The grasslands — humanity's big backyard

  • Sonoita Plain


"We live in grasslands, and we live off them," write biologists Carl and Jane Bock. "They are our backyards, in an evolutionary if no longer always in a literal sense." For more than three decades, the Bocks have studied humanity’s backyard, mostly in the form of an 8,000-acre former cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona. On the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, an Audubon Society preserve not grazed since the late 1960s, the Bocks observe grasses, birds and other species both native and exotic, searching for clues to a past before livestock and firefighting.

This collection of brief essays about their work conveys the Bocks’ affection for the subtleties of grasslands, and for the variety of people who live in them and off them. With clear explanations and tart asides, the Bocks consider diverse topics: the traveling habits of pronghorn, the collusion of jays and flickers, the local etiquette regarding summer rainfall — don’t assume your neighbor got as much as you did — and the many gut-level reasons to conserve biodiversity.

Humans have altered grasslands more than any other of the world’s major ecosystems, they write, making the protection of grasslands’ remaining genetic and environmental resources all the more important.

"The point of conservation in the Sonoita Valley is not to preserve some sort of wilderness that probably never existed," they note. "It is to make room at the table for other grassland species that call it home in addition to ourselves, wherever and whenever that is possible."

Photographer Stephen Strom documents tiny moments of grassland glory, revealing a flaming-yellow bloom of duckweed in a catchment basin, snow caught in the creases of an agave, and the glowing centers of lilies and poppies. The photographs appear in a series of small, isolated frames, emphasizing that in this place, true appreciation requires close observation.

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