Emptiness defines the Great Plains. The region typically is described by what is missing: no trees, no mountains, little water, few people. When travelers dread crossing the Plains, it is the endless space, the passage through "nothing" that they fear. The Plains landscape offers no comfortable niches, no categorical grip, no sense of context, not even convincing evidence of movement. Most North Americans, comfortable in the ornate context of the city, feel uneasy on the Plains. They lose their bearings, their sense of place, and the panoply of stimuli they usually depend upon for a sense of self. Some outsiders simply cannot endure this emptiness. They pay for a plane ticket and avoid the empty drive. In extreme cases, people have given up halfway across, abandoned their cars, and flown home from the nearest airport. Plains residents call the unhinging effect the emptiness can have on outsiders "Plains fever."
Contrary to the typical outsider's perspective, denizens of the Plains are very attached to emptiness. They too describe the advantages of Plains life in terms of absence: no crowds, traffic, city clutter, and obstructions to long views. Many things they cherish are possible only because of these absences–quiet, solitude, lack of encroachment, spectacular skyscapes, and especially "room to breathe." They gain a sense of freedom from the emptiness and relish the ability to drive with little obstruction and without restraint to speed. Emptiness is the natural order of things to Plains natives, so much so that they complain of feeling "closed in," "claustrophobic," or "suffocated" in more heavily garnished places. The very landscapes that most Americans seek for aesthetic reasons can cause Plains dwellers to recoil. A few days in the mountains, a drive through the overdeveloped East, or a visit to the city can send them running back with relief to the open spaces. In effect, the emptiness makes the Great Plains "somewhere" to its residents as much as "nowhere" to outsiders.
Emptiness affects every facet of Plains life. Much time goes into dealing with empty space; long distances are an everyday reality, and substantial time behind the wheel is essential to social and economic life. The environment cannot be easily divided from daily life and experience, as it can in enclosed places. On the Plains it is not easy to forget that people and their doings are a tiny speck in a vast world. Emptiness thus helps shape the local cosmology and has become an essential part of residents' identity.
Because of their strong identification with emptiness, Plains dwellers take a defensive stance against the typical outsider's view and against urban ideas and culture in general. Urbanites rarely think of flat, empty space as having inherent value and often make policy decisions aimed at filling up that "wasted" space with "useful" things such as landfills, nuclear waste depositories, and wildlife preserves. Plains dwellers are not amused by these proposals and often react passionately to any suggestion that their cherished emptiness is wasted space.
Cary W. de Wit University of Alaska–Fairbanks
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Gohlke, Frank. Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993.