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13  The First Half-Billion Years The soil is the indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up. | Position taken by the U.S. Bureau of Soils around 1900 Soil is a temporary interlude for rocks and minerals on their way to solution and to the sea. | Soil scientist William A. Albrecht, 1956 Where did the Ogallala aquifer and the valuable landscape that it supports come from? All of it migrated from somewhere else, not only the plants and people. Hundreds of millions of years of geological restlessness created today’s water-saturated underground beds of gravel and sand, covered by layers of rock and fertile soil above and undergirded by rolling red rock below. The mighty geological time scale turns human history into an afterthought, for even the Ogallala aquifer lives for only a brief moment as plains soils race from the mountains to the ocean; today’s dry landscape is a blink of the Maker’s eye. The tall and short grasses of the plains ebb and flow like tides on a beach as they follow fickle shifts in rainfall patterns. Conventional farmers who force corn and alfalfa by draining the underground water supply are a mere interruption, like an itch that is quickly scratched. Other farmers, who see water, soil, and grasses as a collaborating ensemble they must join rather than overcome, will stay a while longer. The successful farmer listens to the nonhuman voices around him; as history has shown, this is not an easily learned skill. For more than the last two thousand years of the current geological epoch, these forbidding and tiresome grasslands have covered fully one-third of the North American continent, its single most extensive terrain.¹ Some of the same wild grasses—bluestems, switchgrasses, gramas, cordgrasses—range across a thousand miles of middle America, 14 the first half-billion years from the southern edge of Lake Michigan to eastern Colorado, from West Texas far north into Canada. They differ in size and lushness, depending on moisture and temperature, and allow us to distinguish between the midwestern tallgrass prairie, the midland mixed-grass country, and the shortgrass High Plains. Since the 1870s, when John Wesley Powell called the High Plains a subhumid region, the description has fit an environment where the rainfall is consistently less than that necessary for traditional eastern agriculture. Yearly rainfall is between twelve and twenty inches, compared to thirty to forty inches east of the Mississippi. Effective rainfall can be much less because of evaporation due to the extremes of wind and heat. A favorable factor, repeated by desperate boosters to the point of exaggeration, is that three-quarters of the rain comes during the growing season, April to September.² Experts say, and farmers know, that traditional American farming should have halted a hundred miles to the east of the plains because there is not enough rain to support conventional methods of agriculture. But the combination of intrusive Europeans, non-native plants and animals, local soils and rocks, and above all, the pumping of an untapped water source gave rise to the farming that takes place on the plains today. Remove just one of these ingredients and food production ends immediately. The Trescotts’ Place Roger and Betty Trescott lived on a two-thousand-acre Oklahoma panhandle farm that was compact for a High Plains operation. Roger and Betty’s farm was located eighteen miles north by northwest of Guymon in Texas County, midway on the east-west axis of the Oklahoma panhandle. It was divided into several wheat and alfalfa fields. Their superior-quality soil, and the pure groundwater underneath it, are geological migrants; it took five thousand years for the Trescotts’ soil to build up to its modern fertility before their land was homesteaded in 1911. Their ranch house was white, unpretentious, even small. They had no children and regretted it. The yard immediately around the house was sparse and plain. Like most plains farmers, they did not have the familiar steep-roof red-painted barn of the East but instead several large metal sheds where they kept their equipment and supplies. Inside the the first half-billion years 15 house, cleaning was simplified by use of heavy-duty plastic upholstery on some of the furniture. Everything was spotless. When they were out in the wheat fields, the Trescotts were some of the most traditional farmers described in this book because they...


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