Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Living Close To Nature

September 18, 1995

For the 20 years I've lived in South Dakota, I've stood in awe of the lives and values of rural families. This has been a unique, different experience. I've tried to understand why and I'm still trying. I've written about unique themes - stories and lives playing themselves out in agricultural communities nationally but especially in the northern plains and prairie provinces.

I've learned first hand from rural people who have shared their pain, their worry, their joy, their hopes and their dreams with me. I've been a privileged witness and story teller of a special people in special circumstances.

The landscape is unique. It is vast, open, empty - so different from the tree-lined highways of the moisture-blest east and south. Here you see something besides trees, cars, people and concrete. Here you can see a horizon, a big sky, a starlit night, empty roads, cultivated land and land that resists human imprint.

The climate is unique. Nature has to be respected. I've skidded off the interstate on black ice. Once I foolishly drove at night in eastern South Dakota when the wind chill was close to 100 below zero. A person exposed to the elements could have frozen to death within 10 minutes. What about blizzards, tornados, thunderstorms and deer on highways? The slightest miscalculation can be fatal.

Farmers and ranchers have always been dependent upon the weather, and so have the rural communities and cities that have serviced them. Some years the land seemed like it would dry up and blow away. Other years wet fields and flooding conditions had farmers holding their breath about getting into their fields. There have been hailstorms, killer frosts, prairie fires and burning forests. Just when you think you've seen it all, you haven't.

Even nature gone violently awry has a spiritual and humbling quality. Who among those who have lived here hasn't thrilled to a mighty wind, the awesome power of a blizzard, the paralyzing fury that causes us to retreat to our homes and enjoy the imposed helplessness with our family?

This is also a fragile land. So much depends on timely rains. Sometimes it hits just right. Kathleen Norris captures the feeling in her book, "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography." "After a long drought I have realized that a long soaking rain in spring or fall, a straight -down-falling rain, a gentle splashing rain is more than a blessing. It is a miracle."

The saving grace is that Dakotans and northern plains people understand and prepare for adversity. We have a concept of bad years and dig in a little deeper. We hang in there for "next year." This is "next year" country.

When crops and livestock are stressed, humans are stressed. When biology fails, humans sometime fail. This is a land of hidden and not so hidden dependencies. Our vulnerabilities are close to the surface and nature occasionally shatters our illusions of control.

During the mid-80s it wasn't a weather crisis but a debt crisis brought on by human policies and error. Inflation and lending practices based on inflation came back to haunt the agricultural economy. Faith and trust were shattered by institutions and people. The independent farmer was more dependent than he dreamed.

Why farm or ranch? What accounts for the tenacity and perseverance of farmers and ranchers? What is the allure of an occupation that depends on application of biological knowledge? Why be subject to all the unpredictability of biology, disease, weather and uncertain market prices?

These are high stress, dangerous and physically demanding occupations. The work hours are incredibly long. The risks are great. These are high-stake, gambling occupations.

It is about families. Generations work together and build a heritage. A treasure trove of knowledge and experience about the land is stored and passed on to the next generation.

It is about creation and nurturing young life. It is about independence and tests of management. Victories come by attention to detail. Small victories lead to large victories. Each day is different. Each day can be a challenge.

It is about raising children in a family business in which they can contribute. It is about community - friends and neighbors that know and care for each other. It is about small towns and hometowns. It is about dependence on God and on each other.

The human face of the plains is full of joy, faith and rewarding human relationships. It is an artful blend of work, love, family, belief and community life. Everyone needs each other to survive. Kathleen Norris observes, "The Plains are not forgiving. Anything that is shallow - the easy optimism of the homesteader; the false hope that denies geography, climate, history; the tree whose roots don't reach ground water - will dry up and blow away."

We are still here.