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Know the West

That waving wheat is nothing but a clearcut

  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.