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Lost in the Tall Grass

The story of what happened when the American political and economic system collided with the wide open prairie

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A lawn is an open field. A blank slate. A bare stage. A lawn underfoot should not be noticed. Ideally it's something you hardly focus on, a perennial backdrop designed to show off what's behind it or on it--a mansion, a picnic, a baseball game. When a lawn is noticed it's usually because it diverges from manicured smoothness--when it's suffered an outbreak of dandelions or crabgrass, or has grown to an unruly length.

A lawn is, according to some biologists, a reproduction of the open African savanna landscape where humans evolved--a landscape that was beneficial to our ancestors not because of the grass itself, but because it was open enough that they could see predators or prey animals a long way off. If so, then grass has always been a background, less important in itself than as something to look over or to overlook.

A lawn is also an imitation prairie, which has its own history of neglect. According to historian Bernard DeVoto, one of the reasons Coronado's gold seekers turned back from their quest for the Seven Cities of Cibola on the Kansas prairie in 1541 was that they were running low on corn for the horses. The conquistadores didn't realize that the tall buffalo grass they rode through was the best food possible for their mounts.

A few centuries later the English-speaking settlers who encountered the open grassy expanses of what's now the midwest had no word to encapsulate what they saw. They fell back on the French prairie, which sounds appropriately romantic and place specific. But prairie described a type of lawn in France, so it too described a sort of blankness, more an absence of trees and shrubs than a presence of anything. George Will put a cheery spin on this in his description of Ronald Reagan's Illinois boyhood: "The remarkable flatness of the prairie suggests that God had good times in mind--smooth infields for countless baseball diamonds--when he designed Illinois."

On the Great Plains, wrote Willa Cather, "There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." If lawns and fields and prairies are backdrops, then perhaps the great flat, grassy midsection of the United States is a good place to study the way our culture has used the land--the place where patterns of use could be established without reference to forests, mountains, and other natural obstacles. That, at least, is part of the motivation behind a new book by journalist Richard Manning, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. In this wide-ranging book the grasslands that stretch from western Ohio to the Rocky Mountains and beyond become the best place to read the story of how the American political and economic system collided with a place ill-equipped to deal with it. Or maybe that should be read another way: to Manning, it's clear that the grasslands, however much they've been converted to lawns and fields, will be around a lot longer than our contemporary culture.

Grasslands once occupied 40 percent of the land area of the contiguous United States. Though most of those acres are still open and more or less treeless--open fields, pastures, the places we drive by while going somewhere else--almost all have been severely altered by one to two centuries of settlement and agriculture. "Most of the grasslands of our nation have been lost to row cropping or seriously compromised by generations of overgrazing," Manning writes. "Our culture's disrespect for its grasslands has produced an environmental catastrophe."

Though Grassland serves up a full helping of such gloomy sentiments and statistics, Manning is no environmental doomsayer. He's writing about something more than preserving some sort of primeval nature. By linking his tale of ecology with human stories he mingles biology with politics, the open nature of the grasslands with the structures of democracy.

He also has a journalist's eye and ear for the telling detail that makes a story. He notes, for instance, that when Walt Whitman, America's poet of grass, came west for the first time he was appalled at the openness of the plains and advocated planting trees there. And when steel plows first broke the prairie sod they cut through so many tough roots that the sound of plowing "was that of a fusillade of pistols." By turns lyrical and incisive, Grassland ultimately is about the extent to which people cannot be divorced from the place they make their home or the plants that live there.

Grassland is at bottom a place of journeys," Manning writes in his first chapter. His book is framed by his own travels across America's midsection, but what he really means is that it isn't possible to live in a grassland without journeying. Throughout most of human history the people who lived in grasslands were nomads: the Blackfoot, the Mongols, the Huns. Contrary to what the Western myth of progress would have us believe, these people weren't nomadic because they were barbarians, stuck at some stage of development through which Europeans had long since passed; rather they were nomadic because that was the only way to live on the plains.

On open plains grass is too diffuse a resource to support permanent human settlements. People can use wild grasses only by eating the animals that can digest them, and so nomadic grassland peoples always followed the animals. In North America that meant an utter reliance on bison. Plains Indians, Manning writes, ate bison "liver, kidneys, tongues, eyes, testicles, fresh fat, marrow from leg bones, and the hooves of unborn calves. Some tribes first removed the stomach from a freshly killed bison, filled it with blood, pieces of liver, and other choice bits, suspended it, and cooked the mass by adding hot rocks. The intestines were diced up and dipped in bile, then fed to children like candy."

On the Great Plains this lifestyle was buttressed, not weakened, by early European intrusions. Horses, introduced by the conquistadores, vastly increased the mobility and hunting efficiency of Plains Indians. The longhorn cattle the Spaniards also brought were about as wild, ornery, and rangy as the bison. French fur traders on the northern plains, meanwhile, intermarried with the natives and carried on a fairly sustainable trade in hides from bison and other animals, shipping them east in canoes and other boats.

It wasn't until Americans swarmed west--especially after the Civil War--that nomadism became untenable. Railroads sliced up the grasslands. Buffalo hunters killed off the Indians' larder. Farmers moved in. Longhorns were replaced with docile, fat-marbled Herefords.

The results of this immigration occupy many of Grassland's pages. Large animals--such as the bison, elk, deer, grizzly bear, and wolf--were exterminated or greatly diminished in number. When steel plows opened the soil for farming much of it washed or blew away, most famously during the dust bowl of the 1930s. Alien species like timothy grass, bluegrass, and crested wheatgrass were introduced, deliberately or inadvertently, and their spread caused the decline of native plant and animal species (according to a 1980 survey, 85 percent of the nation's grasslands have lost at least 40 percent of the plant species they once supported). The grain raised on most of these farms now goes to raise beef, a process that uses huge amounts of energy per calorie of food produced and that gives Americans a higher rate of heart problems than the rest of the world. In fencing the grasslands, Manning writes, we replaced 50 million free-roaming, lean-fleshed bison with 45.5 million fatty, bawling cows. That's what we call progress.

Much of this may have been inevitable, given historical forces. What rankles Manning is not that Americans settled the grasslands, but the way in which it was done. The federal government gave away much of the west by cutting it into 160-acre pieces that were given away under the Homestead Act. The goal wasn't just settlement, but an idealized form of settlement, a decentralized Jeffersonian democracy based on independent family farmers.

But 160-acre parcels could support a family east of the Mississippi; on the Great Plains, where the land is drier, they could not. As the majority of the homesteads failed they were bought up by neighboring landowners, a process that, coupled with the high costs of modern industrial farming, has caused the decline of the family farm and of farming communities. Today on the western, dry side of the Great Plains, ranch land typically comes up for sale in parcels of 20,000 acres--31 square miles--or more. The resulting concentration of land, wealth, and power helps explain why the average worth of Montana ranchers is $800,000, and why an organization like the National Cattlemen's Association, which represents only 230,000 members, can wield extraordinary influence in Congress--the organization has consistently and successfully opposed reforms that would restrict ranching on public lands throughout the west. (Conservationists didn't put much effort into saving the plains, because they were busy preserving mountains and forest.)

The federal government's management of the grasslands has been an awkward dance: one step forward, one step back. In the 1930s, after the dust-bowl winds blew the top layer of the Great Plains to Washington, D.C., the government passed the Taylor Grazing Act, which placed restrictions on grazing. It also encouraged the planting of windbreaks and the return of cropland to grass, which resists erosion better. Three decades later Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's secretary of agriculture, reversed that policy and encouraged farmers to cut down the windbreaks and plow their pastures for maximum profit. Because of Butz and suburban expansion, about half of Illinois' pastures and fields were turned into cornfields and shopping centers between 1960 and 1987; other states saw similar conversions.

By the early 1980s federal scientists estimated that the Butz policy had resulted in the plowing of more than 100 million acres of grass--and in record rates of soil erosion. In 1985 Congress passed the Conservation Reserve Program, which paid farmers to return some of their plowed land to grass. The CRP has lowered erosion rates and increased wildlife habitat--largely because of this legislation the North American duck population is now at a record high. But the program costs some $1.8 billion a year, and many politicians are hardly thrilled to pay farmers to accomplish what the land once did for free. Current budget proposals recommend cutting federal CRP spending to about $1 billion a year by the year 2002. And proposals to relax federal wetlands regulations may encourage more plowing and more erosion.

The Great Plains are still a land of journeys, though today those journeys consist of long drives down the interstate to the mall, to church, to school. The population density of great swaths of the Great Plains has dropped back to about what it was a few centuries ago: one person per square mile. "The land is reasserting itself throughout the region," Manning writes. By which he means its grass, its openness.

And maybe its bison, which in their traveling and grazing were once one of the dominant ecological forces in the midwest and on the plains. The Nature Conservancy has reintroduced bison on a ranch in Oklahoma, and Ted Turner has a herd on a 130,000-acre spread in Montana. Bison can be raised sustainably on these ranches because, unlike cattle, they don't concentrate in, and therefore heavily disturb, delicate riparian areas. Bison meat also sells for twice as much as beef, and many observers hope it will be an increasingly popular food.

But the reader senses that the practicalities of economics and conservation aren't quite enough for Manning. He'd like to see a little more reverence, please, for the landscape that still makes up four-tenths of the country, an acknowledgment that just because a place lacks trees or mountains doesn't mean it lacks interest. Reverence may entail eating a bison steak, or ripping out buckthorn in a forest preserve, or replacing a lawn with a yard full of native wildflowers. At the very least it may entail enjoying the openness of a prairie that a lawn echoes.

Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning, Viking Penguin, $23.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/ Jim Flynn.

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