The trip back from a grazing seminar took me right through the center of the Black Hills. Jill was in the seat beside me, but we didn’t talk much. We were all talked out from spending most of the week in a classroom setting considering a holistic way of looking at buffalo grazing on the Great Plains. There were a dozen other people in attendance and so there was a lot of talking.
It was a late winter afternoon and the roads were deserted. We were content with watching the Black Hills grow larger in the windshield. When Jill fell asleep, I turned on the radio but could only find a few country stations. I fiddled with the dial until I found one that played the old, classic stuff. Johnny Cash was walking the line, Bob Wills was singing about the yellow rose of Texas, and I was flipping back through the ideas in the grazing seminar. A lot of the topics concerned how grass grows and how buffalo eat it. That process is more complicated than you might think – it has a lot to do with the symbiosis that results from co-evolution. There had been a few “Christians” in the class and I wondered how they squared their professed faith with the evolutionary bedrock of life on the Great Plains.
Soon after Jill and I entered the Hills, we passed through an 83,500 acre area of forest that burned in 2000. It was called the Jasper Fire and it burned hot and fast through country that I had surveyed 30 years before for peregrine falcons. That evening we drove through miles and miles of barren slopes. The hills looked like the Land of Oz where the wicked witch lived, but I noticed scores of white-tailed deer grazing on the grassy slopes between the charred remains of ponderosa pines. We did not find peregrines back in the 1980’s but we spent weeks walking the bottom of Hell Canyon and, in all that time, I didn’t remember seeing a single white-tailed deer.
The Jasper and Hell Canyon area isn’t a grassland, but some of the same concepts that we talked about in our grazing seminar applied. Plants and animals have a natural succession in the way they regrow after devastating events that are common in natural settings. In the eyes of humans, fires, floods, and droughts are catastrophic, but nature simply begins again. Life forms with the lowest requirements stand ready to lead the charge. Years before, the Jasper fire area had begun its comeback with small annual plants. Those plants began to stabilize the soil with their roots and more complicated plants had gotten toe-holds in an empty environmental niche. The perennial grasses that the white-tailed deer were munching on came next. Now they were giving way to small brushy plants that would eventually allow the ponderosa pine to re-start. It was the same with The Green, Green Grass of Home that Porter Wagoner was singing about on the radio. Most prairie plants respond to stress by growing vigorously. One of the main concepts of the grazing seminar was that Great Plains grasses need the grazing stress from large herbivores. Those grasses were originally dependent on the pressure of the buffalo as the buffalo were dependent on them.
The wolves and grizzly bears were dependent on the buffalo, and the coyotes were dependent on the larger predators. Everything broke down the sun’s energy that was stored in the plants and animals – the prairie dogs, the snakes, the toads, frogs, and all the ground nesting birds. Even microbes preform the job of getting that energy back into the soil so it is available for the grass roots. The last hour of the grazing seminar we talked about biodiversity and it didn’t seem like enough time.
The rest of the week was spent figuring out the best way human beings can siphon off enough of that energy to survive. The takeaway of the seminar was that, for better or for worse, corporations and small businesses had become an indivisible part of the process. I couldn’t help wondering if business had become part of the diversity of processes on the Great Plains?
I was saved from my thoughts by the Statler brothers, singing about Flowers on the Wall. That song has been making me smile for forty-five years. Like so much of what is humorous, a song about a lonely man “counting flowers on the wall” has its dark side. “Smoken’ cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo” is something too many of us can understand and it had me singing along until we got to the chorus about “playing solitaire ‘til dawn with a deck of fifty-one”. That line stopped my singing. It was as desperately defiant and foolhardy as living on the Great Plains with part of the diversity missing.
It was pitch dark and we had made it to the east side of the Black Hills where the prairies begin again. I know better than most that all metaphors are crippled expressions of important ideas, but the image of the Great Plains as a deck of cards will not leave me. It takes every card to have a chance at being successful at the game of life on the Great Plains. It just won’t work if someone is destroying cards. And I don’t think it will work to substitute business cards for aces and kings.