‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie destruction: trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag-and-it’s-yours ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey’s home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Reading this chart, I felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. The supremacy of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.


We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.


*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry, not “not enough farms.”

my field

I had sort of forgotten my “field”.
“Unselfishness” is my field.
I see people in the fields of renewable energy, political transparency, racial justice, etc., and I’m like, man… that’s pretty sweet. I should be an engineer, or politician, or activist.
But somehow this morning, I remembered my “field”.
Unselfishness: making decisions without making the assumption that my well being is more valuable than that of others.
Not the same as altruism, which is more narrow and surface-level: taking actions with the betterment of others as the immediate goal.
Altruism, if practiced completely, will cause you to die of thirst in a week’s time.
Unselfishness, if practiced completely, will generally cause you to be fairly helpful in the world.
— Altruism: to the other. Positively implies a directing outward. I am not being altrustic when I take a drink of water. The water is directed inward.
— Unselfishness: I can certainly take a drink of water without assuming my well being matters more than others’!
That’s my field. Exploring how to invite and facilitate people (including me!) in exploring and practicing philosophies of unselfishness.
It’s a field that can have bearing on all the others. Folks practicing unselfishness are better equipped to support renewable energy, etc. I don’t have to feel like I’m “missing out” or “leaving behind” those other fields by focusing on this one.
And it’s a field which makes it make sense why I’m in web-comm as a trade-skill… because unselfishness is a philosophy, a concept… one that requires communicating about, and facilitating with communication tools.
So… I should probably keep being in web-comm (at least for now)… AND,  I should remember to write and converse and maybe even speak about such topics every now and then!