O
nce upon a time,
in a land not so far away,
there was a grassland.

It was one among many ecozones on the continent where it was. The continent displaced almost 25,000,000 km2 and this ecozone covered 1,500,000 km2 of that area. It occupied six percent of the continent. It was a big ecozone and it was in the middle of the continent. A person could travel for days, even weeks, from east to west, and the ecozone was there; it took months to traverse the ecozone from north to south. After just one day’s walk into it, the ecozone stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see.

 
NA map

Most of the larger body of land, the continent, was covered with forest; and some parts were desert. But this ecozone was a grassland. It was like the place where humans first emerged on another continent that was far far away. It was bounded by forest to the east. It was two distinct ecosystems that blended together in the middle. To the west were more forests. It was home to many many species of flora and fauna and fungi and lichens. And people lived there, too.

Back then, the people who lived in the Grassland didn’t travel so fast as we do today. Mostly they walked. Because those people lived close to the land they knew it well, they knew the plants and the insects and the birds and the fish and the mammals. They felt connected to the land and to the many lifeforms it supported. They saw themselves as a part of the Grassland. It was their home.

One day, other people from a far away place started arriving in the Grassland. Some of the newcomers walked, but most rode horses or in carts and wagons pulled by horses or oxen. Most felt no connection with the plants and the insects and the birds and the fish and the mammals that thrived in the Grassland.

Initially the riders saw the Grassland as a vast wasteland. In fact, when they first arrived they only wanted to cross it, mostly from east to west. But because they didn’t know the land and the myriad lifeforms that it supported, many of the riders died before they reached the forests on the other side. Since they rode instead of walked, they saw themselves as apart from the land. To them the Grassland was a hostile place.

After many years of only crossing it, some of the riders — the Domesticuts — noticed that the soil of the Grassland was good for growing plants that they brought with them from far away as seeds. And to them the walkers — the Wildernots — were not making use of the land; they simply lived on it. To Domesticuts, this was a waste.

The soil of the Grassland was 10,000 years in the making. In many places, silt from a retreating glacier (that melted and dried up long before Domesticuts arrived) created a thick layer of clay that retains moisture. Then, following millennia of decomposition of dead plants, manure from grazing animals, and the effects of fire (mostly started by Wildernots) a deep layer of fertile “black soil” formed on top of the clay. The combination of fertile soil and moisture retention provided fantastic growing conditions for Domesticuts’ crops. In fact, the soil of the Grassland was the richest soil on the planet.

As soon as Domesticuts discovered how rich the soil was, they staked claim to the land of the Grassland and parcelled it up among themselves. Some brought plows and more horses and oxen to pull the plows. They began to break the soil. They planted crops from other places. They put up fences for their cattle and made roads for their wheeled vehicles. They built iron roads for large machines that pulled many carts. And they got rid of almost all of the big mammals that lived in the Grassland, the ones that had contributed to making the soil so fertile. Millions upon millions of Plains Bison were slaughtered. This was to make room for Domesticuts’ crops and for livestock that they brought from far away. And, by eliminating the primary food source of Wildernots, Domesticuts made life difficult for them. As well, Plains Grizzly and Plains Wolf threatened Domesticuts’ cattle so Domesticuts hunted the predators until they were gone.

 
Bison skull pile; ca 1870

Bison skull pile; ca 1870
© Public Domain

Not long after Domesticuts arrived at the Grassland they made many changes to the equipment and tools they used to work the land. At first, wooden plows pulled by horses or oxen were used to till the soil for planting their crops. They did not work very well. Breaking the land was slow going until one Domesticut, a blacksmith named John Deere, invented a plow with a steel blade. It broke sod and cut soil much faster. Not long after, mechanical devices were created that replaced horses for pulling the plows. When attached to multiple steel plows they broke sod and cut soil even faster. After oil was discovered, enormous machines were produced that could pull even more steel blades at once; they could tear up huge areas of the Grassland in a matter of hours.

 
farmer seeding

farmer seeding

With their newly invented equipment Domesticuts laid waste to the flora that once grew in the Grassland. When all of the readily tillable land was used, Domesticuts drained wetlands and turned them into croplands too. Soon after, water in the Grassland — that had been pure when Domesticuts first arrived — was no longer safe to drink; it had to be purified by artificial means. And, following just one generation of Domesticuts plowing the Grassland, there was an extended drought during which much of the rich soil blew away. It was windy on the Grassland; without grasses and wildflowers to hold it in place the dry soil was easily removed by the wind. Domesticuts called it a dust bowl. The Grassland had never seen such a thing before. Afterwards nutrients in the soil were much depleted. Sometime later, Domesticuts compensated for this by using artificial fertilizers. But the synthetic nutrients ran off into streams and rivers and collected in the estuaries of those streams and rivers where they caused a green slime algaeto appear; it killed most other things. Domesticuts called it progress, although toward what end was never made clear.

Domesticuts’ roads and crops and pastures and settlements fragmented the Grassland. The removal of flora and the addition of obstacles between what remained meant that many species of fauna, that had lived and thrived in the Grassland for thousands of years, could not survive. Their numbers declined SOUTHERN MANITOBA ~ PARTIAL LIST OF SPECIES
EXTINCT
plains grizzly
plains wolf
EXTIRPATED (GONE)
black-footed ferret
pronghorn
swift fox
greater prairie chicken
long-billed curlew
trumpeter swan
ENDANGERED
Baird’s sparrow
burrowing owl
loggerhead shrike
peregrine falcon
piping plover
Ross’s gull
whooping crane
Great Plains ladies’-tresses
small white lady’s-slipper
western prairie fringed orchid
showy goldenrod

THREATENED
Dakota skipper butterfly
Ottoe skipper butterfly
Great Plains toad
mule deer
ferruginous hawk
Sprague’s pipit
Culver’s-root
Riddell’s goldenrod
western silvery aster
western spiderwort
IN DECLINE
monarch butterfly
.

Domesticuts’ Wisdom taught them they had dominion over everything, that all things — both animate and inanimate — were put on the planet for use by Domesticuts:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end. #THE WAGES OF FEAR “Protecting Human Dignity and Promoting Public Health and Safety,” by Phillip W. De Vous quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola. (This publication is no longer available on the internet; I have a PDF copy if you are interested.)

To Domesticuts this meant all things on the planet were theirs for the taking. They took from the land everywhere they went.

Wildernots’ wisdom taught them that all living things were their relatives:

[They] were … unified by a fundamental land use ethic: one must interact respectfully with nature and coexist with all life-forms. … In this view, all non-human creatures are “kin” or “relatives,” nature is the embodiment of the human community, and all of nature’s denizens and elements — the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the water — are people. #Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, 2006; Page 57

Wildernots saw their role as caring for every living creature, for the Grassland which provided food and medicine and materials for clothing and shelter. They diligently tended their home.

When Wildernots objected to Domesticuts’ alterations to the Grassland, Domesticuts pushed the Wildernots into tiny areas of mostly barren land; land that was not good for growing food or raising cattle or supporting the megafauna that roamed the Grassland before Domesticuts arrived. But that is another story.

In the far away places, where most Domesticuts originated, there were expanses of short vegetation around the estates of the wealthy. Before invention of mechanical devices to carry people (and discovery of oil to power the subsequent machines), wealthy persons in the far off land kept horses to ride and to pull wagons and carts. The horses grazed the areas in which they were kept which meant the vegetation was usually short. In time the grazed areas were planted mostly with grasses which the animals preferred to eat. Flowering plants, that the horses didn’t eat remained at field edges and around the buildings where Domesticuts lived. It later became expedient to confine the horses in paddocks and stables so they were always available when Domesticuts wanted them for riding or pulling. This meant wealthy Domesticuts employed persons to cut the grass around their estates so it could be fed to the animals as hay. The grass cutters used scythes to cut the grass; many men and many days were required to cut a field this way.

Some time before the agricultural assault began on the Grassland, a Domesticut named Edwin Budding invented a mechanical device that cut grass. The mower made it possible for one person to do the work of several men (or days) in short periods of time; although it only worked if the grass was always kept short. About this same time, the estates of the wealthy on the Continent were looking like those from far away places; they, too, were grazed by horses. Some Domesticuts from the eastern part of the Continent saw a marketing opportunity:

Among other things, an area of kept-short grass around one’s buildings gave the appearance that the property was owned by a wealthy person. Appearances were important to Domesticuts. Now everyone could have a lawn, as they called it, and appear to be rich!

The clever Domesticuts — Horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing, et al — lauded the form, that came from far away, of kept-short grass ringed with showy flowers and shrubs and trees and vines. They wrote books about “Landscape Gardening” as they called it. Nature, they claimed, needed improving. They started nurseries to grow trees and pretty flowers. They chose to grow plants from far off places; they were exotic— from elsewhere — and therefore better. Plus other Domesticuts would not pay for plants that already grew wild and for free around their properties. The exotic plants were cultivated to produce big flowers that bloomed a long timeThis is partly due to pollinators on the Continent leaving exotic plants alone!. (And, in keeping with the conviction that they were improving upon Nature, Domesticuts gave many plants, that grew wild on the Continent, common names that ended with “weedMilkweed, Silverweed, Ironweed, Joe Pye Weed, and the like. ”.)

Much work was required to remove existing vegetation and install new plants; but soon every Domesticut in the eastern portion of the Continent had to have an area around their house and other buildings of short-cut grass ringed with showy flowers dotted with trees and shrubs from elsewhere. Horticultural Societies sprang into existence: Committees were established to go around and review land-owners’ efforts, to hand out awards for the best examples of the seemingly new form, the form that was borrowed from far away places, a form that lined the pockets of a few crafty men. Sometime later, people like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Anna Haven Morgan, and Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney argued in favour of the Natural world, but they were largely ignored; there was little or no money to be made by anyone if the Natural world was embraced.

It took some time for the “Landscape Gardening” form to travel west to the Grassland. Forty years passed after invention of the artificial grazer before Domesticuts started to settle and change the Grassland. When they first arrived their priority was food. Tilling the Grassland for crops was more important than beautifying the neighbourhood; in fact, it was some time before there was a neighbourhood to speak of, before towns and then cities appeared. But Domesticuts in the Grassland soon caught up with their counterparts from the east. They brought many plants from far away places. They planted treesTrees, when they form forests, also displace grasslands. . In just three generations they made the Grassland look like where their ancestors came from.

While the Grassland was being altered and the domestic landscaping form was migrating across the Continent a lot of seed was imported from far away places; a lot of seed. It was mostly seed for Domesticuts’ crops, for cattle forage, and for ormamental plants. But, with all the importing, seed from many other plants SOME IMPORTS
kentucky blue grass
smooth brome
reed canary grass
alfalfa
alsike clover
dandelion
sweet clover
wild mustard
purple loosestrife
SOME TAG ALONGS
quackgrass
creeping (aka Canada) thistle
curled dock
leafy spurge
purple loosestrife
tagged along in bags of grain and in cargo and ship ballasts.

 
American goldfinch eating narrowleaf sunflower seed

American goldfinch eating narrowleaf sunflower seed

salt marsh caterpillar eating meadow blazingstar

salt marsh caterpillar eating meadow blazingstar flower

Plants that lived in the Grassland, before arrival of Domesticuts, were kept in check by insects and birds and mammals and micro-organisms which eat the seed or the plants. There were similar checks on exotic plants — where they came from — but those insects and birds and micro-organisms, generally speaking, were not imported and Domesticuts removed most of the mammals from the Grassland. As well, seeds from many of the plants that lived in the Grassland before Domesticuts arrived wouldn’t germinate unless the hoof or foot of a large mammal pushed them into the soil. Plants from the Grassland had been there for thousands of years. Many were slow to germinate; high seed dormancy, as it’s called, was part of their genetic code. And it was three years before many plants from the Grassland produced flowers and set seed. But seeds from many of the exotic plants did not need to be pressed into soil to start growing and most of them flowered and produced more seed in their first year of growth. They also thrived in tilled soil and kept-short grass. Some of the plants from far away had an easy time of things. They quickly spread across the Continent, across the altered Grassland.

During the thousands of years in which the Grassland evolved Wildernots observed that the plants always grew bigger and greener and produced more seed or fruit after a fire. Initially fires were started by dry lightning but, over time, Wildernots started the fires; they regularly burned the Grassland. Fire became part of the ecology of plants from the Grassland. It was essential to their health and to the health of the Grassland. But Domesticuts were afraid of wildfires as they called them. Whenever they could, they put fires out; they suppressed fire on the Continent and in the Grassland.

 
original Natural grassland

original Natural grassland

 
improved grassland?

improved grassland?

 
original grassland

Tallgrass Prairie remnant

Everything Domesticuts did worked against the flora and fauna that had lived in the Grassland before their arrival. Everything they did fostered the spread of plants from far away places most of which provided little or nothing for the insects and the birds and the fish and the mammals that once prospered in the Grassland. For over 10,000 years the Grassland evolved and matured. It supported many diverse forms of life. The Grassland had been a home where the buffalo roamed, where the deer and the antelope played. In just 80 years it was changed.

Domesticuts saw the Grassland — or where the Grassland had been — as a hostile place. They made sure of it.

Robert G. Mears

December 2011

That “not so far away land” is under my feet as I write this.
The Grassland was an enormous ecozone that stretched from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It was comprised of Tallgrass Prairie (to the east), Mixed Grass Prairie (in the middle), and Shortgrass Prairie (to the west). All three are in decline:

Tallgrass Prairie is now 21,549 km2 (from 677,300 km2)
Mixed Grass Prairie is now 225,800 km2 (from (628,000 km2)
Shortgrass Prairie is now 62,115 km2 (from 181,790 km2) *

All are in scattered remnants.

Tallgrass Prairie, in Manitoba — the region where I live — is almost gone;
less than 0.5% remainsfrom 6,000 km2 down to 30 km2.

In fact, the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem was declared endangered by the Province of Manitoba in 2015. It is the only ecosystem to be declared “endangered” in Canada.

Comments (2)

  • John Neufeld

    I enjoyed this post immensely! Very well said.

  • Nurit Drory

    Thank you for a sobering history, Robert.

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