Wednesday, September 14, 2016


The Nebraska sand hills have been called a lot of names in the last couple of hundred years. "A vast and worthless area," said Daniel Webster in 1850.  James MacKay wrote in 1796 that it was a "great desert of drifting sand, without trees, soil, rocks, water or animals of any kind."  Settlers who arrived there in the 1880's and 1890's called it a hellish place to try to live.  They found temperatures which went from minus 40 in the winter to plus 110 in the summer, fanned by a wind that never ends.  They found soil they dared not plow or they'd leave a wound of open sand where the coarse grass had grown which would last for the next hundred years before it would heal.  Wise men lived there carefully if they lived there at all, and they raised cattle. Because the sand hills are a desert.  They are 20,000 square miles of sand that's been drifted by the continuous wind into dunes 300 to 600 feet high and two to six miles long.  People think of the Sahara or the Arabian or Gobi deserts when they think of vast sand dune formations.  They don't imagine that the largest desert in the western hemisphere is located in the center of the North American continent, spreading over the western panhandle of its most central state.  They don't guess that this sand hills region of western Nebraska is ten times larger than the state of Delaware and three times the size of Massachusetts. Few know this area that's been alternating between desert and grassland for the past 10,000 years.  When the last glacier melted and the last giant lakes dried up from the Ice Age, vast acres of fine quartz sand were left exposed to the northwest wind.  Occasionally, grass roots fastened into the unstable soil long enough to form a cover, but then a cold and arid spell arrived and the grasses lost their hold and the wind took over again.  Second and third generations of dunes piled on top of the first big ones, making the sand hills look like waves in a choppy sea from the air.  Geologists sometimes speculate that the dunes might simply be what's left of the wave-formed bottom of a 20,000 square mile lake that dried up long ago, but generally they accept that the formations are due to the wind.  Since the time of human habitation, however, the sand hills have remained fairly still.
Paleo Indians appeared 6000 years ago and farmer Indians dwelt along the sand hill river bottoms in 900 A.D.  Large circular earth lodges were built by the coalescent traditionists between 1450 and 1750.  Father James MacKay, the first white man to explore the region, didn't arrive until 1795.  But the hills are now covered with a fine and tenacious layer of coarse, deep-rooted sand grasses, the kind which propagate by means of rhizomes or underground stems, which grow radially outward form the parent plants.  Rhizomes store huge quantities of plant food and keep the grass futures safe from wind, drought and the damage of fire by lying patiently in wait of rainwater before sending up new shoots.  Since surface temperatures can reach 140 degrees in summer, that kind of hardiness is essential.  In the treacherous soil of the sand hills, where a man's boot can sink in up to his spur, rhizomes form a fine, intermeshed net of roots just beneath the surface, and they keep a firm promise to stability as long as nobody drops a plow into their midst.  
And down below those long-lasting roots is the second hidden jewel of sand hills life: water.  Water underlies the entire region in a great basin of hard-packed sediments - up to 800 feet thick in places - known as the Ogallala formation.  Each drop of the average annual rainfall of 19.01 inches gathers in the huge underground reservoir of water and is contained forever, one hopes, in the dunes. There is virtually no surface exit except to evaporation, but underground water supplies the Loup rivers, the Niobrara and the Dismal with continuous streams.  Surveys have found a total of 1640 lakes in the low, meadow-like valleys between the dunes.  The lakes range from 10 to 2300 acres in surface size, and are from three to 15 feet deep.  Another 850 lakes are smaller than 10 acres in size.         
Contrary to Father MacKay's first impressions, those lakes support a profusion of waterfowl, everything from pelicans to Canada geese, from Mallards to the nearly-extinct sand hills crane.  It's been awhile now since Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody, Major Frank North and Captain Luther North arrived in the sand hills to establish a ranch and see what they could do about eliminating the last of the thousands of free-ranging buffalo which also used to thrive there.  Small, protected groups of buffalo have been returned to the area in state refuges along the Niobrara River, where the mule deer is also regaining a foothold.  In the early years, however, the area was a paradise for wildlife, with its seas of tall grass and its hundreds of shallow lakes.
Now it's a paradise for cattlemen, for the same reason.   Experts estimate that 700 to 800 million acre-feet of water rests beneath the sand hills, but it's a fact they mention with the greatest of caution.  Geologists and ranchers alike fear that if enough people find out about the water, someone will decide to pump it all out onto plowed up cornfields.  They remember the tragedy of the years when homesteaders tried to plow up the hills to plant crops and lived to watch it all blow away.  They fear that modern farmers with more efficiently destructive technology, bigger tractors and plows, could do a more effective job of destroying the fragile ecosystem of the sand hills.  Not only would the sand lose its net of roots but the water table would be lowered by the irrigation wells. Lakes would dry up, wells would become obsolete and ranchers would grow desperate.  Nothing angers them like a threat to what they now think of as their own native terrain.  They don't refer to it as an ecosystem and they are too conservative to join forces with environmentalists and they see nothing wrong with having forced out the original inhabitants, the Indians who hunted and traveled there with inconspicuous ease.  They simply assume ownership.   They've forgotten, perhaps, that white men came to this great American desert of grassed-over dunes only because their cattle strayed into it for winter feed, and they stayed there only because the cattle did well.  The wildest, most insular of those cowboys even grew to like it.
Even so, their numbers are dwindling.  Population in the sand hills has been decreasing since 1920 and rapidly since 1940.  Some 36,000 people inhabited the area in 1950, when the last census was taken, and experts say the number is less than that today.  The ones who stay are the most determined ones, the ones who pride themselves on surviving any hardship.  They point with satisfaction to the remark of one Grant County rancher's wife that it's "great country for cattle and men, but hell on horses and women."
Lt. G.K. Warren, who was one of the first real explorers of the region in 1855, wrote that the "sand hills area has been covered with barren sand which, blown by the wind into high hills, renders this section not only barren, but in a measure impracticable for travel.  About the sources of the Loup Fork, many of the lakes of water we found were impregnated with salts and unfit to drink, and our sufferings in exploring them will always hold a prominent place in our memories."   Lt. Warren summed it up by saying that it was "an irreclaimable desert of two hundred to four hundred miles in width [which] separates the points capable of settlement in the east from those on the mountains in the west."  In addition, he wrote, "the scenery is exceedingly solitary, silent and desolate and depressing to one's spirits."   But the most enduring analysis has been this anonymous remark left on a sign beside an abandoned homesteader's barren field: "God placed this soil upright.  Don't turn it over."  
But the cattle which would otherwise have starved in the bad winters from lack of feed and planning on the part of the big-thinking ranchers found the sand hills a natural home, and the cowboys who rode in after them, thinking to find only bones and skulls, were astounded.  And the ranchers who moved in after them and killed out the buffalo and pushed out the Indians and the homesteaders continue to point out that cattle-raising is no easy ticket to the good life, either.  They say there's no way to modernize the way a cow has a calf, no way to make sure she'll have it only during the daylight, or when temperatures are warm enough to keep it alive, no way to guarantee that it'll come out straight, head forward instead of cross-wise or backwards or dead, no way to be sure she'll claim it, or that it won't die of scours in a late spring blizzard, and no way to know that it'll even be worth decent money at the sale barn that fall.
It's a gamble all the way.  A man can pasture his cattle all summer, make hay for them, feed it all winter, tend to them during calving, raise up a fine crop of calves for somebody's beefsteak and still go broke. Prices for meat on the hoof are about thirty years behind prices for anything a rancher has to buy.  Still, they don't quit.  They tighten up, do without, make do, get by.   They look upon their lives as not just a job but a way of life.  They are the descendants of the grim-faced cowboys who first ventured into the sand hills in a time when only the Indians could read those endless dunes and find their way back out again.  They are the inheritors of an unsavory legacy of what happened to homesteaders' fences, the fields of the first farmers, the immigrants who tried to map out and make a living on the 640-acre Kincaid homesteads allocated to the untried newcomers venturing into the sand hills.  But it never was a fair fight.
If the blizzards and droughts and sand blowing across their fields didn't drive them out, the cowboys who hated fences did.  Graveyards in that country are filled with silent and bitter testimonials to the winters of the 1880's, when whole families died of cold if they were lucky and of starvation, madness and suicide if they weren't.   The ones who survived and stayed were therefore a special, sometimes ruthless breed, and their descendants claim the honor of that ancestry with grim pride. They like driving down miles and miles of single-track, one-way trails toward a small frame house deep in amongst the hills.  They don't mind not getting visitors or seeing neighbors.  The men of those first generations were gritty and self-sufficient and the women who stayed with them, if they stayed at all, became just as silent and as fearless as the men.  And when the men died of overwork or from accidents and injuries or illnesses no doctor was near enough to treat, the women stayed on, ranching alone or with sons, lives rooted in that sand.  They do what needs to be done, the fencing, the haying, the next calving season. They've adapted, like cactus, and can't be transplanted.