By James M. Decker
As you know, my essays are identified as “from West of 98.” You’ve also no doubt seen that my bio promises the “forthcoming ‘West of 98’ podcast and website.” Occasionally, I receive questions about the meaning behind “West of 98.” Today, I want to share that in this space and illustrate for you my coming plans.
In 1931, the great Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb published “The Great Plains,” one of the most important works ever written on the history of the American frontier. Webb’s stated vision was to show that the characteristics of the Great Plains—flat, semi-arid, treeless—shaped life on the Plains, distinguishing it from life in points to the East. Moreover, the necessities of life on the Plains shaped the people and their institutions, requiring them to adapt to the new environment, rather than simply taming and settling it. Webb identified the beginning of the Great Plains as the 98th Meridian West. This line of longitude, running north to south, roughly corresponded with the point in which rainfall dropped precipitously in both quantity and consistency. East of the 98th Meridian, rainfall was sufficient to support all forms of agriculture. West of the 98th, farming became difficult without irrigation or crops adapted to the climate and grazing of livestock became far more prevalent.
The 98th Meridian enters the United States in eastern North Dakota, passing east of Bismarck, North Dakota and Pierre, South Dakota. It crosses through middle Nebraska and Kansas, then passes West of Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, before crossing the west side of Austin and just east of San Antonio. In Texas, the areas west of the 98th Meridian and north of the Hill Country roughly correspond with the cultural, economic, and topographic definition of “West Texas.” In essence, the Great Plains of your history books and of Western novels and movies are those areas west of the 98th Meridian. It is a different land, scientifically verifiable as such.
It is from this perspective that I write. Over the years, I have noticed that our national and state conversations have divided us into overly-simplistic camps — Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, urban/suburban/rural, and so forth. Real life is more complicated, despite what the political, media, and cultural classes of society might say. As I’ve written before, too much “rural” talk in our national conversation is trendy, patronizing, and self-serving. We also lack rural voices from “out here.” The rural communities of Appalachia, the Midwest, and West of the 98th Meridian have similarities, but they also have distinct concerns as well. Each of those voices needs to be heard, not homogenized as one “rural” voice for political speeches and sound bytes on cable news.
I’ve told people that my essays are designed to make me think about our rural communities and hopefully inspire a few readers to think about their communities along the way. Each essay is written from the perspective and values developed from the people and institutions of the Great Plains, west of the 98th Meridian.
My longstanding plans have been to expand upon this perspective in audio format. There, I will have a recurring discussion of topics that require more elbow room than my limited essay space — deeper discussions of community development, public policy issues from a rabidly non-partisan perspective, and various cultural matters like literature, movies, music, and food. Some of those cultural matters will be lighthearted, for pure entertainment. Other cultural discussions will help illuminate my perspective and ideas for improving America (see Roosevelt, Theodore). Sometimes, guests might appear. Other times, it might be just me rambling.
This project has been pending for far too long, stymied by procrastination and by life. But after conversations with my wife and with podcast expert Ed Roberson (he of Mountain & Prairie fame), I’m vowing to “just do it,” so to speak. It won’t happen in the next couple of weeks, but it will be in the next couple of months.
So now you know the proverbial “rest of the story” as to why my essays are written from West of 98, and now you know what’s coming next. Stay tuned.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.