It Takes a Village to Raise a Prairie

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

“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.

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