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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Ancient Seas to Borders

J.W. Buell (1889)

High Plains Public Radio will soon begin its Fall Radio Readers Book Club.  The theme this time is Borders and Becoming.  Here’s a brief appreciation of the unique land mass found in books which embrace our “wide-openness.”

In our mind’s eye, let’s compress the million-year geological epoch of the High Plains into a single year.  As the earth came to a rest, the continents ceased their wanderings and eruptions, the vast openness became home to hordes of giants: elephants, camels, horses, blood-thirsty cats, bison – roaming at will bounded only by a great river on the east and a formidable and ragged mountain range westward.

In late October of this telescoped year, the first roaming bands of humans, no more than large families, walked through the waist-high grasses, no longer confined by the retreating glaciers.  They spent the next six weeks ranging far and wide on the prairie, hunting some animals to extinction and hardly impacting the herds of others which stretched from horizon to horizon.  Those were a people whose only borders were the time they could travel on foot from day to day. 

In early December, they were joined in the tall grasses by bands of men astride fantastical animals that made them seem to be gods.  The magical beings brought not only the sword and captivity, they brought, in their complicated minds, fixed ideas of where and how nights should be spent, when and where crops should be grown, and a god who could only be worshipped in the limiting confines of a man-made structure.  They said that god expected all who worshiped to respect the limits of their existence: first well-worn footpaths, then trails, and then roads and property lines.

By the third week of December, the invaders have taken control of the bodies, minds and hearts of the October people and forced them to agree to the new realness.  They have formed communities with limits called streets, with borders within borders.

We live now in the last few hours of that compressed ten million years, respecting those boundaries, accustomed to them as law.  Like those who went before us, we have that map of limits in our unconscious.  It is part of our armory of civilization.  But, at times, the echoes of the October people stir within us.  We are not given to wander in the tall grass except perhaps in our imaginations, without limits, without borders.