In 2009 and 2010, I spent months traveling through the far Western Plains of the United States. Geographically the area is defined as that final reach of flat land heading west before mountains rise up from the earth, a region that stretches from Texas to Montana. But perhaps a better definition of that place is climatic: the region exists in the extended rain shadow of those mountains and as such it is defined by the preciousness of its water. Where there is moisture, life flourishes. But twenty miles away from the river, or just half a mile from a spring or creek, life quiets, contracts. In the driest places, those yawning spaces between signs of humanity are a necessity—any closer and the land couldn't support them.
Of course the most familiar images of the Western Plains are of those places where water once was but has since disappeared, where all that remain are bones—abandoned houses, vacant Main Streets. As communities throughout the United States begin to confront the increasing scarcity of their own water resources, the vulnerability so apparent in the Western Plains offers a valuable lesson in humility. And yet at the same time it can teach us about adaptability, thrift, and determination. In photographing this place and its people, my intention was to capture neither the obvious decay nor the striking perseverance in its midst, but rather the swinging balance between the two.
This work was supported in part by the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
Alfalfa. Butte County, South Dakota