Sky Determines?

With all due apologies to Ross Calvin, whose work by that title is an early environmental study of the American Southwest, geographic determinism has been hotly argued for quite a while, going back to Europe and probably before that. Are Scandinavians pale because they come from the North, or were they forced to move north because they are so pale? Does physical environment mold culture? If so how much? If not why not? Historians of the American West have been grappling with that concept since, well, almost forever, but it was Walter Prescott Webb who really kicked things into high gear. We’ve been cussing and discussing his theory ever since.

Walter Prescott Webb’s book The Great Plains is a cultural history and environmental overview of the Great Plains. He argues that the lack of trees and the absence of easily tapped water shaped culture in the region, especially in the areas I’d call the High Plains and Brush Country. Pistols instead of rifles, riding and herding cattle instead of farming and walking, different legal systems, all stem from adaptations to the grassland environment. Webb’s book is still a starting place for environmental and cultural histories of the Plains and West.

Webb was born and raised in West Texas, and saw the effects of the terrible 1916-17 drought that depopulated large swaths of the Trans-Pecos, eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. It is easy to understand why he would focus on environment as a cultural driver. But how accurate is his take? Well, the book was published in 1931 and we historian types and cultural geographers have been arguing over it ever since.

To credit everything to the environment is a little too much, that everyone has come to agree on. And Webb doesn’t. But when you look at the enormous sweep of human history and cultures, you do start to see commonalities in the peoples of the plains, especially semi-arid plains. All tend to be mobile or mostly mobile. When horses are available, light cavalry dominates, and a great contempt for the settled farmer seems to go along with that. The Mongols did their best to chase the Han Chinese off the grasslands north of the Yellow River because breaking the soil was anathema to proper land use as the Mongols saw it. The Comanche thinned out the Apaches, who had permanent gardens along water courses in the Texas plains. Later Anglo-Texans followed the pattern, herding cattle from horseback and founding ranches because the land was too dry to grow much without irrigation, and irrigation requires water. The Spanish did the same thing, passing ideas from Iberia and North Africa and Central Asia (via the Habsburg link from Central Europe to Iberia) to the Anglos and Native Americans.

Well-watered societies tended to become complex and sedentary. Where water-control was needed, usually for irrigation, the politics and religion of water often became central to the society, or at least very very important as a springboard to hierarchical political systems. Webb did not look into those ideas, but three generations of subsequent researchers have, and are still fighting over the ideas. Because of course there are apparent exceptions, especially once you scale-down to the local level, if you have the ability to do so. But the overall pattern remains. If survival depends on regulating flood waters and directing them, certain similarities are probably going to occur.  Likewise if the carrying capacity of an environment is limited by lack of water, or lack of other critical resources. Which will also shape how society looks at the landscape.

I was once on the edge of a heated debate over whether the lack of trees and mountains made men of the plains more arrogant, because there was nothing to diminish man, or more humble because of the skies and huge sweeps of “empty” landscape. As a child of the grasslands, I’d vote for the second option. Yes, man is master of all he surveys, especially when he surveys it from horseback, but— One strong thunderstorm, one grass fire, one blizzard, or the horse dying, or getting lost in the grasslands, and man is prone to rapidly becoming at one with the soil in a rather literal way.

You know by now that I am biased. I enjoy visiting mountains, and trees have their place, but I like the enormous, endless sweep of wind-washed grass that surrounds my home-town. I can be very happy parked on the side of a ranch road, sitting on the tailgate, listening to the wind and meadowlarks and killdeer and cattle.

Which does nothing to answer the old question: does the environment shape culture, or does culture have a greater effect on environment, or are humans just different? I’m inclined to lean a little more toward the effects of environment playing a strong role in determining how cultures develop over time, but I’m not a determinist. For one, humans wander. For another, ideas and technology have always spread faster than cultures have moved, and different peoples accepted, rejected, or adapted things to suit their beliefs and needs. The barrier of the great deserts of Central Asia and the mountains to the west of the Han cultural heartland did not determine how China’s culture came to be, but they certainly influenced certain things. Mountain peoples tend to be insular and reluctant to accept new people and new ideas, in part because survival is so close to the bone. They don’t have much to spare, and the people in the next valley may well be in trouble and looking for supplies to steal.

And forest people seem disinclined to take to the grasslands. I know one person, and have read of others, who balked at going farther west than Topeka or Omaha. The lack of trees, the great sweep of sky, they were too much, too empty, to overwhelming. Trees are comfort, they are resources, they can be shelter. Woodlands are shady and cool in summer, and a source of fuel in winter. The plains bake, or freeze, and “prairie coal?”* My Austrian professor was horrified by the very thought.

Plains people get twitchy in dense woodland. We need to see weather coming. Plains cities tend to sprawl because they could, and still can. We seem to wander more than people from wooded or mountainous areas, but that could just be an artifact of the culture that has developed in the Great and High Plains of the US and Canada. Folks from the Midwestern grasslands seem more rooted.

The availability of water, of wood, of places to hide and resources for building can all shape cultures over the very long run of time. So do trade, invasion, migration, and other forces. The US that Walter Prescott Webb saw owed a lot to environment, true. It also owed a lot to the Scots-Irish/Southern culture of the people who moved into Texas after 1820, and to the Spanish and Indians already there. Berry Cunliffe pointed out in By Desert, Steppe, and Ocean that the people later called the Celts kept moving west, exploring, moving around, always west, away from the known world. Or thrown out, in the case of a number of people who left GTT on their doors and departed more settled regions. They happened to find a place and life-way that worked very well with their old habits, habits that went back to a pair of islands on the edge of Europe that were most certainly not grasslands, nor semi-arid. But they adopted the Iberian practices, adapted them for their own needs and desires, and a new cultural form appeared.

For further reading: these are all older books, but are a good start for further investigation.

W. P. Webb The Great Plains

Ross Calvin Sky Determines

Terry G. Jordan North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers A magisterial look at the different cattle-raising traditions and how they blended or didn’t in North America. Highly recommend.


*sun and wind dried buffalo and cow chips. They burn clean and hot and are an excellent cooking fuel, but those of more refined sensibilities tend not to appreciate what necessity can inspire.

13 thoughts on “Sky Determines?

  1. Okay, most of this debate is more than familiar to me, but the pistols rather than rifles on the plains surprised me. In open, treeless country a rifle would be much more useful than a pistol. The pistol became a standard accessory because cowboys worked with wild, dangerous cattle, where a firearm might well be the difference between life and death, or at least life and a crippled life. Needing both hands free to do their work, a easily accessable holstered pistol became the obvious solution.

    Anyways that has always been my take on it. I would be fascinated to hear the reasoning for the assertion that pistols rather than rifles developed due to the lack of trees and easily tappable water.

      • Tell me, too, because I had the same question. Until I started actually acquiring them, I didn’t appreciate the difference in firepower between rifles and handguns; I was solely influenced by the caliber designation in my evaluation of relative effectiveness. The M-16 I trained on in Army BASIC was not paired with pistol any training at all, so I had nothing to compare it to. Thus, in 2004, as the owner of two .45 ACP pistols, I thought I had the biggest guns in the world.
        That lasted until I bought a Marlin .30-30 lever gun. All I had to do was put a .45 ACP cartridge next to a .30-30 cartridge, and it was pretty obvious which was the more powerful round.
        If the .45 ACP looked like a stump, the .30-30 was a Redstone missile.

        And I think I just found out why I get notifications from some blogs I subscribe to, and not others.
        Wordpress has an option to check a box for notifications of new posts. Blogspot does not; at least I have not been able to find that option.

    • I’d attribute it to being able to see a lot farther than you can shoot.
      Back on the ranch, I kept my ought-six zero at 400 yards. It was still rare to see a coyote that wasn’t well out of range.

  2. I wouldn’t say plains people were/are more arrogant, per se. I’d say they have more confidence, if you will, in themselves. Timid folks don’t do well on the plains, as they don’t tend to be willing to do what is necessary to survive. Re the pistols vs. rifles, I ‘think’ that boils down to ready availability of the weapon, and ability to get off 5 quick shots.

  3. Or thrown out, in the case of a number of people who left GTT on their doors and departed more settled regions.

    • Grrr, need more sleep, I mean to say, “GTT”? What’s that stand for?
      As well, maybe I need to add Webb to my reading lists and research.

      • Gone To Texas. Frequently (according to tradition) inscribed on the doors of folks from the “border states” (TN, KY, upper South) who up and went west and preferred not to leave a forwarding address.

        Webb is always readable and frequently thought-provoking, even if you disagree with him. That said, The Great Frontier is only for the die-hard. He tried too hard to pull together a western hemisphere “frontier thesis” in part to answer other historians and he couldn’t quite do it. The autobiographical parts are interesting, though.

  4. I watched a lot of old westerns on TV growing up, and I recall noting that one of the driving factors in many of them was water rights.

    • Yes. The novel and mini-series Centennial centered on water, as did the movie _The Big Country_ and other things. “Whisky’s for Drinkin’ and Water’s for Fighting Over” is one of many regional sayings.

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