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  • The Headwaters: Where Buffalo Roamed, Muskrats Abundantly Dwelled, and Walmart Now Resides
  • Joseph Amato

Place and American History

TO KNOW A PLACE IS NO SMALL THING. IN ILLUSTRATING THE HISTORY OF PLACE AND its embodiment of distinct and forgotten configurations of peoples, landscapes, politics, and economies, local history honors the works and sacrifices of the past, reminding us that each place and generation has a distinct hour in time.

We continue Joseph Amato’s three-part series on revitalizing local history with the second installment. In it Amato explores the environmental and material history of America’s prairie and plains. Amato is emeritus professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. His essay“Local History: A Way to Place and Home” will appear in Wilfrid M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, eds., Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (Encounter Books, forthcoming).

This series is supported by a grant from the Earhart Foundation.

In the decades immediately after the Civil War, American civilization exploded onto the prairie and the plains of the trans-Mississippi West. Native peoples of the prairie and plains were killed or driven off. Lands were opened, and waters both spanned and drained. While native prairie tall and short grasses were plowed under and grazed off, indigenous animals like the wolf, the grizzly bear, the buffalo, and the elk had to seek refuge on the margins of farmland and verged on extinction. New plants—wheat, corn, and soybeans—vied for the northern latitudes of the prairie. Train and plow and barb-wire and windmill made the prairie, though never free from battles with aridity and wind, a servant of agriculture and the expanding industrial society. Capital-driven agriculture overran an ecological system born of glacial sweep and retreat.

The 19th-century Kansas resident and politician John James Ingalls wrote: “Next in importance to the divine profusion of water, light, and air, those three great physical facts which render existence possible, may be reckoned the universal beneficence of grass.”1 The stories of grasslands in North and South America and elsewhere across the world have been of a war between native grasses and invading newcomers raised as cash crops and grown for animal feed. Today, genetically modified grasses and plants define new landscapes and ecosystems; modified corn (with its service to ethanol) and soybean move west, allowing the press to speak of “the vanishing prairie” that once reached from Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana south to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Local and regional historians here and elsewhere can contribute as contemporary storytellers to a global narrative of today’s irreversible transformation of landscapes first formed by glaciers.2

Within a few decades in the second half of the 19th century, modern civilization took control of the Earth’s major grasslands, which occupy about one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface.3 (The planet’s tall-grass prairies are principally located in central North America, European Russia, the South African veldt, the Argentine Pampas, and nearby Uruguay and Brazil.) In different ways and to diverse degrees, settlement profoundly altered the North American prairie—the tall-grass prairie that reached from Indiana to the eastern edge of the Dakotas—and the short- and mixed-grass prairie reaching farther west onto the more arid plains.

Grasslands cannot be separated from the human life they support. The history of corn, wheat, oats, rye, barley, rice, sugar cane, and bamboo—all grasses––shapes and is shaped by human history. The Bible reminds us that all flesh is grass. Grasses make soils, which are the living skin of the Earth. With three-fourths of their biomass below ground, they determine soils’ richness and integrity. Grasses form and feed soils with their roots, which are amazingly thick. In a square yard of prairie soil four inches deep, the roots “would stretch for twenty miles if all were placed end to end.”4 Grasses also nourish soils with residues, minerals, and the worms, fungi, and bacteria that feed on them. Soils without grasses or other plants cease to be fertile; they erode and disappear, and nothing is left but [End Page 2] rock. The entire biotic community of the prairie...


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