[Note: This is the twenty-second sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 201 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
Hominins originated on the tropical savannahs of Mother Africa, about four million years ago. Since then, we have evolved, gotten too clever, colonized six continents, driven many megafauna species extinct, maximized food production, and exploded in numbers. The human saga has been a unique experiment in living that is entirely out of the pattern of all other animals. In a fantastic joyride of blissful ignorance, we have unintentionally succeeded in rubbishing the planet. The bedrock foundation of this grand adventure is our deep and enduring relationship with grassland ecosystems.
Grasslands are sprawling green arrays of solar energy collectors that transform sunbeams into carbohydrates. These nutrients migrate from species to species, up and down the food chain, and enable the existence of the family of life, including large herbivores, the preferred food for prehistoric people. For the effort invested, they provided the biggest jackpots of meat. Our intense desire for these animals, and our ongoing dependence on them, guided our evolution from hominins to humans.
It’s important to understand that herds of large herbivores do not usually reside in forests or jungles. Large body size is an advantage on grasslands, but can be a disadvantage in dense woodlands. In terms of vegetation, forests contain much more plant biomass than grasslands, but most of it is elevated out of the reach of hungry herbivores.
For herd critters, grasslands are the best place to dine on high quality greenery, hang out with friends and relatives, and enjoy a wonderful life of fresh air, travel, and adventure. Each year, grasslands produce much more new biomass per acre than forests, and it’s conveniently located close to the ground. Consequently, grasslands are home to far more large animals. I would expect that most mammalian megafauna species originated in grasslands.
Grasslands, grazers, and large carnivores coevolved for many millions of years. Much more recently, hominins pushed into the game, and began competing with the carnivores. By and by, the clever tropical primates, with their terrifying weaponry, expanded into every continent, migrating from grassland to grassland, hunting, feasting, singing, and dancing.
As expanding wild cultures perfected their hunting skills, large game became harder to find, and attention shifted toward smaller animals, birds, shellfish, and so on. We kept bumping into limits, and some cultures began to lurch toward the domestication of animals and/or plants.
Over time, persistent control freaks eventually succeeded in domesticating some wild herbivore species. Instead of spending their time chasing increasingly scarce wild critters all over the countryside, they could selectively breed passive dimwitted animals, confine them to limited pastures, and conveniently exploit them in every imaginable way. Jared Diamond noted that the five most important domesticates were horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. All five were domesticated on the grasslands of Eurasia by 4000 B.C. No mammals were domesticated south of the equator in Africa, humankind’s ancestral homeland.
In some cultures, foragers gathered the energy-dense seeds of wild grasses. Over time they encouraged these grasses to grow in more locations by sowing their seeds. Foragers had a natural tendency to gather the seeds that were more convenient to reap, and leave behind seeds that readily fell to the ground. For example, when wild wheat is ripe, the heads shatter, releasing all of their seeds. This natural dispersal promotes the survival of the species.
Year after year, foragers brought home seeds from plants that were (1) less prone to shattering, (2) ripened at the same time, and (3) produced larger seeds. Over centuries, the seeds they planted became significantly different from wild seeds. Today, more than half of the calories consumed by humankind come from three grasses: rice, wheat, and corn (maize). Other popular grasses include oats, barley, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, and bamboo.
I’ll have more to say about plant and animal domestication in later chapters. Here, I just want to point out that some hunter-gatherer cultures transitioned into farmers and herders. Their diet continued to major in grassland plant foods and large herbivores, but it was shifting toward domesticated varieties. What remained constant was the continued dependence of many cultures on grassland ecosystems.
Graham Harvey, a grass worshipping wordsmith, concluded that humans are essentially creatures of the grass, like hyenas and horses. Deep inside, we still are. Long ago we lost our ability to quickly scamper up trees, and leap from branch to branch. We evolved into bipedal critters fine-turned for walking, running, and surviving in grasslands.
In the good old days, bands of nomadic hunter-gathers spent their lives wandering across vast grasslands. It was a way of life that majored in freedom. Our ancestors were as free as every other wild critter. No rent, money, landlords, soldiers, slaves, taxes, kings, police, or smart phones. Indeed, we evolved as nomads, and remained nomads for almost the entire four million year hominin saga. For hunters to stop roaming, and put down roots, would have been very risky. Their best option was to follow the herds, which never stopped wandering in search of grass.
Bruce Chatwin was fascinated by the freedom of nomadic life, and the deep human need to always keep moving. He was born in England in 1940, and spent his entire life in an intensely overpopulated world, boiling with nonstop conflict and bad craziness. Industrial civilization tends not to inspire a profound sense of joy, wonderment, and celebration among the billions of anxious stressed-out taxpayers born in captivity.
He mentioned a Hungarian epidemiologist who had studied the history of infectious diseases. The man concluded that humans were not meant to settle down. Whenever you confine dense populations of humans and other animals in a fixed location, poop happens — lots of poop — excrement all over the place. Drinking water develops a crappy flavor and aroma. Before long, pathogens rush through the crowds, weeding out the weak and unlucky — a gold rush for grave diggers. Nomads live in small bands, and rarely crap in the same place twice. Their water tastes like water, and their lifestyle is not a magnet for infectious diseases. Freedom is good for your health. We’ll take a closer look at disease in later pages.
Today, during the brief era of fossil fuel mania, developed societies can temporarily discourage epidemics by implementing complex, expensive, energy-guzzling systems for waste treatment and water purification. In wealthy societies, antibiotics are currently controlling the spread of many pathogens, but the benefit of these wonder drugs can only be temporary, because pathogens will never stop mutating into drug-resistant forms. We are approaching the post-antibiotic era. Whistling while he works, the Grim Reaper is sharpening his scythe. Breaking all the laws of nature has harsh consequences, and Big Mama Nature has a deep regard for justice.
Finally, nomadic cultures enjoyed great freedom as long as they remained hunter-gatherers. These cultures were essentially egalitarian. There was no hierarchy of power, everyone was equal. Unequal status was toxic to group cohesion. Folks who became big headed were a serious problem that had to be promptly resolved. It was vital that folks in small bands cooperated, shared, and respected one another.
When nomadic cultures shifted from hunting wild animals to herding enslaved critters, they entered a path that led to ugly destinations. Nothing more reliably turns humans into tyrants, conquerors, egomaniacs, and spectacular idiots than cultures that define personal status in terms of accumulated wealth — personal property. The lad with 100 cattle looked down on the fellow with 10. This mindset sparked an explosion of craziness — furious empires of Mongols and Huns spilling rivers of blood. Status mania continues to this day, but on a dramatically larger scale. We are not living at the zenith of freedom, or anywhere near it.
In the dry land regions of Earth, there are four primary biomes: grassland, forest, desert, and tundra. Precipitation is a key factor. Forests and jungles need to receive at least 30 inches (76 cm) per year. Deserts receive less than 10 inches (25 cm). Grasslands fit in the middle, 10 to 30 inches. Grasslands have two seasons, productive and dormant. In warm climates, they are dormant during the dry season, and recover when the rains return. In temperate climates, they are dormant during the frosty months, and green when the soil thaws.
Grasslands have evolved to survive in arid climates. Grasses can live where most other plant species cannot. There are three basic categories of grasslands: savannah, steppe, and prairie. [MAP] Savannahs are grasslands speckled with some trees and brush. Steppes are called shortgrass prairies, because most plants are less than one foot (30 cm) tall. Prairies are wetter, and produce tall grass, which can grow up to 13 feet (4 m) high — a horse can disappear in it.
Graham Harvey noted that grasses first evolved about 70 million years ago. There are now an estimated 12,000 grass species, and they grow in many temperate and tropical regions. Grasslands are communities of different plants — primarily grasses, mixed with a wide variety of sedges and leafy forbs (wild flowers and herbs).
These mixed communities maximize the capture of solar energy, make better use of soil resources, and create rich humus. Humus boosts fertility, and helps retain moisture. Some plants convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is essential for all plants and animals. Others are good at retrieving essential mineral nutrients.
Following an intense disturbance, grasslands can recover in 5 to 10 years — far faster than a wrecked forest. Evolution has done a remarkable job of fine-tuning grasslands for rugged durability. They can go dormant during dry times, and revive when rains return. They can survive extended droughts and six month winters. They can recover more easily after wildfires because only a third of grassland biomass is above ground, and vulnerable to flames.
Beneath the surface, the invisible portion of grasslands is astonishing. Many plants send roots deep into the ground, to acquire moisture and nutrients. Some grow as deep as 32 feet (10 m). In some regions, densely interwoven roots created a thick sod that pioneer farmers cut into bricks that were used to build homes and schools. Because of unreliable precipitation, trees and shrubs often die before they can grow roots deep enough to tap dependable water.
The seeds of many grassland species can remain dormant for an extended period, until appropriate conditions return, and inspire them to germinate. Some seeds can survive a ride through an herbivore’s gut and remain fertile, enabling the colonization of new locations.
In 1872, Kansas senator John James Ingalls celebrated the power of grass. He wrote: “Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. …Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. …The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.”