Fargo North Dakota to Belleville Kansas: Spiritual Vigilantes

         Today there was no meandering for the meanderer. What a pity. We decided we wanted to get as far south as we could in one day. That meant bearing down and not getting off course. Getting off course is what I do best. This was hard. It was not the way we like to travel, but we thought it was necessary.

It was fiercely cold over night. We woke up and temperatures were about -31°F. I think it had been colder during the night. I had plugged the car in for the first time ever. In the morning the GPS was frozen solid. Nothing could wake Sarah from her icy tomb. We thought she was dead. We were very sad. We need that GPS and had not brought a spare portable GPS. We would have to navigate on our own.

Today we drove across the Great Plains of North America. Many consider this a boring drive. Not I. In fact, I consider a comment about this being boring to be a comment on the shortcomings of the viewer, not the plains. First of all, you cannot appreciate the plains by driving through them at 100 kph (or more) as we did today. The beauty of the prairies is subtle. It requires discernment. It demands attention. The prairies, unlike the mountains for example, are not “in your face.”.

The Great Plains or prairies is one of the most stressed ecosystems on the planet and also among the least protected. It is not protected for two reasons, in my opinion. First of all, because the plains have a subtle beauty people are not as inclined about getting involved in their protection. That is why the nature organization I belong to is called Native Orchid Conservation and not Liverwort Conservation. The great beauties–whether human or botanical–get all the attention. That is a pity.

Added to that, humans see the plains as their own. They have taken them over to such an extent that they are entirely part of the human landscape. Very little of the prairies have not been disturbed. It seems to many humans that we can do with the prairies whatever we want.

As a result of these two factors the plains just don’t the respect that they ought to get. That is unfortunate, not just for the plains, but for us too. 50% of North America’s ducks are produced in the Prairie Pothole Region. It has been estimated that 100 million ducks live in this region. And many of these birds are in trouble. The problem is not just lost of wetlands, thought that is a big problem here, but the problem is severely compounded by the degradation of the what still remains. If wetlands don’t contain grass there is no place for birds to nest. That is  also a huge problem.

The Plains changed dramatically when people started tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer is a shallow water table aquifer that is surrounded by silt, clay and gravel located beneath the Great Plains in the United States. It is one of the world’s largest aquifers and underlies an area of approximately 174,00 in portions of 8 states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas). It took us the better part of 2 days to drive through it at 75 mph.

  • If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water
  • If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally
  • More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops
  • $20 billion a year in food and fibre depend on the aquifer[1]

The most important fact of course is that the aquifer would take 6,000 years to replenish if it were drained as some fear we are now doing.

The water that permeates the buried gravel is mostly from the vanished rivers. It has been down there for at least three million years, percolating slowly in a saturated gravel bed that varies from more than 1,000 feet thick in the North to a few feet in the Southwest.

Industrial-scale extraction of the aquifer did not begin until after World War II. Diesel-powered pumps replaced windmills, increasing output from a few gallons a minute to hundreds. Over the next 20 years the High Plains turned from brown to green. The number of irrigation wells in West Texas alone exploded from 1,166 in 1937 to more than 66,000 in 1971. By 1977 one of the poorest farming regions in the country had been transformed into one of the wealthiest, raising much of the nation’s agricultural exports and fattening 40 percent of its grain-fed beef.

As Jane Braxton Little joined out, “the miracle of new pumping technology was taking its toll below the prairie. By 1980 water levels had dropped by an average of nearly 10 feet throughout the region. In the central and southern parts of the High Plains some declines exceeded 100 feet. Concerned public officials turned to the U.S. Geological Survey, which has studied the aquifer since the early 1900s. As Jane Braxton Little said, “It was found that in some places farmers were withdrawing four to six feet a year, while nature was putting back half an inch. In 1975 the overdraft equalled the flow of the Colorado River. Today the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers. Although precipitation and river systems are recharging a few parts of the northern aquifer, in most places nature cannot keep up with human demands

As William Finnegan pointed out, “In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, which reaches from Texas to South Dakota and is indispensable to farming on the Great Plains, is being drained eight times faster than it can naturally recharge.” In southern Kansas, 180 miles west of Wichita, is one of the High Plains areas hardest hit by the aquifer’s decline. Groundwater level has dropped 150 feet or more, forcing many farmers to abandon their wells. The cause is obvious, says Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District: overuse. With a liquid treasure below their feet and a global market eager for their products, farmers here and across the region have made a Faustian bargain—giving up long-term conservation for short-term gain. To capitalize on economic opportunities, landowners are knowingly “mining” a finite resource.[2]

None of this is pretty. All of this is dangerous.

I was surprised to learn that between 2001 and 2008, a mere 7 years, 32% of the cumulative depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer occurred. I was also surprised to learn that in addition to agriculture, 2 major sources of depletion were the oil and gas industry and coal industry–all industries that the current President is doing to much to prop up while so much of the world believes we should be cutting back. Trump wants to make things worse!

As we drove along Interstate 29 into South Dakota I saw an old building I had seen 3 times before.   Each time I wanted to photograph it, but noticed it too late to stop on the Interstate. Today it happened.


I love old buildings. Old buildings bring to life a philosophy that arose in Japan called Wabi-Sabi. I will post a separate blog about this interesting Japanese philosophy.

After driving all day without meandering we arrived in Belleville Kansas. We checked in to a modest inn and proceeded direct to a local dining establishment. It was a classic small town Midwest restaurant on a Saturday night. All the men wore cowboy hats or John Deer caps or facsimiles. We enjoyed a good sold meal of hamburger steak and curly fries for me, while Chris had mashed potatoes and gravy. It was simple American fare. It was good. It did not hurt that I had a Busch Light Beer to go with the meal. They even served opossum pie. I feared this was what it was. I asked the waitress and she explained there  were no opossums in the pie. It was chocolate cream and pecans. It actually sounded good, but my heart was set on coconut pie. Later I regretted this. Even though the pie was great how many times will I have a chance to eat opossum pie?

There was a treat waiting for us in our hotel–a book called Spiritual Vigilantes. I kid you not–vigilantes! The book claimed to tell the truth behind the attempted destruction of God’s law in America. It asserted that the Christian Church is in the midst of “extreme spiritual warfare with its members being taught lies with every word of false doctrine.” It added, “the left will not stop until their mission to remove any evidence that God exists in the United States is completely removed.” Is this where religious freedom has led us?

[1] Jane Braxton Little, “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S.” Scientific American, March 2009

[2] Jane Braxton Little, “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S.” Scientific American, March 2009

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