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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage

I’ve just written a cover comment for Candace Savage’s next book, Geography of Blood, which prompted me to return to the first book of hers I read, Prairie: A Natural History, published by Greystone Books, Canada, in 2004.

The photos in this book are so beautiful it’s easy to skim over the writing; that would be an error because Savage’s writing and research are excellent. If you think the Great Plains are flat and featureless, this is the book to introduce you to their excellent variety.

Grasses, notes Savage, “have migrated to every continent except Antarctica and have diversified into about 10,000 species.” Of these, some twelve dozen distinctly different native grasses naturally occur in the Great Plains!

Because the climate here is more variable than it is almost anywhere else on the continent, including periods that are much wetter or much drier than the long term, these grasses need to be adaptable. And they are, “able to dial their metabolism down when conditions are unfavorable for growth and speed them up when the weather improves.”

Grasses, she notes, are not passive, blowing idly in the wind but “lean, mean growing machines, designed to make the most of limited and unreliable resources.”

Therefore, the first rule of living in grasslands should be to preserve, not destroy, this rich resource. And yet to create cities and subdivisions we pave and plow it wildly, planting tender non-native grasses we call “lawn” and spreading poison to keep the useless little blades alive against huge odds constituted by the climate, predators and nature.

Savage also faced head-on the folks who insist that bison are the most perfectly adapted grazing species for the plains and should replace cattle. “.... bison and cattle are fundamentally alike. Removing wild American bison and replacing them with tame Eurasian cattle-- though a stunning act of hubris-- was ecologically relatively neutral.”

Management is, of course, the key. “Fortunately, even when confined by fences, cattle help to maintain patches of vegetation. ...and this effect can be enhanced by implementing an appropriate regime of management.” By manipulating the variables-- number of cattle, season and duration of grazing and rest-- “ranchers can manage the prairie to provide an array of habitats. The best and wisest land managers do exactly that because they understand that rangelands with a natural diversity of vegetation will outproduce and outlast those that are reduced to homogeneous spans of grass.”

Want to know about the prairie? Get the book. Go through it at least once just to enjoy the photographs of expanses of grassland, gorgeous and rare water elements and the native wildlife. And then sit down and read it for the information.

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