Lessons from Nebraska

Success is never so interesting as struggle.

Willa Cather

Nebraska has been hit hard recently with epic flooding, and the waters aren’t just affecting roads, homes, and lives. More than one-third of the costs–about $3 billion dollars, officials estimate— from the 2019 disaster are to agriculture. That financial burden will not help rural counties largely dependent upon farming. They already face population decline, a decline that is not likely to reverse anytime soon.

We have witnessed the devastation to the land and to local communities in the last few days, as we’ve visited friends in the northwest Panhandle and met up with family in Grand Island, in south central Nebraska. Endless miles of prairie, scores of wandering cattle, the ravages of angry waters, and many, many abandoned homes and farms–those left behind long before the floods arrived–dot the countryside from Sioux to Hall counties. Driving through these desolate areas, under a continuous gray sky, made me sad. As a granddaughter of farmers, I appreciate the desire to make something of the land that lasts, a legacy that won’t be forgotten. So many people and so much history has happened here, and crumbling, weather-beaten structures slowly falling into the dirt embodies the kind of end none of us want to see for ourselves or our children.

An old tractor on the Cornhusker prairie.

But Nebraskans are historically resilient, and they’re also realistic. While they enjoy the fruits of their labors when they come, they also stoically accept the vicissitudes of time and success that inevitably ebb and flow. One of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, was an early twentieth century author famous for her pioneer depictions of the rugged state, and she understood the fleeting and fickle nature of farm life on the plains. As one of her stalwart heroines, Alexandra, put it in O Pioneers!:

The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.”

O Pioneers! (you can order it here) was first published in 1913, over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed, it seems.

Smelling the dairy air in Nebraska.

So while this particular Cornhusker wilderness might seem like a lost cause in the eyes of much of the world, its value lies in its ongoing existence. People will be born here and die here; some will leave and some will stay. Corn will continue to be planted, sown, and detasseled here, and cattle will roam its rolling, grassy hills. Rain will fall and dry up while some souls tough out life on land that will remain as long as God deems it good. Those are the stories worth telling–the ones that reveal to us the hardship and poignant glory of this life’s struggles, in lonely, vivid, and real places.

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