By: Darryl Birkenfeld (Nazareth, Texas)
Ogallala Commons country is often described as empty. People living in the plains remark that “there’s not a lot going on” in our towns, located far from metro centers. To me, these descriptions underscore a lack of knowledge about our history.
In its most basic form, history is “a local and regional knowledge of particular experiences lived over generations.” In addition, history “is a capacity to transfer and preserve these experiences through stories and memories.” Based on these definitions, every place and every person is filled with decades, centuries, and eons of experiences. Start by looking at your landscapes and ecosystems.
In Nazareth, TX, where I live, we are perched on a high plateau: El Llano Estacado, the largest non-mountainous region in North America. In long processes of geological time, the entire High Plains from South Dakota to Texas formed similarly. Ten to twelve million years ago, rain and snowmelt were eroding away the Rocky Mountains Uplift, carrying millions of tons of sediment eastward to build our plains and bury the Ogallala Aquifer formations beneath them. These forces of nature eventually shaped our Plains into a vast semi-arid grassland–different from the forests to the east, the savannahs to our south, and the mountain and desert regions out west.
At least twelve thousand years ago, humans found their way onto the Great Plains: first Paleo and then Archaic peoples, followed by tribes that lived a nomadic lifestyle and later hunted bison with the horse. These hunter-gatherer cultures may be long gone, but our wind, weather, canyons and prairie landscapes still whisper their stories in our consciousness today. Classes at the high school and college-level teach us about more recent chapters: wars that removed Indians from the Plains along with extermination of the bison herds…the advent of cattle ranching, development of railroads, dryland farming, and the rise of irrigated agriculture. This is just a sliver of the long arc of our combined natural and human experiences that are part of our commonwealth.
Together with the currents shaping our land and civilizations, we can also include the life we live with our neighbors as history. What do you know about the origins of your family and the villages and countries they emigrated from? Can you recount any stories about the early years, when your forebearers first came to our local communities? Can you name your first and second cousins? These familial ties and stories are treated as wealth in most parts of the world—more valuable than money or material possessions.
In truth, we have each been endowed with histories so vast that it can never be fully contained in history books, novels, or family stories. And there are multiple threads to any history, some filled with light and joy, some with shadow and sadness. Ultimately, history is that rich treasure we can all lay claim to–if we search, uncover, converse with, and explore the places we call home.
Dr. Darryl Birkenfeld, Ph.D. has served as Executive Director of Ogallala Commons since 2003. Besides history, he has a passion for leadership development, local food production, place-centered education, and eco-spirituality.