That waving wheat is nothing but a clearcut

  • Cover of the book "Grassland"

  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.


* from Grassland


Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, by Richard Manning. New York: Viking, 1995, 306 pages, $23.95.





Review by James V. Risser





When the American nation was young, open grasslands dominated the landscape of the Central Plains states and the intermountain West.


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 changed.


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 importance.


In a just world, Manning's book would change that.


Forty percent of the United States is grassland - -the nation's largest biome, but also our most degraded and most misunderstood," he writes.


Many 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" grassland.


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 imperiled state.


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 states.


* 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 hard-to-control pests.


* Wipe out almost all bison and countless other forms of wildlife.


"Grassland covers more land area than any other ecosystem in North America; no other system has suffered such a massive loss of life," Manning writes.


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 eloquence.


"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 inadequate.


But those objections are minor. This book succeeds because it's dense with facts, skillfully written and it opens our eyes.





James 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 fellow.


High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....