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In Search of Human Habitat

Joe C. Truett

Publication Year: 2009

Part autobiography, part philosophical rumination, this evocative conservation odyssey explores the deep affinities between humans and our original habitat: grasslands. In a richly drawn, anecdotally driven narrative, Joe C. Truett, a grasslands ecologist who writes with a flair for language, traces the evolutionary, historical, and cultural forces that have reshaped North American rangelands over the past two centuries. He introduces an intriguing cast of characters—wildlife and grasslands biologists, archaeologists, ranchers, and petroleum geologists—to illuminate a wide range of related topics: our love affair with turf and how it manifests in lawns and sports, the ecological and economic dimensions of ranching, the glory of cowboy culture, grasslands and restoration ecology, and more. His book ultimately provides the background against which we can envision a new paradigm for restoring rangeland ecosystems—and a new paradigm for envisioning a more sustainable future.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Organisms and Environments

Title Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

...of California Press’s series Organisms and Environments, whose unifying themes are the diversity of plants and animals, the ways they interact with each other and their surroundings, and the implications of those relationships for science and society.We seek books that promote unusual, even unexpected connections among seemingly disparate topics, and that are distinguished by the talents and perspectives...

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pp. xiii-xiv

...In writing this book I have built upon lessons learned from a myriad of people and animals. They are far too many to acknowledge here, or even to remember. So rather than trying to recall all who contributed and in which order of importance, I’ll mention a few who persist in memory as being especially helpful. Family comes first.Mywife, Judy, consistently steeredme toward clarity and away fromverbosity. Sandy—Judy’s friend...

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pp. xv-xviii

...After many years of studying wild animals, I am convinced we can learn a lot from them in our quest for sustainable prosperity.As is the casewith the other species, habitat limits our abundance and well-being; however, most of us seem to have lost touch with this reality. Fooled by dizzying advances in energy capture and technology that have obscured the constraints of habitat, we have lapsed into a kind...

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1. Promethean Legacy

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pp. 1-6

...Energy fuels life. Like other animals we seek the best ways to capture it and funnel it to our own purposes.Our bodies glean energy fromthe food we eat. Some half a million years ago, anthropologists say, our ancestors gained control of fire to cook their food andwarmtheir bodies.Maybe the ancient Greeks would have pointed to those long-ago campfires on the African savanna as evidence of the original visit by the mythical Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the...

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2. Out of the Forest

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pp. 7-11

...I had little admiration for grass when the professors at Texas A&M started serving it up in class. By the time I left home I’d had enough of chopping Bermuda grass from rows of corn and beans, trimming carpet grass and crabgrass with a 1950s reel-type mower, and swinging a weed cutter at the really tall stuff. Most of all I hated the push mower. Exasperation is theword that best describes following this beast through rank grass at the bidding of country housewives who...

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3. Science and Faith

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pp. 12-18

...At university I ran head on into the contradiction between science and faith, something I cannot recall being an issue before that. I attended church very irregularly in grade school and almost never in high school, I think now because of my father’s mistrust of rural Baptist preachers. Only one teacher atmy high school had dared venture onto the treacherous ground of evolution. That state of blissful ignorance ended at Texas A&M. One memorable incident took place the first day of...

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4. Playing God

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pp. 19-22

...In 1972 near Fairfield, Texas, I got a chance to play God and somemoney to do it with. The drama started innocently enough. The Industrial Generating Company, a subsidiary of TexasUtilities, had started building the Big Brown Steam Electric Station several miles east of Fairfield. A sevenstory generating plant neared completion. Designed to be fueled by lignite—a low-energy version of coal to be mined...

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5. Pleasing to the Eye

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pp. 23-30

...Can science measure what the eye finds pleasing? Artists generally say no. But in a way, that’s what I set out to do at Big Brown before the bulldozers razed the landscape. Those planning restoration wanted to understand what features of the habitat attracted animals. With this information, reclamation specialists could bring back the animals by restoring the contours, soils, trees, and grasses that...

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6. Where the Short Grass Grows

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pp. 31-37

...Mike Rose claims the ability to envisage the natural human habitat on the basis of the last bone in the big toe.Mike lives with his wife, Cordelia, on a shortgrass mesa just north of the small town in which I live. From their yard the view sweeps 360 degrees to horizons of near and farmountains, giving the impression of standing on a platformat the edge of a huge, shallow bowl. The night darkness...

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7. Turf

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pp. 38-50

...My first sense of chronic failure came on a bermuda grass field at the hands of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound behemoth named Roy Harris. I already knew occasional failure, having grown up with the perfectionist tendencies ofmy father.He so seldompraisedmy brother andme that we got used to being not quite good enough. I dealt with Daddy’s tendency to criticize by doing well in conspicuous activities I knew he valued...

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8. Grass and Grazers

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pp. 51-60

...Very soon after becoming third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson determined to consummate a long-held ambition. Hewanted to explore the interior of the American continent and map a travel route to the Pacific Ocean. But encumbered by the presidency and advancing age, he could not think of doing it himself; hewould have to depend on someone else. So he sentword to a young friendwho carried the curious name Meriwether Lewis...

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9. Bison Plains and Prairie Dogs

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pp. 61-70

...Apart from its intended mission, the Lewis and Clark expedition turned out to be an interesting experiment in landscape appreciation. This was a group of young men raised Euro-American style in the eastern woodlands of late-eighteenth-century America. How did they adapt to a life of hunting and foraging in a vast interior grassland peopled by aboriginal tribes? What qualities of the landscapes they traversed appealed to them as they made this transition? Thomas...

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10. Taming of the West

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pp. 71-82

...Few things stir the imagination of the human male as does the mythical odyssey. Youngman leaves home, travels far, endures dangers and temptations, and finally returns home triumphant. The legendary Greek hero Odysseus gave name and plot to the first major epic of this genre. When young he left home to endure the siege of Troy, then started back across theAegean Sea only to blowoff course in a storm.After years of adventure in strange lands he returned safely home...

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11. Production Science Comes to the Range

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pp. 83-92

...The dust of the last cattle drive from Texas to Montana had scarcely settled and the last plains Indian sent to reservationwhen the trickle ofwesteringAnglos turned into a flood. Free land drewCivilWar survivorswest like blowflies to a skinned bison. Surging onto the central grasslands came people dedicated to food production, European style. The farmers among them swarmed out over the tallgrass prairie and moister parts of the mixed-grass and, by the end of the...

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12. The Last Pariah

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pp. 93-105

...The turn of the twentieth century to the twenty-first coincided with an occurrence that, though noticed by few, I thought pregnant with millennial symbolism. The incident, which sought to protect an animal capable of shunting a lot of sunshine away from human food production, waved a gauntlet of challenge at utilitarianism, the ancestral philosophy of the ranchman. The challenge went...

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13. The Trouble with Livestock

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pp. 106-116

...The project started innocently enough in the next-door yard. My wife noticed a few young men digging holes in the ground with what looked like a post auger, but she couldn’t see very well what was happening because a ragged hedge of shrubs separated us from them. Then came the steel pipes. When I first sawthem, they had already been erected. They stood about fifteen feet high, two of them,maybe...

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14. Subsidizing John Wayne

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pp. 117-125

...Most people in the small townwhere I live depend heavily on a food supply brought from long distances. Even those who harvest backyard gardens, milk goats, or annually kill a deer or cow get most of their calories fromtown. The food on the supermarket shelves—bread,milk, beans, vegetables, breakfast cereals, bacon, hamburger, and corn and soybeans in a thousand guises—comes from animals and plants grown in faraway places and shipped down highways built and maintained mostly...

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15. Collateral Damage

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pp. 126-137

...Mushroom cloud! It rose ever higher into the clear blue sky. The top billowed out like a cauliflower growing at time-lapse speed. A slice of horizontal gray separated the cap from the stem. A low rumble of thunder sent a shiver across the glass window of our old house. But this couldn’t be a thunderstorm. The calendar proclaimed it to be too early for the monsoons of summer, and the air felt bone dry. But in yonder sky, the roil of white pushed higher...

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16. Cowboy

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pp. 138-144

...I first got drawn into the glory of the American cowboy by Zane Grey. His books caught my attention in about the fifth grade. This Pennsylvania dentist turnedwestern novelist spun tales of purewomen and rugged menwho by and large followed the rules of Victorian social etiquette, and his stories keptme huddled under the bedside lamp often until the small hours ofmorning. Once I had read all the Zane Grey books owned by our school and town libraries, I began to reread them. One of the few possessions of another I really...

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17. Resurrection

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pp. 145-155

...As we pulled up to the ranch entryway, a steel barrier blocked the way: two hinged bars that spanned the cattle guard a couple of feet off the ground met in the middle. Our pickups—mine and the Bureau of Land Management truck ahead—idled for an uneasy thirty seconds or so. Then the BLM biologist stepped out, walked onto the cattle guard, and rattled the chain holding the ends of the bars together. Locked. The weather on this cloudy January day in 1995 began to...

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18. Pleistocene Park

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pp. 156-166

...Responses began pouring in even before the paper issuemade it to subscribers’ mailboxes. Some were complimentary, some angry, many incredulous. Within a few days after publication, emails and phone calls to the main author had climbed into the hundreds. Commentary appeared in most of the mainline print and television news outlets in the United States, in the Associated Press, and inmajor papers on all continents. The concept put forward appeared among...

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19. Diversity

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pp. 167-176

...Encountering diversity in nature can titillate the senses but at the same time generate anxiety. It’s like owning a lot of stuff or having too many people or pets in the house. Diversity offers grand prospect, interesting opportunity, but at the same time can challenge one’s sense of control. Birdwatchers spend a lot of time seeking out diversity, lawnkeepers and farmers a lot of money getting rid of it. Conserving biodiversity justifies...

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20. Long Road Home

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pp. 177-188

...My studies of wild animals and their habitats prompted me long ago to join the growing cadre that sees us humans near the limits of our own habitat. This belief arose not from religious conversion or teachings of a doomsday cult. It came from a few immutable principles familiar to habitat ecologists. The logic runs like this. Habitats invariably have limits to the numbers of each kind of animal they can support. Symptoms of habitat limitation typically...

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pp. 189-192

...he observed, hinders people from adjusting to new circumstance. To face an uncertain future, he said,we need “far-reachingmodifications of longstanding social arrangements.” Such adjustments seldom come from within existing institutions or with their blessings, however. New ideas require outside thinking...


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pp. 193-198


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pp. 199-210


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pp. 211-217

Production Notes

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p. 218-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780520944527
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520258396

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Organisms and Environments