The areas and landscapes of this planet can be divided into two categories: regions which have been inhabited by humans since time immemorial, and those areas which have only endured human exploitation for just a few hundred years,a brief period considered from a long view, a perspective which doesn’t come naturally to us, but which can be learned.
This dichotomy has been known for some time as the distinction between the Old World and the New World. For someone attuned to the natural world as it existed for thousands of years before humanity’s tenure and control, the differences are striking. In the Old World the evidences of just what the world might have looked like, what ecological communities might have flourished thousands of years ago, are not immediately evident. All but the most marginal landscapes have undergone drastic changes as a series of human communities have occupied them and derived benefits which have resulted in massive changes in plant and animal populations.
Here in North America the changes are more recent, although the technological advances of the past century or so have accelerated the changes immensely. Still,in many parts of this continent an observer can see landscapes which aren’t all that different from what the early pioneers encountered. It all boils down to economics: if someone could make money from a parcel of land, in all but a few cases they did; it is our God-given right, after all!
In the central states, full of fertile plains just ripe for intensive exploitation, few areas were spared the plow. A few scraps of land were saved during the twentieth century, and they are now the sole remnants of a chain of ecosystems which once covered millions of acres.
As Bev and I drove across Kansas it occurred to me that we would enter Missouri near one of the preserved fragments of tall-grass prairie, Prairie State Park. The sun was low and we were needing a place to camp for the night.
The park is located north of Joplin, Missouri, near a part of Kansas where my father’s grandfather once had a farm. As we drove over a cattle-guard I realized that most of the park is surrounded by an eight-foot electric fence, necessary due to the herds of buffalo and elk which live there. I was reminded of the movie “Jurassic Park”.
We pulled into a camp-site located in bottom-land woodland. As I climbed out of the van the distinctive scent of moist humus caught my attention, an odor which revived memories of the years I spent in rural Missouri.
Some photos from that short visit:
One of the common trees of Midwest creek-bottoms is the hackberry, a relative of the elms which few people recognize. The bark of the hackberry tree is layered, and I was reminded of the layers of sandstone in the canyons of the Southwest:
Along the camp-site access road I spotted a fungus friend, a species of Coprinus which feeds on dead woody tissue. This clump of Inky-caps was quietly digesting the roots of a tree-stump:
The next morning we packed up the van, making sure the collies had peed, and drove out of the park. We stopped at an overlook site and trail-head, thinking that perhaps the buffalo herd might be visible. There they were, perhaps a quarter of a mile away. I walked out onto the prairie, which was just beginning to grow. I kept in mind the warnings on the signs in the park, which advised visitors to stay three hundred feet away from the beasts, and let us know that buffaloes can run much faster than we can.
The herd grazing during a warm April morning, and the sentinel bull keeping a wary eye on me:
Bev had followed me on the trail — I suspect that she thought I might get too close to the herd. I did prudently turn around before I alarmed the beasts, and I took this photo of her walking back to the van:
I hope some day to return to that park; it has the reputation of being a great place to witness the booming of the prairie chickens!