Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains lies the grassy expanse
once dismissed as the Great American Desert. Early 19th century expansion
advocates urged settlers to skip the interior and proceed directly to the far
west. A land official wrote in 1868 that the plains were "an obstacle to the
progress of the nation's growth...in not yielding that sustenance for
increasing population." When homesteaders settled in, they discovered what
the native Plains tribes had known for centuries: that the "desert" was a
mosaic of different regions, each with its own climate and vegetation, each
with its own character. Throughout the plains and prairie, different
varieties of grass indicate different climatic regions. In the rain shadow
east of the Rockies is the high plains shortgrass, consisting of foot-high
buffalo, blue grama and needle grasses which need little water. A ways east,
in the wide belt of land bisected by the 100th meridian (near Willa Cather's
home in Red Cloud, Nebraska), shortgrass combines with other varieties,
including June grass and western wheatgrass, in the mixed-grass terrain. This
is the land of the cattle empire of the mid-19th century and later the
homestead soddies. Still farther east toward the lower Missouri valley,
thriving on increased moisture, reigns the tallgrass that the Freeman family
encountered when they emigrated from Iowa to southeastern Nebraska in the
Tallgrass prairie is a complex ecosystem, including flowers, trees, birds, mammals, insects and microorganisms. But grass dominates. Like other grasses, tallgrasses do not form woody tissue nor increase in girth. Their stems are hollow except where the leaves join, leaves are narrow with parallel veins, and flowers are small and inconspicuous. Tallgrass prairie is so-named because the component grasses - big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass - can reach 8 or 9 feet!
The eye sees only half the prairie; the other half is underground. Roots several feet deep tap moisture in times of drought. Another advantage of deep roots is that they store energy which can produce new growth. Since grass grows from below, like human hair, rather that from its ends, the plant will survive weather extremes, mowing, grazing and fire.
Once this prairie covered millions of acres; now only isolated remnants exist. The homesteaders saw it as a nuisance to be replaced as soon as possible with crops that paid their way. Today, prairie is being brought back in places using a land management technique borrowed from the Plains tribes: controlled burning. Spring fires clear out non-native grasses before the later "sun-seeking" native grasses begin to grow. Fire also burns up dead plant debris on the ground, allowing the sun and rain to penetrate the soil, and releases nutrients, promoting growth and increasing seed yields. This and other prairie restoration methods help ensure that, at least in some places, we can look out over a sea of grass and feel the wonder of the first homesteaders.
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