In Grassland, journalist and nature writer Richard Manning takes a critical look at the largest and most misunderstood biome in our country, the grasslands of the American West and Midwest, which encompass a full 40 percent of the land. Manning traces the expansion of America and explains how, through farming and industry, we have habitually imposed our romantic ideals onto the land with little interest in understanding and learning from that land. The repercussions of our abuses of the grassland systems run far and deep. The grass provides not only our last connection to the natural world, but a vital link to our prehistoric roots, and to our history and culture, from roads, railroads, and agriculture to the literature of the plains. Over the course of the book, which is framed by the story of a remarkable elk whose mysterious wanderings seem to reclaim his ancestral plains, Manning looks back 12,000 years to this continent's earliest settlers, and farther, to know more about our native - and long extinct - mammals and why they perished and the invaders survived. He considers our attempts over the last 200 years to control unpredictable land through plowing, grazing, and landscaping. He introduces botanists and biologists who are restoring native grasses, literally follows the first herd of buffalo restored to wild prairie, and even visits Ted Turner's progressive - and controversial - Montana ranch.
Our culture's disrespect for grasslands has produced an environmental catastrophe, charges the author. By allowing overgrazing on public lands, our government is wiping out an ecosystem as vital as the Brazilian rain forests. In this sweeping exploration of the prairie, Manning (A Good House) makes an eloquent plea to restore it. Cattle, loss of habitat, fragmentation, climate change and invasion of exotic species have wrought severe damage. Manning takes us from Ted Turner's bison ranch in Montana to Wes Jackson's Land Institute in Kansas; from the Sandos ranch in Nebraska to the Walnut Creek Preserve in Iowa, which is being restored to native tall-grass prairie. Any restoration, he stresses, must include bison. The author urges that we change grazing practices, arguing that ideally there would be bison grazing on open ranges, with cattle as a second choice-but only on large tracts. He states that we need to match agriculture to conditions, instead of remaking the conditions. A thoughtful and provocative look at prairie ecology. (Sept.)