Johnathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance brilliantly and descriptively describes the attempts by would-be farmers and ranchers, those of the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, to make a living on highly questionable land. This land, most of it in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas could have been described as marginal land, but Raban’s fact-finding mission has made it abundantly clear that these lands were less than marginal.
The federal government and railroad companies would benefit by having settlers in this region. Their benefits: There would be more products to ship to and fro and travel to this region would be greatly increased. However, as Raban documents and, I have seen first-hand, this marginal land had shallow topsoil, heavy wind patterns, low precipitation, and extremely frigid winters; and, the efforts to cultivate the arid land were seldom rewarded.
This book was written in a casual, personable manner as the author walked this region and perused some of the failed homesteads. It is drama indeed as Raban explored the remnants of these numerous failed homesteads. He even found a book that described the best method to prosper on these arid farms. The book was entitled Campbell’s Scientific Dry Farming Techniques and it was subtitled The Camel for the Sahara Desert and the Campbell Method for the American Desert. According to meteorological figures any area with an average annual rainfall of less than three inches per year would be classified as a desert region. This eastern Montana region is certainly considered desert as most of it averages less than the three inches of rain per year.
Like Raban, I too, have walked this land, but I walked it for a different reason. I was in search of sharp-tailed grouse and the elusive sage grouse. I was amazed, those many years ago, to have seen so many remnants – remnants of rotted and fallen wind mills, broken and gray boards of outbuildings, barns, and house, as well as, vacated rock foundations, long-rusted barbed wire fencing, fence posts that were rotted and lying flat on the ground, and space – wide open space… endless space. Raban’s book told a story of the many courageous human attempts to produce on this infinitely poor homesteading land, bad land. The government pamphlets and railroad brochures were, no doubt, at least spurious, if not downright lies.
Raban had an inspirational idea to write this story, and he followed through – brilliant inspiration, first-hand research, and highly descriptive writing!