The Impossibility of ‘Empty’
Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.
During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.
Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.
Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.
The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.
Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.
It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.
My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.
Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’