It was an extraordinary view. From two centuries ago.
I was standing in front of another vacant, overgrown house in my neighborhood gazing at the tall mounds of unmowed grasses when something shifted in my perception. For a few magical moments, I didn’t see weeds. I didn’t see blight or negligence. I didn’t see another landlord’s investment-seminar disaster sinking under tax liens and rotting shingles. Instead, the man-made structure slipped to background as the wild grasses focused into a timeless view of … prairie.
Spread before me were all the plant inhabitants of pre-settlement Indiana, waving at me on Lindsay Avenue. Switchgrass and Indian grass. Big and little bluestem grass. Wild rye. I saw real coneflowers, goldenrod, some bush clover. The living descendants of a whole prairie ecosystem that covered a million acres before it was plowed under, bricked over and rammed deep with iron sewer pipe, gas lines and industrial runoff. Yet here they all were, bursting up through the backfill of a century-old neighborhood. Resilient prairie species rising up out of the past to reclaim its land. Its alive, I realized. The prairie is still here.
I didn’t use to talk like this. But things have happened to open my urban consciousness lately. Events triggered by several intersections: raising my family in the inner city the past 15 years; recent travels in the Great Plains and northwoods wilderness, and a heart-opening book by a failed cattle rancher who bet the whole farm on wild buffalo.
1. The Inner City. In my neighborhood, if you take a shovel and dig a hole anywhere, you will hit the urban dilemma everywhere. Some years ago I was helping a neighbor dig post-holes for a fence. But every attempt to drive my shovel down was blocked as it thunked into a buried tire, a wooden window frame, rusty beer cans or red brick. From various holes I pulled out iron pipe, asphalt shingles, glass, even a doll’s head.
When we first moved to Cottage Grove Avenue in 1997, I noticed a peculiar 15 x 30 foot area in my backyard that failed to grow grass. After several years of this I dug down for a soil sample only to hit a foot-deep layer of oddly familiar, fine-crushed gravel. Everywhere I dug, I hit the same uniform layer of gravel right under the surface. “Oh yeah,” my neighbor Paulson said. “That’s cat litter. The guy who lived there poured a bag down every week so he could drain his pickup oil on it.” So I was the proud owner of an old house on a quarter acre of urban backfill, cat litter and motor oil.
I’m no eco-saint. For years I was just another irritable white person standing in his yard glaring down at dandelions with a gallon of Roundup demanding, What are you doing here? I learned this from my dad, whose attempts to cultivate a beautiful, if contrived yard took a distant second to the neighbors across the street, a retired police officer and his wife who were complete chemical yard-obsessives. From April through October they mowed and fertilized and sprayed so much herbicide I don’t think a native plant has sprouted on that land since 1930. A shame, as our homes in southeast Minnesota were built on some of the richest, deepest prairie topsoil in North America.
2. The Prairie. In pre-settlement America the great prairie began in Indiana’s Wabash River Valley, stretching West to the Mississippi, across the Great Plains and up to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. My own back yard in South Bend is part of the 15% of Indiana (northwest and west-central regions) that comprised prairie. From here to Colorado the land was literally crawling with elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, grizzly bears and gray wolves. The air flapped with birds and the rivers with fish. The plains supported beaver and otter “richer than any country on earth”, wrote Lewis and Clark.
Since boyhood I’ve traveled and camped all over these regions of the country, from Canada down to Mexico. But today the only place you will find remnants of the original tallgrass, mixed grass and shortgrass prairies of the Great Plains is in rural cemeteries and roadside ditches unreachable by modern farm equipment.
It took just 60 years for railroad barons protected by U.S. law (and the U.S. Army) to rid the Plains of Native Americans, kill 30 million buffalo and flood the land with speculator-farmers. Homesteaders plowed up over a million acres with equipment that made wagon and implement dealers rich (including South Bend’s Oliver Plow and Studebaker families). Only to learn the hard way that rainfall in Nebraska or South Dakota was not that of New York and Ohio. Like the fur trappers that preceded them, the farmer/homestead conquest was a quick resource grab with no thought to ecology or even their own fate. Railroads actually recruited Americans for the new towns and Europeans for the rural land because, as geographer John Hudson put it, “the Europeans would work harder and complain less.”*
The results are well known. By the 1930s the massive plowup of thick prairie sod and overgrazing exposed 70% of the drought-baked topsoil to Dust Bowl winds. One 2-day dust storm in 1934 lifted 12 million pounds of topsoil from the Plains and dropped it over Chicago, Boston and New York City. Iowa lost 89% of its original wetlands to the plow; Minnesota lost 50%. Grizzly bear, gray wolves and buffalo were exterminated from the region. Beaver and otter were trapped out by the American Fur Company (unlike the Canadian Hudson Bay Company which rotated its trapping grounds). The ecological and economic disaster was so great that in 1933 the U.S. government began the strange practice of paying farmers to not cultivate land with cash subsidies that today account for a majority of some farmers’ annual income.*
But the damage was done. Homesteaders and whole towns packed up and moved on, and this small town depopulation continues today: 60% of Plains counties lost population in the 1990s. New buildings are as likely to be nursing homes or jails than housing or business. Bird populations continue to drop from removal of woodland and windbreaks at the edges of fields. And farming itself has a dubious new achievement: as of 2012, the USDA reports that 85 percent of U.S. corn is now genetically engineered. (A local farmer told me that one of the few sources of unmodified seed for corn, wheat and soybeans are the Amish, who guard their supplies like gold.)
Which is why, standing in that overgrown yard in my urban neighborhood , I was delighted to see some original prairie grasses rising up. Quite a display of nature’s deep resilience. It called to mind all the other remarkable examples one sees of nature finding a tiny little gap in the suffocating cap of asphalt, iron or herbicides that layer the land. A little moisture and sunlight are all that is needed to start a maple tree rising in the middle of a parking lot, or even a roof-edge rain gutter.
I worry about the earth, and climate change. But though homo sapiens may not survive its own behaviors, I’m not quite as concerned lately about the rest of the species. Time and again nature has managed to beat the odds and recover from human progress whether it is the return of a great lake, an urban river or even…the American buffalo.
3. Buffalo. In his book Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch (2001), Dan O’Brien writes a heart-opening account of his personal and financial breakdown as a failing South Dakota cattle rancher. And how his shift to raising a small herd of wild buffalo saved not only his ranch, but his soul.
I met O’Brien in 2010 at his sprawling ranch on the edge of the pristine Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. A no-nonsense wildlife biologist and falconer, his passion is twofold: raising awareness about the damage mono-agriculture has done to the Great Plains ecosystem, and how sustainable ranching and farming is helping restore the health and biodiversity of the prairie.
For example, unlike high-maintenance cattle that were first introduced to the Americas by Spain, the buffalo (Bison bison) is perfectly suited for hard life on the prairie. A buffalo can go for days without food or water and survive temperature extremes with ease. Its natural behaviors nurture its environment: a buffalo wallow creates a shallow soil depression to capture sparse rain and allow a microclimate for aquatic life and flora; its rooting-about tills the soil and exposes dormant seeds to sunlight and moisture. And so forth. The message: restore key wildlife and plants to the area, leave it alone, and the Prairie will begin to heal itself, thank you very much. (For a short radio interview with O’Brien about his book, click http://www.loe.org.)
4. Wilderness Renewal. I think a series of motorcycle and wilderness travels this summer opened me up for the urban-prairie vision. Last June I rode up the Mississippi River road along 260 miles of protected wildlife sanctuary stretching from Rock Island, Illinois to Wabasha, Minnesota. In July I cruised out to South Dakota through the Black Hills, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and the vast Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In Badlands National Park I camped in a remote wilderness site as hot and gorgeous as the Sinai. Then in September I was up to northern Minnesota for a week of wilderness paddling in the the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
What struck me most about those trips afterward was not the heart-opening landscapes or the deep nature experience. Rather, it was the heart-closing experience of reentry into urban life. How quickly the culture of noise, vehicles, techno-distractions and restless movement impairs any meaningful interaction with nature.
In the city, nature is regarded as an it with little intrinsic worth beyond potential real estate or a recreational venue. But in the wilderness nature is your medium, your skin, your source. It is your ever-changing greatest threat and your greatest hope for survival. You are warmed by it, chilled by it, wary of it and helped by it. You are drinking from it and shitting on it like the other animals. Your mental attention is sharpened, focused by necessity on the present moment: Don’t trip on that root. Are those rain clouds? I’m hungry now. A bald eagle! The novice campers among us began to spend less time chattering and trying to find a clean shirt or hand sanitizer, and more time just being in their surroundings, learning to tolerate a little earth on their bodies.
After several days, a certain outdoor competence, resourcefulness and physical efficiency is activated. You awaken and settle into your body like never before as a critical ally and friend. After three days of humping my gear and canoe over long portages this August I was exhausted and sore. Yet I also felt stronger, more alive and alert than I had in years. I ate like a horse, slept like a rock and lost weight. A deep sense of wellness crept in that I don’t experience in civilization. Damn. I was born to do this. All the Christmas lights were lit up. Complete utilization. Work, purpose, risk, adventure, muscles, brain and Spirit all mixed together.
After such a week or two in the wilderness it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to refer to the Earth as one’s “mother”. It doesn’t seem so poetic to relate to fellow creatures as one’s brothers and sisters. You have to find water. You leave your poop along the way. You see that a little bird or a chipmunk can get along better than you with all your gear and GoreTex. You understand that you need the earth, and it doesn’t need you.
At some point a quiet I-Thou relationship begins to develop with the living things around you that is impossible to experience within the urban setting or belief system. You grasp that you are embedded in the web of life, not gazing down at it from atop an imagined pyramid of less evolved creatures.
There are spiritual implications to this: an I-Thou experience of the earth is a pre-civilized understanding. It is a pre-Christian understanding. It is a shamanic understanding that we dearly need to retrieve and integrate today. (More on that, of course, on my website at GreatPlainsGuide.com)
Back on Lindsey Avenue in South Bend, the vision was fading. The prairie grasses shifted back into mounds of unmowed weeds. The house with the sagging porch returned into full view. The prairie was gone.
I blinked and looked around me, but my only companions were an empty pack of Newports and a Burger King bag at the curb. Down the block a roofing crew hammered away above the piercing whine of a circular saw. Neighborhood revitalization continues full steam on my street, thanks to an active neighborhood association and hard work from my neighbors.
But there were other humans who would have a different vision for “revitalization” of this once-prairie land. People who hunted and gathered the south bend of the big river long before Oliver and Studebaker made this an industrial boom town.
Indigenous people would have seen the same tall grasses waving before me with different eyes. Rather than judging between the desirable grass and undesirable weeds they would have known which of those plants held healing properties. Which plants were best for cooking. Which plants were used for sacred ceremony.
These people were more like the birds than us. Women, men and children who could survive a winter without natural gas, travel long distances without gasoline and find their way at night by the stars. They had plenty of meaningful work for all the able-bodied. They didn’t curse health care costs with a pharmacy of plant medicine right under their feet. Heaven was not far away above them, and the earth did not conceal a hell deep below. Heaven was all around them, they were part of it, and the earth was their mother.
*Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, by Michael Forsberg. (2009)
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