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Down on the Farm -- The problem with fame

North Dakota boosters, right up to Gov. John Hoeven himself, are furious with a feature in the current National Geographic magazine which depicts, in haunting pictures and a brief article, 14 virtually abandoned North Dakota hamlets.

When national media types come through, you know they are going to get it wrong. National reporters have their agenda set before they get off the plane. It has been that way since they got off trains.

But the pictures in the National Geographic feature are beautiful. And the article, as long as you realize that it isn't about the entire state, is only mildly offensive.

If you've ever driven across North Dakota on highways other than U.S. 2 or Interstate 94, you know that you can go three hours on tar roads without finding an open three-stool café, much less a Starbuck's.

A small town in western North Dakota can make northwestern Minnesota small towns look lively, advanced and prosperous--no small feat. Gravel streets. Abandoned cars. Empty buildings. In some of those towns, it is as if time stopped in 1947, and I find it beautiful.

Let's face historical fact: The northern plains flooded with hope-filled immigrants in the late 19th century, hard-working optimists who were convinced that they could make their fortune on a quarter-section of land.

Small towns sprung up to serve those farmers. For a few decades, it all worked. But when the rains stopped, it became evident that much of the land wasn't fit for anything but ranching.

The land couldn't support the immigrants and their numerous offspring. For the past 100 years as farms have multiplied in size, the population has drained from the rural Great Plains.

In Minnesota, North Dakota and elsewhere, towns which reached 1,000 in population have held their own. But those towns which never reached the critical mass of 500 people have declined, and towns which peaked at fewer than 200 people have largely disappeared.

Left behind are sad, haunting places, places which are now mostly empty, but where children once played, schoolbells once rang and train whistles blew.

It is those places the National Geographic sought to depict, as well they might. No, the article doesn't tell the whole story of North Dakota. It wasn't meant to.

Forum Communications writer Janell Cole laments that the Geographic didn't talk about North Dakota's successes, like the University of North Dakota's aviation program, or the resurgent North Dakota farm economy.

Boosters are urging Gov. Hoeven to join with them to demand that the National Geographic print a second article about the state, presumably one listing the state tourism bureau's talking points.

These people should cool their jets lest North Dakotans become known as a bunch of hyper-sensitive hicks. And believe me, it is a sign of hick-dom when you start demanding that every reporter who comes through makes sure to mention Lena's Lefse Emporium down the street as a symbol of your town's economic vitality.

Fact is, rural North Dakota is one of the very few places on earth which has suffered severe depopulation over the past century. That is a story. The small North Dakota hamlets have been decimated. What remains is haunting. And beautiful. But empty, nonetheless.

The National Geographic meant to graphically depict the beauty and sadness of those hamlets, not the story of 13th Avenue South in Fargo. The text was hackneyed and predictable, but it contained a lot of truth.

To get defensive and angry when national coverage of our area, which is admittedly quite rare, doesn't present the "whole story" is to show a lack of faith in the area's good points.

I remember a glowing portrait of the Red River Valley in the National Geographic a couple of decades ago. It was just as full of bunk as the recent article, but nobody objected because it was good-sounding bunk.

Whenever we get national coverage, we can best show our sophistication by accepting the coverage, good or bad, with our usual sense of humor and humility.

Don't worry: For better or for worse, they'll never get it right.