The Pancake Plains

by Bruce Patterson, October 26, 2016

The first officially recorded epidemic of the Dwindles to break out within what is now the Continental US occurred immediately after Abe Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. Anxious to escape the snakes and mosquitoes, the heat lightning and swamp gases, the cholera and malaria endemic to the forests and wetlands of the Mississippi River Valley, people moved west into the seemingly boundless grasslands to stake their claims in what would become known as the Pancake Plains. Dirt poor no more, beasts of burden, cannon fodder and debtors no more, the homesteaders went for broke. They broke the sod, bred livestock, planted crops, erected windmills, dug irrigation ditches, stretched barbed wire and built houses, barns and sheds made of sod (the poor man’s adobe).

Now only the land’s beasts of burden, the sodbusters were driven by the notion of bringing in harvests as the fruits of their free labor. For them to “reap what you sow” wasn’t a curse but a goal and a promise. While all serious human endeavor is aimed toward harvests of one sort or another, harvesting food is extra special. It’s extra special because harvesting food makes all of the other kinds of human endeavor possible. So if circumstances required the clod busters to do backbreaking work, they’d break their backs before saying die.

Yet, as the seasons spun and the years rolled on, the worst thing they faced was their near total isolation. There grew up inside them a loneliness within the nearly constant stillness; stillness that could turn to fury with what seemed like the bat of an eye and then, with another, be gone. Like dripping water dimpling sandstone, what really got to the settlers was the huge sky constantly staring down at them. It was the huge plate of the rising sun shrinking to the size of a pea before ending as a huge angry red sundown. What got to them was the glittering starry nights looking like nothing on earth and finding themselves commiserating with the man on the moon.

As a little schoolboy I was taught that Cristopher Columbus discovered that the world is round by watching through a spyglass as Spanish Galleons disappeared over the horizon, their hulking square sterns first, the flagged tips of their tall masts last. If, in the pancake plains, the corn rows were to be a couple of miles long, you could sit and watch a man, his plow and mules disappear in the same way. They’d just keep on dwindling into the vanishing point until they’re gone.

It’s downright spooky finding yourself caught in the web of a world so tiny. During the growing season endless chores kept a body busy enough to avoid having to dwell in the world’s incredible smallness. But then once the snows come it’s a whole different story. Now you’ve got plenty of free time to reconnoiter your situation. Plenty of time to notice how your world is even more confining now that the sky is joined to it; for days on end your spread a snow globe filled with mist.

Of course, the winds. Once the winds came up there was nothing to stop them and sometimes they’d howl so long they summoned up demons. “Ill winds” come to blow away your topsoil; sickly “ill humours” just like the ones inhabiting the swamps you’d left behind. With snow flying sideways for days on end, your world shrinks to the size of your calloused, shivering hands stretched over your fire sizzling in the damp shadowy cave of your room. Only the cold and buffalo skins to keep you moving; only fighting the cold to keep you alive. Then when the winds died and you were crunching through the snow, you felt like you were encroaching on the silence; trespassing into the pristine.

Will the spring thaw arrive on time? How can you tell for sure before spring is halfway done? How heavy will be April’s mud? Will the summer rains be stingy or bountiful? In any given year, just how many days the growing season? How much are you willing to gamble on informed guesses? 10,000 hours at labor? 15,000 hours at labor?

If time moves and seasons spin, how can your existence seem so changeless? Even the damned sky changes—why can’t you? Why can’t you see something you’ve never seen before? And when will there be that bumper crop and “up market” that’ll allow you to go and see a world you’ve heard is so hellaciously gigantic? Can there really be a world out there that’s beyond your wildest dreams?

Now it a well-known fact that, all along the American Frontier from its “opening” till its “closing,” it was the women who did most the work and the men who did all the talking. That being the case (and combined sometimes with the multiple pregnancies and the labors of childbirth), the women’s bodies usually wore out sooner than the men’s and so they were more susceptible to catching the Dwindles. A lifetime of hauling water and keeping everybody properly fed and clothed, of hauling firewood and tending to fires and animals wore a woman down. Since about all of the rest, relaxation and recreation old grandma got in her fading years was sitting on the porch in her rocking chair rocking and knitting, rocking and knitting, she’d sometimes would look up, catch sight of a bird flying away and, expecting it to come up behind her shortly, for hours on end she’d wait and wait while forgetting all about her knitting and seemingly everything else. Then one day she might clamp the arms of her rocking chair with boney fingers like talons, press her feet flat to the floorboards, clamp her eyes shut and that’d be it for her. Try all you want but, once the Dwindles took ahold of grandma, no amount of coaxing could bring her back. When it came time to load her aboard your wagon haul her off to the funny farm, you’d hafta load her rocking chair and all.

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