to pull them out of the fire.
    This is what the Guardian had to say about George’s SOTU:

    “The State of the Union tradition is an important presidential asset. It is an extraordinary piece of theatre, which provides a string of television soundbites complete with excited applause. But increasingly, that is all it is. Once the curtain comes down and the show moves on, the audience is left humming some of the catchier tunes, but can rarely remember much of the plot.”

  17. #17 jfaberuiuc
    February 1, 2006

    Oddly enough, the Dakotas combined have three democratic senators (Conrad(ND), Dorgan (ND), Tim Johnson (SD)) and had four until Thune beat Daschle. Montana even has one (Baucus), and might have two if Burns gets tripped off by Abramoff connections. It seems to be Idaho/Wyoming/Utah that tilt much more rightward (though even Wyoming has elected conservative populist-type democratic governors…).

  18. #18 John Emerson
    February 1, 2006

    I’ve seen a native prairie in Iowa (near Spirit Lake / Okoboji) and it’s much more diverse than you’d think (unless you were a biologist), with dozens of different plants ranging from ground cover to chest high. It was being grazed by a buffalo and I ended up with half a dozen wood ticks on my bare legs.

    The stuff about the goodness of North Dakotans might be hokey, but it’s true. ND usually has the lowest crime rate of any state. It also ranks favorably for low unemployment, high life expectancy, and HS graduation rate — and has the highest outmigration rate of any state.

    Bad weather and rural boredom trumps a lot of other things. ND is the America conservatives pretend they want, but the conservatives are liars. What conservatives want is to live in Orange Country, lie in the sun, make lots of money, grumble about non-white criminals, and go to a conservative church which will forgive them if they happen to cheat on their spoouse from time to time.

  19. #19 Anonymous
    February 1, 2006

    Googling “most rural state” gets ND, Wyoming, Vermont, and even Pennsylvania, with Maine and West Virginia ranking 2 or 3. Different criteria get different answers — PA has the largest absolute population of rural people, even though there are a lot of urban and suburban Pennsylvanians.

  20. #20 george cauldron
    February 1, 2006

    The article neglects to mention that since ND is where so many of America’s missile silos are based, it’s basically a major world nuclear power.

    And since no one else brought it up, let’s not forget:

    And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper?

  21. #21 george cauldron
    February 1, 2006

    Bad weather and rural boredom trumps a lot of other things. ND is the America conservatives pretend they want, but the conservatives are liars. What conservatives want is to live in Orange Country, lie in the sun, make lots of money, grumble about non-white criminals, and go to a conservative church which will forgive them if they happen to cheat on their spouse from time to time.

    Well put. I think conservatives have never gotten over the idea that places like rural ND circa-1900 are somehow the way all ‘real Americans’ live, or at least the way America ‘ought to be’ again. Of course, it’s a load of shit, but many insecure Americans seem to find it a potent myth. I’ve often been struck by the fact that my local Christian broadcasting channel broadcasts reruns of precisely ONE ‘secular’ TV series: Little House on the Prairie. I think it’s telling they should pick that one.

  22. #22 justawriter
    February 1, 2006

    Lets not get too carried away here. The North Dakota of the era you were dissing was a hotbed of socialism and an early leader in wildlife conservation and home of nationally known champions of pure food and drug laws and crusading critics of the arms industry.

    Some of them even had time to wander around stopping other states from torturing people to death.

    So lets not be quite so quick to dismiss of those old time rural virtues just because ignorant conservative asshats never studied history, or at least ignored all the parts they didn’t like. OK?

  23. #23 george cauldron
    February 2, 2006

    Lets not get too carried away here. The North Dakota of the era you were dissing was a hotbed of socialism and an early leader in wildlife conservation and home of nationally known champions of pure food and drug laws and crusading critics of the arms industry.

    Some of them even had time to wander around stopping other states from torturing people to death.

    Okay, so why did turn-of-the-century North Dakota hate America? 😉

    So lets not be quite so quick to dismiss of those old time rural virtues just because ignorant conservative asshats never studied history, or at least ignored all the parts they didn’t like. OK?

    Agreed, I should have made it more clear that this was the ignorant conservative asshats’ idealization of US history.

    Or, as Ned Flanders put it, “the America of yesteryear that only exists in the brains of us Republicans. “

  24. #24 justawriter
    February 2, 2006

    Thank you for your gracious comment george. I get a bit too sensitive at perceived jabs at my home. But it is a beautiful place to live with a fascinating political history that one foot in socialism and the other in right wing corporatism. Just wish one or the other could fix that “low wage” thing.

  25. #25 feralboy12
    February 26, 2010

    For what it’s worth, my family cleared out of North Dakota in 1965. When my Dad found out he could make $1.75/hr as a carpenter in Oregon, we loaded up the car and left. Politics take a back seat to things like food and shelter.

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