On the Vanished Prairie

The concept of the Great Prairie or Great Plains of fertile grasslands that lie largely between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains has been a mainstay of the American ethos even before the days that Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800s. Those two adventurers brought back reports of how beautiful, how bountiful, how pleasant the prairie lands were, and farmers by the wagonloads made their way west to carve out their own private piece of the American Dream one farm at a time.

Except something happened in the less than 100 years from the time the first settler farms began dotting the wide open spaces of the prairies. The grasslands and the fertile soil beneath the grass began rapidly disappearing. Now, certainly, all of the land between the Mississippi and the Rockies isn’t prairie grassland, but the lion’s share of it certainly is, or was. But digging up the grasslands by the farmer’s plows destroyed that fragile ecosystem by and large. Grasslands take time to grow and mature. Those early settlers not only plowed the ground to grow grains but they also dug down into the dirt to use the solid sod to make their homes in the absence of large amounts of woodlands. That’s why many of them are referred to as sod-busters. They were also effective prairie busters. Because, you see, plowing destroys the entire root system of the prairie grasses, and with it, as we have said, the ecosystem.

It’s difficult to understand exactly how diverse the prairie grasslands were. Some botanists say that there were over 350 different species of grass that made up the prairies. This doesn’t even mention the wildlife and the insects, the moths and even the amphibians, that populated the land before it was destroyed. Such incredible variety, such wonderful diversity, would be amazing to recapture if we could restore the grasslands…somehow.

Of course, today, the advent of the modern corporate farm has also replaced the small farmers that first plowed the land more than 150 years ago in the prairies. They made matters worse, if that was possible, by buying up all the land they could, destroying even more valuable natural land. If the land could be somehow procured and set aside, and if somehow the original grass species could be found, then maybe, just maybe, a patch of prairie could be restored with all the flora and fauna that it protected and nourished. If even a square mile of undisturbed, virginal prairie land was to be found somewhere, somehow, it would be considered incredibly precious.

Well, we are in luck. And our undisturbed prairie land is found today in the most unlikely place. You remember those farmers, those sod-busters, who first destroyed the ecosystem? They died, of course. And their deaths, ironically, may just be the key to restoring the prairie ecosystem.

You see, there are sections of undisturbed prairie land, along with the flora and fauna, in the old fenced-in cemeteries that dot the plains today.


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