Monday, March 5, 2012


I grew up across the street from a hardwood forest in Michigan.  When my family visited relatives in North Dakota, the vast wide open grasslands seemed so dry, empty, sad.  I just read Richard Manning’s book Grassland, and it was most illuminating — every chapter was rich with information that was new to me, and important to understand.  This book changed the way I think. 
There are four biomes in the ecosphere: tundra, forest, grassland, and desert.  Grasslands typically receive 10 to 30 inches of rain per year (20 to 60 cm).  Less than 10 inches is desert, and more than 30 is forest.  Generally speaking, there are two types of grasslands: tall grass (wetter) and short grass (dryer). 
Almost all of the original tall grass ecosystem in the US has been replaced with corn (maize), a domesticated tall grass that’s a magnet for government subsidy checks.  More of the original short grass ecosystem has survived, but much of it has been replaced with wheat, a domesticated short grass that generates better income than grazing. 
The process of converting grassland into cropland erased countless species of flora and fauna.  Healthy, diverse, soil-building wild ecosystems were replaced by soil-destroying, chemically-soaked, energy-guzzling monocultures of exotic plants — temporarily.  Today we beat the soil, and tomorrow the soil will beat us.  Plow cultures can never win in the long run.
Manning believes that climate change provided our hominid ancestors with a key to success.  An era of rising temperatures shrank the forests, and expanded the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, much to our benefit.  Grasslands produce far more meat than forests, and creatures that walk upright, and are taller than the grass, enjoy important advantages. 
Humans migrated into the Americas during the last Ice Age, when the sea level dropped, and the Beringia land bridge emerged.  Beringia was grassland.  Somewhere around the time of this migration, a number of large mammals went extinct, but not all of them.  Survivors included the bison, elk, deer, moose, grizzly bear, black bear, caribou, and antelope.  With the exception of the antelope, all of them migrated from Asia, and had long experience with living cautiously near humans.  The indigenous antelopes survived because they could run at speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph), far faster than hungry spear-chuckers.  Wooly mammoths were not so quick.
Prior to the European invasion, this new cast of characters did a beautiful job of coevolving with the grassland ecosystem of the western US.  Manning suspects that there were about 50 million bison and 10 million elk in 1492.  The bison and elk were brilliantly able to feed themselves, fend off excessive predation, and enjoy satisfying lives — without fences, hay trucks, feed troughs, watering tanks, hormones, antibiotics, human managers, or huge government subsidies.
Today, the plains support 45.5 million cattle on the same land.  In the nineteenth century, western ranching tycoons began raising large herds of short-horned cattle from northern Europe.  The imported animals were accustomed to a moist climate, moderate summers, mild winters, and a diet that majored in forbs (broad leafed flowering plants).  But on the western plains, the climate was arid, summers were sizzling, winters were blast-freezers, and the vegetation majored in grasses, not forbs.  Frigid winters in 1885-86 and 1906-07 killed 50 to 75 percent of the cattle on the high plains — while the snow-frosted bison remained warm, well-fed, and secretly amused at the misfortune of the hapless newcomers.
Americans also imported thousands of species of exotic plants.  Cheatgrass is nearly nutrient-free, except in the spring, and it often wipes out and replaces nutritious indigenous vegetation.  Spotted knapweed spreads rapidly, and can suppress 95 percent of the grass.  Grazing animals won’t eat it.  Nor will they nibble on sulfur cinquefoil or leafy spurge.  Leafy spurge can completely dominate a landscape, reducing it to a biological desert.  Wildlife can die from malnutrition in places cursed with an abundance of exotics.  Killing invasive exotic vegetation is prohibitively expensive.  They are here to stay, and their plan is to spread.
To add insult to injury, we plowed up the tall grass prairies and planted corn, 70 percent of which is used to feed animals.  Corn makes cattle sick, but it fattens them for market faster, and makes a lot of rich people richer.  Today’s industrial corn production destroys the soil, pollutes the groundwater, encourages flooding, creates coastal dead zones, and countless other serious problems.  It’s not a process with a long term future.
The billionaire Ted Turner tried a different approach.  He bought the 110,000 acre Flying D ranch in Montana, sold off the cattle, tore down most of the fences, and brought in bison.  The bison cost half as much to raise, and sold for twice as much — while the health of the land improved at the same time.  Might there be an important lesson here?
Manning serves us story after story — the downside of horse domestication, the extermination of the buffalo, the ethics of animal rights thinkers, prairie restoration projects, the disasters caused by railroads and steel plows, the Dust Bowl, the fabulous damage caused by wheat farming on the Palouse Prairie, and on and on.  It’s an intriguing collection of ideas.
Here’s the bottom line.  Prior to 1492, the plains Indians had learned how to live with nature in a relatively balanced manner.  The Europeans, on the other hand, tried to manage the American ecosystems to work just like Europe.  Unfortunately, the European design was a time-proven disaster in Europe, and everywhere else it was tried.  The moral of the story is that winners learn how to live with nature, and losers try to control it and exploit it.  Losers repeatedly crash and burn, and they display a remarkable inability to learn from their mistakes.
All of the venerable visionaries of the west are unanimous in predicting a future of change.  Peak Cheap Energy will put the forks to industrial agriculture, and many other things.  Vast expanses of monoculture corn will follow the wooly mammoths — as will generous government subsidy checks, and maybe the government, too.  The Ogallala aquifer will be empty before long.  Grassland just may have a bright tomorrow.  Let’s hope so.
Manning, Richard, Grassland, Viking, New York, 1995.

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