By Will Brown
This is the most beautiful place on earth. / There are many such places. —Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire)
I have a list of favorite places. Almost all of them are notable for the extent to which they have not been disturbed by man. Within the last year or so I have added to this list — and it currently resides near the top — a small patch of prairie on the Texas side of the Texas-Oklahoma border, along the shore of the aptly if unimaginatively named Lake Texoma.
Immediately there is an irony to be noticed. Lake Texoma is a grand, artificial disturbance, created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam at the confluence of the Red River and the Washita River, beginning in 1939. The lake inundated 90,000 acres of land, and swallowed up several towns. Remnants of some of the lost towns were exposed in 2011 when the water level receded in the face of a protracted drought.
Dammed rivers are not the only aspect of our having filled and subdued the earth hereabout. And droughts are a symptom of other problems. When settlers first arrived in the middle part of what was still becoming the United States, they encountered a sea of grass, covering almost 400,000 square miles, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. It came to be that way when, about 11,000 years ago, glaciers withdrew to the north, leaving behind a layer of till onto which winds dropped silt and organic matter. Natural wildfires and vast herds of buffalo ensured that trees and shrubs were kept to a minimum. One secret of the prairie’s success lies in the fact that 80 percent of its biomass lies underground, in the root structures of grasses and forbs. Fire and roving herds of large grazing animals are integral components of grassland ecology.
The blackland prairie is the name ecologists have given to the ecological region where Dallas now sits. It extended like a finger, northeast-southwest, from the Red River to near San Antonio, pointing toward Mexico. It was characterized by tall grasses — big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass, among others — which can grow over six feet tall. It was bordered to the east by the pine forests of east Texas, and to the west by an ecological complex known colloquially as the Cross Timbers region and historically characterized by shorter grasses interspersed with stands of post and blackjack oaks.
European settlers didn’t like wildfires, and as they moved in, they put the fires out. Nor apparently did they like the buffalo. Between 1872 and 1874, 850,000 buffalo hides were shipped out of Dodge City alone. One man, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, shot 4,280 buffalo (he counted) over twelve months. In 1837, John Deere invented the steel plow, and by 1855 he had sold over 10,000 of them. The invention is commemorated on a historical monument in Middlebury, Vermont, where Deere learned blacksmithing. The monument calls his invention “The plow that broke the plains.” And so it did. By 1930 the blackland prairie was pretty much gone, together with most of the rest of the plains grasslands, converted to agriculture or pasture or, lately and especially in north Texas, metrosprawl.
The land has become less resilient in the face of capricious weather. Native prairie plants have deep and extensive root structures in comparison with the monocultures and asphalt that have replaced them. For example, the roots of the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), a common prairie flower, can reach up to 15 feet deep. The roots of cotton and wheat typically don’t grow much deeper than three feet. Deep roots hold the soil together, and hold water in the soil. Without the roots, wind erosion becomes a much bigger problem, as in the “dust bowl” of the 1930s, and water runs off more readily.
Shortly before his death in 2013 at the age of 92, the author John Graves remembered listening, as a young man, to farmers on the steps of the Parker County courthouse: “Hell, I done wore out three farms in my time,” one said. Droughts are more devastating now, and spring storms lead to downstream flooding of the kind we seem to see every year lately in east Texas and Louisiana. Thirteen people were killed by storms and floods just last month. In many respects our young land does indeed seem wore out.
But patches of native prairie remain here and there, along rights-of-way for railroads, highways, and powerlines, or in pockets of land that the march of progress somehow overlooked or forgot. Such an overlooked pocket is my little spot on the south shore of Lake Texoma. It has never been developed, and probably never plowed, and it may well never have been grazed. For the last 100 years or so, it has been in a remote corner of land used as a youth camp, first by the Boy Scouts, and then by various churches. Not much longer before that, judging from the arrowheads and chipped flint that turn up from time to time, it was the home or the hunting grounds of the Cado or Wichita or Comanche or Kiowa or Apache or Jumano. Likely different groups at different times — and that for a long time, back indeed to the time of saber-toothed cats and wooly mammoths.
I’m not naïve about the ecological impact and caprice of Native Americans — in some ways they were just like everyone else. One common hunting practice was to drive whole herds of bison over cliffs; and you might, if you could, ask an 18th-century Apache for his opinion of the Comanche, or vice versa. But, for one thing, there were never near as many of them as there are of us. By some estimates, about the same number of people now live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area as did in all of North America in 1492. And, as I’ve said, the prairie was resilient.
My prairie patch in north Texas somehow survived. It sits in the middle of a much larger upland forest in which post oaks predominate. Wet weather creeks drop into widening draws and thence into the main body of what used to be the Red River. As you walk through the woods toward the grassland at their center, you notice what’s conspicuous — nonnative and invasive plants like nandina, a popular ornamental native to Asia. Birds eat the berries and deposit the seeds in the woods. There is also one very hateful Bradford pear, another Asian native. God knows how it got there. But there are conspicuous charmers too — eastern redbuds flash out brightly in early spring, and there’s a lovely little possumhaw by a pool at the bottom of a rock ledge. Last month I inadvertently flushed a pair of mallards from the pool. As they escaped through the trees, I wondered why they had been sitting in this muddy little pool in the forest when 90,000 acres of open water lie just beyond the trees. They were probably embarrassed lovers.
Two giant sycamore trees keep watch over the entrance to the grassland. I noticed their huge leaves on the ground before I saw the trees a few hundred yards through the woods. They are easily recognizable because of their flaking bark and mottled upper trunks, and because of their tell-tale fruit, brown golf balls dangling in the sunlight from slender stems, and not least because they loom head and shoulders above the surrounding landscape. They are protected by a year-round spring that has rendered the ground muddy and the brush thick. Twice I have tried to push through to them. Twice I have been rebuffed by briars and come home with poison ivy.
Emerging from the woods into the grassland is like walking into a new world. I love knowing and saying the names of the grasses and flowers — Indian grass, little bluestem, milkweed, false indigo, yarrow, Indian paintbrush, bushy bluestem, meadow garlic, poppy mallow — and it frustrates me not to know the names of everything. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19).
There are signs of man-made disturbance too, but they are mercifully few. A four-wheeler track transgresses the property boundary over a downed fence, and there is a half-covered midden formed by the detritus of a campsite, abandoned several decades ago by the looks of it. A more recent campfire ring is tucked behind a stand of eastern red cedar in one corner, and there are discreet piles of beer cans in a few places. But the disturbance really is mild compared with what one typically sees in semi-wildernesses close to civilization.
Scripture seems to take grassland ecology as an icon of transient fragility, standing in contrast to the solidity of the divine Word. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever” (Isa. 40:8). Mankind is more like the grass than he is like the Word, on account of which St. James exhorts the rich to boast only in his humiliation, “because like the flower of the grass he will pass away” (James 1:10).
But Scripture evinces an intuitive knowledge of ecological subtleties, like the trophic levels of the food chain. An abundance of grass means a proportionate abundance of grazing animals, and this in turn constitutes a blessing for the people who rely on the grazing animals for sustenance. Scripture knows this. The Lord, says Deuteronomy, “will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full” (11:15). Pastoral societies understood their place in the natural economy better than we do, and hunter-gatherers understood it better yet. On average about 10 percent of the energy of a given level of the food chain is transferred to the one above it. This is why there were fewer wolves than buffalo, and fewer buffalo than forage plants. And at the very bottom of the scale, only about 1 percent of the chemical energy of plants comes from photosynthesized sunlight. Ludwig Wittgenstein said more than he knew when he wrote that, apart from the resurrection of Christ, “We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.” Running the numbers, our bodies are made up of about .001 percent sunlight. Not very much.
The Lord God sent [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen. 3:23f)
Are we wearing out the earth’s ability to sustain us, tilling the ground into oblivion, coming to the end of some invisible tether? The earth’s resources are renewable, it’s true. But their renewal is predicated upon man’s faithful and prudent stewardship. We have never been good at it, and we appear to be getting worse. I listened to the Senate majority leader one night opining about economic growth, which he says he wishes were 3 percent or better. But is the growth of the economy the same thing as — or even compatible with — human flourishing in a fundamental way? Can the economy go on growing forever, as our rulers seem to hope, when the earth’s resources are finite? The buffalo hunters went about their mad work because they could get rich doing it. Buffalo hide coats had become fashionable in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps this is why Scripture sees the renewal of “the face of the earth” as God’s business (cf. Psalm 104:30). Man prefers cash.
Indeed very often there is a tacit assumption in the discourse of ecologists that mankind is the problem. I see the impulse in my thinking too; a propensity to a kind of impulsive conservatism, an urge to stand athwart natural history shouting Stop! How did things stand before the settlement of our continent by Europeans, and how might we return things to such a state? Perennial questions. But ecologists tend toward irreligion, as a class, which forestalls appeals to ultimate origins or purposes. In such an ideological landscape, there is no justification for seeing mankind as anything other than one part of nature, and an insignificant part in the grand scheme — the glaciers will probably return in time whether we like it or not.
There is no justification in passing definitive moral judgment on the squandering of our ecological inheritance if we cannot see it as an inheritance to begin with, as something with which we have been entrusted by the one to whom it really belongs, to whom we will have to render an account of our stewardship. Perhaps, in the end, it was Jesus’ awareness of the fact “that he had come from God and was going to God” that underwrote his awareness of God having “given all things into his hands” (cf. John 13:3) — including, we may assume, the tallgrass prairie. But we don’t see things that way anymore, if we ever really did.
Yet it is only in the knowledge of our ultimate origin, and hence of our journey, and hence, broadly speaking, of our purpose, that the purpose of all the rest comes into view — the right ordering of our symbiosis with the buffalo and the grass and with one another. The campfire ring in my prairie, the four-wheeler tracks, the modest little piles of beer cans, the decomposing campsite midden — they are, in point of fact, an outrage. Yet a much more profound outrage has been averted, if only for the time being and if only in regard to these few relict acres.
Several months ago I showed my prairie to a biologist who specializes in grassland ecology. I wanted to confirm my untutored suspicion that this patch of land was relatively intact and worth preserving. As we emerged from the woods, under the watchful gaze of the sentinel sycamores, she looked around at the Indian grass running down the gentle contours of the land.
“Oh my God!” she gasped. “You have something precious here.”