Month: July 2012

10 Lessons for All of Us from the Plainsky, Nebraskans

Long Morning, Lusker Ranch

Long Morning, Lusker Ranch

I began the PlainSky, Nebraskans project three years ago. My daughter was two; I was finishing my master’s thesis; we had lived in our present home less than a year. But I felt called to the project, energized by it, focused by the prospect of documenting a way of life with which I was familiar, but knew others weren’t. And time was running out.

So here I sit, the project well in hand, the first show opening in nine months, and a companion limited-edition book. So what? That’s not why I did this; I was looking for lessons, not praise. I was searching for cultural memories and ways in which to preserve them, mainly through photographs. Still, what have I learned?

And then, Rachel Larson’s 25 Things list crossed my path. She codified everything I had seen from the honest, hardworking Nebraskans I have been photographing; and I realized–not surprisingly–the project needed a set of lessons. So Rachel, here’s to you; you’ve cemented ranch culture for those who have lived it, as well as those who have never known it. My list can’t compare, but here it is, anyway.

10 Lessons for All of Us from PlainSky, Nebraskans

  1. Trust, and be trustworthy. I am reminded of a previous post about Joe Whiteaker, owner of Whiteaker’s Clothing in Harrison, who told a broke cowboy to wear a new pair of boots out the door without paying for them. Joe trusted the cowboy to pay for them when he could, and the cowboy knew he couldn’t break that gift of trust Joe had invested. In this era of defaulted loans, scrutinizing credit agencies and circular squabbles, it’s worth it to remember that the Whiteaker’s way of doing business was once the norm. Once, we trusted each other. The PlainSky, Nebraskans still do.
  2. Be a good neighbor and good citizen. People in Harrison, Arthur, Crawford and other towns across the western part of Nebraska are keenly aware of one thing: All they have is each other. Without everyone helping everyone, no questions asked, no refusals, there is no neighborhood, no community and no survival. Helping a neighbor means down the road, you’ll have someone you, too, can ask for help. What’s more, you’ll feel good about yourself and the place in which you live.
  3. Look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. Why do so many people avoid eye contact, or brush off that simplest sign of good intentions, the handshake? Because we’ve grown accustomed to living lives of solitude and mistrust. Let people know you mean what you say, and you’re glad to see them, in these two easy steps. I’ve never met anyone in western Nebraska who did otherwise.
  4. Respect your upbringing. In western Nebraska, every family I’ve worked with has told story after story about family; some were funny, some morose, but all important to what the family had become. These people don’t try to escape their blood, they accept that no one is perfect. All parents can do is try their best, and someday, each child will have to do the same.
  5. Cherish simplicity. In brief, unplug. Sit on a horse. Watch a sunrise. Smell the rain. Build a memory. It’s funny how the world moves slower once you do this.
  6. Say thanks. Everyone deserves a simple, heartfelt “thank you” for help rendered, no matter how small. Time and time again, I have heard these people (who are of few words by nature) say this–and mean it.
  7. Eat a meal together. Without the television. Or smartphones. Just good, simple food (lots of it), good family and friends, and lots of stories and smiles.
  8. Break a good sweat. Whether it’s for your own benefit or someone else, there is a singular joy in hard physical work. At the end of it, you don’t just tell yourself you’ve been working; you feel it. Moreover, you look back at the job and say with pride, “I did that.”
  9. Tie one on. Hard physical work justifies the occasional raucous evening. Think of it as decompression.
  10. Live this moment. Every waking hour (and for western Nebraska ranching families, there are a lot in a day), we should remember that this moment won’t come again. The way the Herefords cluster in a draw of the land, or how the grass becomes molten gold in the late evening sun, or when the breeze rises just enough to cool your face on a hot summer afternoon. They’re all precious; don’t wish any of them away. Today is enough; live this moment.

Am I wealthier from the PlainSky, Nebraskans project? Not monetarily, no. But certainly spiritually. I, too, have learned to live this moment.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Prairie Grasses and Badlands, Sioux County

Plains Grasses and Badlands, Sioux County

Plains Grasses and Badlands, Sioux County

One of the fascinating things about most residents of the US is the singular answer they’ll give when asked about the Nebraska landscape: “It’s so flat, you can see from one end of the state to the other!”

That answer tells those who live here just how far off Interstate 80 the opinion-holders have ventured; often, it’s less than a mile. Yes, the Platte River valley, through which I-80 runs most of the length of the state, is flat. It is a valley, after all. The same could be said for Oregon’s Willamette valley, near where I used to live. It is just as flat from south of Eugene to near Salem; rumor has residents of Corvallis found a hill in town, once, and killed it.

No, Nebraska isn’t flat–mostly. The huge, rolling treeless Sand Hills, the Loess Hills, the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills all bear testament to the contrary of flatness. This image of the northwest badlands in the Nebraska Panhandle could be considered Exhibit A.


PlainSky, Nebraskans: Branding Pair, Lusker Ranch

Branding, Lusker Ranch

Branding, Lusker Ranch

In the entire time I shot the branding at the Lusker Ranch, I heard fewer than four sentences from the cowboy on the right; it was time to work, not socialize. His demeanor matched his appearance, one of no guff and a life of hard work. But at this moment–a rare one during the day–he took a moment to rest and admire the landscape he in which he is lucky to live, and relish the life he is fortunate to lead.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Ardmore, South Dakota

Ardmore, South Dakota

Ardmore, South Dakota

What!? What’s a shot of a South Dakota town doing in a project called “PlainSky, Nebraskans!?”

A legitimate question, that; let me explain.

Northwest Nebraska is dying. Actually, much of Nebraska is dying, as children enthusiastically flee the small towns in which they grew up, enamored with the lights and busyness of bigger cities like Lincoln, Omaha, Denver and others. Here, it’s called “The Brain Drain.”

Ardmore is a cautionary tale: Once, this town was large enough for a presidential whistle stop visit in the 1920s. It survived The Great Depression; world economic woes were bearable for Ardmore, but The Brain Drain wasn’t. In 1980, the population had dwindled to 16, and by 2004, to nothing.

“Okay, there are lots of ghost towns across the West. Why does this pertain to PlainSky?” one might ask.

Why? Ardmore is less than an hour’s drive from Crawford. Less than 15 minutes from Ray Semroska’s ranch and the Montrose church. Only about a mile from the Nebraska border.

And it’s dead.

The Great Plains of the past are endangered, and Ardmore is the future of this culture unless something changes.

“Oh,” one might say. “Ardmore. I get it.”

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Out the Chute, Sutherland

Out the Chute, Sutherland

Out the Chute, Sutherland

Rodeos are hard to shoot.

“But why?” most ask.

In brief, they’re a cacophony of noise, hubbub and crowds, making visual isolation of anything other than the performers in the arena (who are supposed to be isolated and the subject of everyone’s attention) extremely difficult. So, it’s a challenge.

I hit the Sutherland rodeo last night as a storm rolled through the area, and I was intent on capturing the power of a saddle bronc rider leaving the chute, trying to simplify the force that is the Nebraska rodeo.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Little Chicago, Sand Hills

Little Chicago, Sand Hills

Little Chicago, Sand Hills

I often think the weather and fate conspire to help me find emotionally powerful landscapes and people. Case in point: the Little Chicago cattle yard in this photograph. Begin story.

My assistant, Liz, and I had been following this storm for hours. We’d carefully checked the forecast for the Sand Hills that day, hoping for inclement weather and good subjects; the landscape photographer’s mantra is “Bad weather makes good pictures,” after all. As we hurried along to align ourselves to a photographically appropriate angle to the storm, things began to fall together, and looking over at Liz, I said, “Okay, I’m taking a left on the next gravel road, and maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Over the second hill about 1/2 mile down the road was this cattle yard. I slammed on the brakes, tossed the truck into the side of the ditch to park, and out we ran as the storm rumbled violently around us. Rain looked imminent, and in fact, more than we expected.

But the light. Oh, the light! The rolling expanse of the Sand Hills, the roiling black clouds backlit by late afternoon sun, the texture of the grasses and the irony of Little Chicago.

Lucky? Boy, were we ever.