It Takes a Village to Raise a Prairie

| 8/18/2010 9:19:15 PM

Tags: prairie, bison, global warming, grass-fed beef, Lierre Keith,

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote Yeats. But to be alive right now — if the heart is more than a brute pump — is to live in a dream from which, try as we might, we cannot awaken. The dream repeats, we struggle, it pulls us deeper, and it is possible to drown in despair.

Knowledge is now double-edged. It can be a sandbar of sanity in a world gone mad (populations of plankton — beginning of the food chain, makers of oxygen — have plummeted 40 percent — will someone please make this stop?); or it can drive us into the desperate denial of magical thinking (a fuel cell by any other name). Some people need the rough shock of numbers, an emotional defibrillation, to jolt them to life: old-growth forests, 98 percent gone; prairies, 99 percent gone; yes, this culture is killing the planet.  For others, god is in the details, a god who needs us if not to pray than at least to notice: the lacework of life is rent and suffering.

Take the detail of prairie dogs, who, along with the bison (of which there are only 1,500 pure-bred left), are the keystone species of the North American grasslands. Something like 160 species need them for food and shelter. Their towns, which can get as big as 25,000 square miles — an extraordinary feat of both social and structural engineering — increase, well, everything, from the protein quality of the forage around them to the number of other species that can live there, too. Golden eagles, magnificence in flight, with their gold-glowing crowns and 7-foot wingspans. Kit foxes, who may mate for life. Horned larks, the only native lark of this continent. “Destroy prairie dogs,” says Terry Tempest Williams, “and you destroy a varied world.”

The prairie dogs are indeed rent and suffering. They’ve been reduced to less than 1 percent of their native range. Understand what that reduction means: 96 to 98 percent of all black-tailed prairie dogs have been poisoned, gassed or shot. The survivors are now “overwhelmed with stress.” They stop eating, lose weight, spend too much time underground and reproduce less. Anyone who has survived an assault will recognize this pattern—it’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prairie dogs also have a specific alarm call, a word they’ve now had to add to their language: “Man with a gun.”

Let us join the prairie dogs and shout that alarm to everyone we love. The instruction manual for that gun is the religious texts that give men dominion over the rest of us: women, animals, the earth. The gun itself is agriculture and the biotic drawdown of civilization it incurs. The bullet is corporate power, especially the doctrine of corporate personhood. The target, of course, is what is left of this planet: the 2 percent of prairie dogs, the 1,500 bison, your life, mine. We cannot afford to burrow in and go off our feed.

But hope is useless without a plan. So here’s the only one that can deliver: repair, restore, rejoin. Repair the broken prairie, all 400 million acres, one holding at a time if we have to. I’m not the only one saying this. Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper introduced the idea of the Buffalo Commons in 1987. The idea was vilified. Yet two decades later, even the Kansas City Star is backing the concept.

8/24/2010 7:50:14 AM

Eloquent and moving, Lierre. While the Ogallala aquifer is the most well-known large regional aquifer, it is by far not the only one which has experienced serious degradation as industrial agriculture, primarily in the form of center-pivot irrigation, has strip-mined it. Other regional aquifers (and the suface features which depend on them) have suffered as well. The Land Institute (, located in Salina, KS, is doing important work in the area of developing perennial seed crops, which would revolutionize (in a good way) the production of food from that ground which is suitable for more than just grazing. Thank you for your provocative essay!

8/21/2010 1:43:05 PM

diana and arthur, I appreciate your enthusiasm! It was what I was hoping to dredge up with my post. Unfortunately, I can't actually do this project due to physical limitations I have.

paul h._3
8/21/2010 10:50:40 AM

Eloquent. I'm contacting everyone I know who was dreaming as a small village 30 or 40 years ago along these lines. (Some of them lived in Lawrence for a while!) Thank you.

arthur sevestre
8/21/2010 9:44:07 AM

I and a small group of others, at the moment in Scotland, are thinking right now of a place where we could establish HOME. This makes me think about a whole other area where this might be possible... Visa will be problematic of course. We'll have to look into this.. Laur, what are you thinking? Lierre, once more, thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing something as inspiring and awakening and butt-kicking as this. I love what you do.

david levi
8/20/2010 10:57:29 PM

I had not felt this inspired in a long time. Thank you, Lierre, once again.

8/20/2010 7:14:32 PM

Dang, you have to go significantly away --like, south-- from Lawrence, Kansas to find the inexpensive prairie land (been looking, since Lawrence is my new-beloved Berkeley of the midwest). But it's do-able. We don't need much more than subsistence, good shelter in winter, and we'd be decades ahead of this civilization-approaching-extended-crash. I love this line: "Grass is so good at building soil that repairing 75 percent of the planet’s rangelands would bring atmospheric CO2 to under 330 ppm in 15 years or less. Read that again if you have to, as the world entire depends on us getting this." The world entire, indeed. Restoration, one landbase at a time. This might be workable for my family, and for those who wish to share this Earth-saving endeavor. Laur, where are you headed?

8/20/2010 9:52:22 AM

Who is ready to get started on this project with me? :-)

elliott battzedek
8/20/2010 8:57:35 AM

My undergraduate college, Beloit, in southern Wisconsin, was given a bit of short grass prairie that had never been plowed - a rare rare treasure. Biology students worked there, learning the habitat and how to protect it, such as controlled burns to stop invasive trees. I can't even begin to say how rich and diverse life was there, even though it was a little prairie island in the farm fields. One of my professors studied red-winged black bird calls and could do his entire research in this spot. When I think about how this would extend out if it had not been destroyed, I can barely contain the grief. And many of the surrounding farms don't make a living for the families on them - we need a way for people to make a living and a life by restoring and using the missing diversity, even while knowing those 12 feet of rich top soil won't be back.

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