Reading North Dakota’s Contemporary Landscapes: Stories of Devolution, Dereliction, Dynamism, and Curation
Most rural North Dakota landscapes are open and vast, presenting views dominated by the horizon and sky. There is a tendency for landscape readers to describe them as empty and untamed, primarily because they are sparsely populated. North Dakota is also one of the flattest states in the nation (but not the flattest). Outsiders seem to connote the state’s landscapes with its people, at times in a pejorative sense. And while defensive when it comes to the merits of their state, North Dakotans often find humor in the attributes of the land upon which they live. Sometimes missed is that human engineering has impacted nearly every square mile: the construction of transportation corridors and other vital infrastructure, modification of natural hydrological systems, and, especially, the domestication of land for agricultural production. Also present are the remnants of hundreds of once more populated rural communities in various stages of decline. Most were sited and settled by railroad companies and associated townsite developers, peaking in population in the early 1900s and depopulating rapidly following the development of the automobile, road networks, and agricultural technologies that reduced the need for farm labor. Reading the remaining cultural material of these towns can lead to an understanding of the human culture that produced it. Here, we offer examples of North Dakota landscape humor, illustrate and discuss the reading of the state’s landscapes, and focus on the remaining material culture of two “left-behind” communities.
KeywordsLandscape reading and humor Material culture Left-behind communities Rural decline North Dakota
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