Virtually all of agriculture is an attempt to artificially prolong the first stage of succession. The grasses we have domesticated ... grow quickly and concentrate energy on producing seed. They store carbohydrates in these seeds, precisely why we value them as food.
From an ecological
sense, then, agriculture is a sustained catastrophe. It is the
practice of plowing, then preventing nature from healing itself. It
is imposition of a monoculture on a system that wants nothing so
much as to diversify and stabilize.
Grassland: The History, Biology,
Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, by Richard Manning.
New York: Viking, 1995, 306 pages,
Review by James V.
When the American
nation was young, open grasslands dominated the landscape of the
Central Plains states and the intermountain
The magnificent bison roamed the prairie, a
stirring symbol of a wild but harmonious ecosystem. Then came the
railroad, the bison hunts, sectioning the land, and bringing in the
plow, farmers, cattle and ranchers. And everything
The face of the land itself was altered,
and so were its natural systems. The change was part of our Western
expansion, our economic development and that quintessential
American boast, "progress." But progress has come at a terrible
price, as Richard Manning's new book convincingly demonstrates. The
openness and sheer scale of the prairie states frightens or bores
most urban Americans, and even many people who live there don't
really know their habitat or comprehend its
In a just world, Manning's book would
Forty percent of the United States
is grassland - -the nation's largest biome, but also our most
degraded and most misunderstood," he writes.
experience anguish at the wreckage of a clear-cut mixed-tree
forest, destined to be replaced by a single-species tree farm. Few
realize, says Manning, that a waving field of golden wheat is the
same thing - a crop monoculture inhabitating what once was a rich
and diverse but now "clear-cut"
Manning tells the story of the
American grassland, from its creation when the Rockies rose and set
up the climatic conditions that produce prairie, to its present-day
What we've done to this delicate
resource in only a century or so is:
* Farm it
carelessly, producing massive soil erosion.
Allow cattle to trample it and overgraze it.
Drill irrigation wells that are sucking dry the huge Ogallala
Aquifer that underlies much of six plains
* Kill off the native vegetation and then
import exotic plants for cattle feed and range cover, plants
unsuited to the American prairie that now have become
* Wipe out almost all
bison and countless other forms of
"Grassland covers more land area than
any other ecosystem in North America; no other system has suffered
such a massive loss of life," Manning
Manning has written earlier books on
forest logging and on building his own house in Montana's
Bitterroot Valley. A striking feature of this latest work is its
"The solitude of the prairie is like
no other," he tells us, "the feeling of being hidden and alone in a
grassland as open as the sea. Walking toward the horizon through
the hills, tawny and loose like the folds in a cougar's skin, one
has a sense that over the next ridge there will rise a brown cloud
of bison and over the next, the Pleistocene unspoiled."
Sometimes, his statements seem to overreach a
bit - -the grassland was where we destroyed democracy' - and the
book is badly in need of some good maps to clarify the places he
describes; one tiny map of the United States locating the grassland
of the central and western United States is
But those objections are minor. This
book succeeds because it's dense with facts, skillfully written and
it opens our eyes.
Risser, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, directs the John S.
Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford
University, where reporter Richard Manning was a 1993-94