Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method [*]

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method [*]

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. By crafting regional metaphors, geographers can help the public to understand and expand regional choices. As a metaphor for the United States' Great Plains, the Buffalo Commons stands for a large-scale, long-term ecological-economic restoration project. It has found an attentive audience in the last thirteen years and is in practice springing to life in the region. Comparable metaphors for other regions dealing with structural change are explored in this essay, using as main examples the Pacific Northwest, Detroit, and big cities generally. Metaphors, we conclude, differ from usual social-science tools because they engage the public in forming policy. The most effective regional metaphors are ambiguous, open-ended, and somewhat disconcerting. Keywords: Buffalo Commons, geographical imagination, Great Plains, regional geography, regional metaphor.

In the late 1980s we published an article in Planning, a journal for urban and regional planners, in which we explored the past and prospects of one of the nation's major regions, the Great Plains (Popper and Popper 1987). We chronicled the Plains' boom-and-bust history and suggested that a new path lay about a generation ahead: a large-scale land-restoration project that we called "the Buffalo Commons." To our surprise, the idea rapidly turned into a highly usable and influential regional metaphor. Its success convinces us that geographers should try to make more use of regional metaphors. To show how, our argument first draws on our experience in devising the Buffalo Commons metaphor for the Great Plains. We then suggest the implications of the metaphor for other U.S. regions and for the wider practice of geography.


The Plains lie between the Rockies and the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest and the South. They extend over large parts often states, from Montana and North Dakota in the north to Texas and New Mexico in the south, and into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in Canada. The Plains produce significant quantities of cattle, wheat, cotton, sheep, coal, oil, natural gas, and metals. They are America's steppes-windswept, nearly treeless, and largely semiarid. Their expanse is mostly rural and sparsely settled; the region's 1990 total population of 6.5 million--barely that of Georgia--is scattered across about a sixth of the area of the Lower 48.

The Plains have inspired extraordinary literature and art evocative of their physical distinctiveness and the difficulties that human settlement encounters there. Walt Whitman wrote in 1879, "One wants new words in writing about these plains, and all the inland American West--the terms, far, large, vast, &c., are insufficient" (Whitman 1963, 218; emphasis in the original). The painter Thomas Hart Benton suggested in 1937 that "Cozy-minded people hate the brute magnitude of the plains country. For me the great plains have a releasing effect. I like the way they make human beings appear as the little bugs they really are. Human effort is seen there in all its painful futility. The universe is stripped to dirt and air, to wind, dust, clouds, and the white sun" (quoted in Raban 1996, 60). Kathleen Norris opened her Dakota: A Spiritual Geography with these words: "The High Plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them. Like Jacob's angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing" (1993, 1).

The U.S. perception of the Plains has varied over time. Early-nineteenth-century textbooks called them a desert; late-nineteenth-century promoters and settlers regarded them as a potential garden, a regional component of the nation's Manifest Destiny. With the 1930s Dust Bowl, the Plains became a national problem; then they faded from the national consciousness (Opie 1998). According to William Cronon, historians have treated the region's past as a narrative of either inexorable progress or inevitable decline (1992). …

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