I Knew a Farmer

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Wave on Wave

We were flying due north out of Omaha. The old DC-3 had shuddered with effort on takeoff and rose so slowly we thought the treetops would remain just beneath our wingtips for the entire trip. Level much later at around 20,000 feet the props spun with efficiency and the checker-boarded plains below slipped away to our rear with a mystifying slowness. Small towns speckled the prairie and twinkled at dusk. Long trains ran toward the orange light of the evening west.

After we crossed over the Canadian border and turned northeastward, the roads beneath us narrowed and the earth showed less illumination. Late sun on the flat land revealed the dark pines were shrinking in height. Eventually, there were almost none emerging from the tundra.

The PR man was happy, though. Reporters had cocktails and everyone was friendly in the back of the cabin. There was a false sense of adventure. The power company had arranged the flight to upper Manitoba, Canada, at the western shores of Hudson Bay. A great trading company had once sent animal pelts from these remote reaches to global capitals. There were now moose and bear and the rivers that were still wild and snow machines and a few people.

“There’s already a dam down there,” the PR man said. “It’s generating a lot of electricity. Not all of it gets used. Why don’t we use it?”

“Maybe it’s just not needed,” I said.

“Of course, it is. We are growing. America is always growing. And we can’t do that without affordable energy.”

He was the only one on the flight wearing a tie. His confidence was not convincing and the trip was growing long. There seemed no lights below to give us any indication of where the outdated passenger plane might alight on the ground.

The dam we saw the next day was a massive white obelisk that had been laid on its side. A mighty river had been contained behind it by concrete and steel. Trapped water was forced through gates and turned absurdly large turbines. Electricity spun out into 161 kilovolt lines across Canada and ran manufacturing plants and TV sets in luxury cabins up in the Okanagan.

“Canada produces more power than it can use from this one dam,” the PR man told us. “There’s no reason we should not try to get this very affordable energy down into our country. That’s why we are proposing the Mandan power line.”

I loved the name of the power company’s project. The Mandan were a small tribe that had lived along the Heart and Knife rivers in the Dakotas. They had their own language, a derivative of the Sioux tongue. They were not given to tribal warfare and had little resistance to offer as the white Manifest Destiny blew through their villages. I decided to call my series of reports on the power project, “Man and the Mandan.” I just liked the sound of the words gathered.

We went up in a helicopter and flew out over Hudson Bay and skimmed the river and marveled at its dark swiftness. The PR man sat in the front seat of the chopper and I took the back but he still spoke to me through the headset.

“You can see the potential here,” he said. “This river and this dam will always be generating power, unless the world runs out of water.”

Back up in the sky in the old tail-dragger a few days later I watched the sectioned land and the dark green splotches of crops. The country had been divided by an ordinance in the late 1800s into mile square sections. Railroads were seduced into building transcontinental lines when the government gave them every other square mile section along the route. Land was money. The history of that law was apparent in the farmland plaid visible from the air.

The Mandan Power Line was engineered to cut across the high plains of the Dakotas and down into Nebraska. The Omaha power company wanted that cheap energy from Manitoba. Inexpensive electricity would be sold into the Mid American Power Pool and be marked up to profit the shareholders of the Omaha supplier. No one believed the consumer was likely to benefit.

I went back north into the Dakotas to talk to landowners. There had been very few towns visible from the airplane but the power line route went near a few farm communities. In Iroquois, when I asked about the Mandan, I was told to talk to Marlin. He was growing wheat in wide fields out in the northern flatness.

Wave on Wave
Wave on Wave

“Ain’t nothin’ comin’ between me and that sunset,” Marlin Clendenning told me. “I don’t care what the power company says, this isn’t that important. They can find another way to do it.”

A few children moved through his house. Marlin was tall and angular and his limbs were loose and his animation made his perspective more visible to me. His wife stood behind his chair, her hand on his shoulder as he talked, a kind of indoor American gothic image.

“I’ve been a farmer since I was a kid and I’m always going to be a farmer,” he said. “And I don’t need a 161 kilovolt line crossing my property, hanging right there in front of the sun, and maybe even killing my animals.”

Early Iroquois
Early Iroquois

There were early studies in the eighties that indicated increasing stillborns during calving season if the mothers grazed beneath power lines. No one understood electrical smog but we were encouraged to take a fluorescent bulb and stand beneath a 161 KV line and watch the emanations cause the light to activate. We did. And it made good video.

“Tell me why their power line is so important,” Marlin said. “Do you really think they are worried about being able to manage growth? Of course not. This is just about making money selling cheap power. Well, they aren’t taking away my prairie and my sunset. We are gonna fight.”

Clendenning organized farmers and environmentalists. They went to hearings, wrote letters, called members of congress, cajoled local elected officials, and confronted the Omaha power company. The sunset was in jeopardy.

The power line was never built. Clendenning’s singular resistance was too much for the multi-billion dollar project. The cost was never justified. Instead of giant towers stalking the plains and black lines crossing the precious blue horizon, the sunset remained unimpaired.

My reports on the Mandan got some attention and I was invited to New York City to receive an award from Dartmouth College. The National Media Award for Economic Understanding also involved a nice check for a young journalist. I stayed in the Plaza Hotel and was on the same dais with Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Job offers followed and opportunity rolled out in front of me.

I expect Marlin Clendenning stayed on his farm along that dirt road south of Iroquois. My hope is that he has had a full life and the earth has been good to him and given him abundant crops. Maybe there are grandchildren tugging at his pant legs and he and his wife take them to the back porch at the end of the day after dinner. They look west together where the weakening sun still brightens the wheat that appears alive in the wind. There is no power line crossing his horizon, though, only birds and the invisible things that ride in the breeze.

I hope Marlin Clendenning lives a long, long time. He deserves a lot of sunsets