Stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike a few years ago, a pair of Rutgers University planning professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, came up with a novel idea for preserving a large chunk of the American West.
They proposed creating a giant nature preserve, a "Buffalo Commons," that would extend from north Texas to the Canadian border and from the Mississippi River to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
In other words, they would take one-fifth of the nation's land mass and let it revert to the state it was in 150 years ago--a sea of tall grass and 60 million buffalo.
As for the people, the descendants of the pioneers, the Poppers reasoned, they are leaving anyway. Many counties have lost 50% of their population in the last half century; much of the region is now as sparsely inhabited as it was when it was still frontier. In the Poppers' view, the abandoned farms and ghostly farm towns aren't just casualties of grasshoppers, drought and fickle grain markets. The exodus from the plains is evidence of a colossal misuse of the land, as indisputable as the famines that followed collectivized farming in Stalin's Russia.
For the past 100 years, said Frank Popper, "we tried to force waterless, treeless steppes to behave like Ohio and got three or four boom and bust cycles for our trouble. Now the classic Great Plains cycle of drought, financial woe and depopulation is rolling again, and this time it may go all the way. Thirty years of water table depletion, S & Ls collapsing right and left, whole rural counties voting with their feet--and still no one's thinking ahead."
Two years ago, the Poppers decided to head West and try their ideas out on the locals. But like some pioneer family trundling an heirloom across the plains, the Poppers and their proposal for a Buffalo Commons were in for a rough ride.
Accompanying them on the trip was Princeton University writing instructor Anne Matthews, who wanted to write about the Poppers, their plan and the reception they received along the way. Her book, "Where the Buffalo Roam," is the product of that journey. It is a sad, funny and evocative story about the impact of an idea as it is toted from town to town like a bomb ticking in a drummer's suitcase. It is about the naivete of intellectuals and the intractability of country people, but mostly it is about the siren's song of a hard, lonely place, "a minimalist landscape of sun, wind and grass."
The story picks up the Poppers at a school auditorium in McCook, Neb. (pop. 8,000), where an audience of ranchers, farmers and merchants listens to Frank Popper pronounce a death sentence on the only way of life they know. Incredulity gives way to anger and shouts of "I ain't selling" and "Give Manhattan back to the Indians!" A burly farmer backs Popper against a wall. Sheriff's deputies paw their holsters. The effect is much the same wherever the Poppers speak, from Oklahoma City to Billings. Their words go down like locoweed.
Unlike the Poppers, who are city folk, the author has family ties to South Dakota and a feel for prairie people. Matthews describes the plains as a land of survivors so inured to disappointment that survival is their only boast. "Toughing it out," Matthews writes, "has been the Great Plains motto for generations, an abiding conviction that supernal grit equals virtue. A hard life keeps the riffraff out."
Matthews senses what the urbane, well-meaning Poppers are in for when they try to persuade the great-grandchildren of the pioneers to call it quits. The Poppers insist that all they want to do is stimulate public debate, to get rural folk thinking about a future course different from the one they have been following. But Matthews knows better. She understands that what the Poppers are asking the residents of the plains towns to do is to repudiate the labor of generations--in the words of one Colorado feedlot owner, "to admit that we were wrong all along, in trying to settle a lot of this country." Sizing up the Poppers, Matthews writes: "I look from one to another several times . . . they resemble a mild and conscientious couple, subscribers to the New York Review of Books, alumni of Harvard, chauffeurs of junior high sports teams. They do not seem the sort of people whose research presentations require armed body guards."
Not that Matthews lacks sympathy for the Poppers or their ideas. Almost everywhere they travel, she finds evidence that the Great Plains are looking more like the Great American Desert, as the early pioneers referred to it, than the nation's breadbasket. "Now, ghost towns are forming everywhere on the plains, as the little settlements that once sustained the region lose doctor, bus stop, bank, stores, clergy, young people. . . . " Kansas alone, she reports, has over 2,000 ghost towns. Matthews also finds plenty of experts who agree with the Poppers that the plains, with the scarce rain and thin layer of topsoil, have always been better suited for nomadic animals than for wheat or corn. "The settlement of the plains was soil murder. Everyone--Lewis and Clark . . . the agribusiness companies--has always known that land so arid is basically meant for buffalo," a botanist from Topeka tells her.
But "Where the Buffalo Roam" is less about agronomy than it is about the mythology of the prairie--how a desolate, fallow landscape continues to nourish dreams of natural abundance and endless opportunities. The Poppers challenge that myth, but only Matthews understands that the well-meaning professors are violating a taboo. "The plains are full of forbidden ideas, as in 'thou shalt not think about the bad years. . . . Thou shalt pretend the crisis is not there.' " She repeats her grandmother's recipe for surviving 80 years on the prairie: " 'I always worked till I was ready to drop at the end of each day, so I wouldn't have to think.' "
The author's kinship is also with the land, which lets her experience the strange tidal pull of a waterless ocean that is more unsettling to the Poppers than the jeers of angry farmers. As they drive across the endless Texas Panhandle, Deborah Popper bursts out: "This is terrible country. . . . It shouldn't be allowed to exist." The author demurs. "This is the least appealing stretch of the plains I have ever seen, but I still find the miles of nothingness soothing--some ancestral legacy held dormant in the crowded East." In eastern Montana, her nose frosting up painfully in a bitter snow storm, Matthews is diverted by the beauty of a wind-scarred mesa, "ochre under an aluminum sky." Instinctively, she understands what makes people cleave to such inhospitable places. Her empathy lends authority to the criticisms she does offer, allowing her to explore the dark side of the pioneer legacy without the condescension of so many "revisionist" Western historians these days.
Matthews' book never does tell us a great deal about how a Buffalo Commons might work. Beyond the concept of a mixed-use habitat where humans and wildlife would go about their business, a lot is left to the imagination. There are moments when the Poppers' plan sounds like a droll exercise in rural high jinks, like a snipe hunt. The Poppers come closest to self-parody when asked how buffalo herds will cross interstate highways.
"A system of helicopter spotters could track the roaming buffalo and make road announcements, as happens now with heavy rain or snow," said Frank Popper. " 'I-80 closed Monday due to buffalo crossings.' A system of buffalo underpasses and overpasses would help, too."
In the final analysis, neither the Poppers nor their rural antagonists may have much to say about the destiny of the prairie. There is another, more prosaic plan for the region. Promising progress and prosperity, it takes its cue from the office parks and job-rich suburbs that are transforming farm belts from northern Illinois to Central California. Matthews eavesdrops on developers and bankers who talk excitedly about an "urban archipelago," islands of home-based telemarketing and computer programming dotting the plains. She does not ignore signs of change that may foreshadow 21st-Century life in places such as McCook, Neb., and Elk City, Okla.; we catch a glimpse of "golf mad farmers" and cowboys pushing grocery carts full of oat bran and bottles of Evian.
But it's not a subject that holds Matthews' interest long. In the end, she turns her back on the futurists and their talk of the high-tech plains. Perhaps that is shortsighted. Certainly, in a different kind of book about the new West, one with a more analytical bent, a thorough discussion of all the land-planning options would be appropriate. "Where the Buffalo Roam," however, is a work of the imagination and deserves to be enjoyed on its own ground, amid the empty spaces and half-empty towns that Matthews brings to life so vividly.