Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time. Cheers, Fred.
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie
- Book Type:
Iowa native John Madsen (1923-1995) wrote about the natural history and resource conservation of rivers, plains, and deserts. He wrote 11 books and was published in periodicals such as Audubon, Smithsonian, and National Geographic.
This book was one chosen by my wife’s Book Club for their 2008-2009 monthly meetings, so I gave it to her. It is well described by these brief back-cover words: “Originally published in 1982, Where the Sky Begins, John Madson’s landmark publication, introduced readers across the nation to the wonders of the tallgrass prairie, sparking the current interest in prairie restoration. Now back in print, this classic tome will serve as inspiration to those just learning about the heartland’s native landscape and rekindle the passion of longtime prairie enthusiasts.”
What first caught my attention were three maps of grasslands. One map shows major grasslands of the world, where the author points out the complete absence of any grasslands in Western Europe. (The significance of this will come later.) A second map shows major grasslands of the United States, divided into three shadings to indicate tallgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, and shortgrass plains. Roughly speaking, mixed-grass prairie consists of most of the states in the tier running south to north up from the Texas panhandle, through the western half of Oklahoma, north through most of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and a bit into Canada. To the west of this tier of mixed-grass lie the dryer-land of shortgrass plains – a narrower tier from New Mexico through the eastern thirds of Colorado and Wyoming, then into the eastern two-thirds of Montana. To the east of the mixed-grass tier lies the tallgrass prairie, consisting of all but the southern wooded fifth of Illinois, all of Iowa, the NW third of Missouri, the SW third of Minnesota, and some very narrow (50-100 mile wide) strips along the eastern borders of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. I hope these words above allow you to envision a picture of these three tiers of different types of grasslands.
The third map showed just the tallgrass portion of the United States – eastern prairies where big bluestem often grew taller than a man on horseback. The first settlers from Europe were quite terrified of an endless sea of grass stretching to the far horizons – something nobody from Western Europe have ever seen or imagined could exist. Traveling westward from the Atlantic until they reached the prairie lands of Illinois and Iowa, they had only seen woods, which they were used to back in Europe. So the earliest European settlers clung to the edges of the woods, chopping down trees to increase their farmlands. They toiled in poor soil (with only inches of good topsoil) compared to the much richer prairie soil (very fertile topsoil a few feet deep). It was only when Europeans from far eastern Europe arrived did Western Europeans learn that great crops could be had from prairie soil. But this required an extra strong plow to first cut the sod and to either haul in trees to build homes or build them of thick prairie sod. European settlers learning to cope with initially horrible “seas of tallgrass” prairie lands was for me the most interesting part of this book.
However, in most of this book John Madsen goes into great details about the grasses, other plants, and animals – the prairie flora and fauna – of these regions of the New World. There is far too much detail and way too many pages of such to hold my interest, for I am not a “prairie enthusiast.” I was raised in southernmost Louisiana, so I learned to love the variety I explored there near my home – woods, swamps, marsh (both fresh and salt water types), as well as the bays and Gulf of Mexico. Later I learned about hilly country and, best of all for someone from flat Cajun land, the gentle mountains of the East and the awesome mountains, slick-rock country, and seashores of the West. I live in Iowa, so I favor prairie restoration projects but they don’t excite me very much. Prairie enthusiast should enjoy this book much more than I did. They might appreciate the extra materials: 2-pp Appendix A – Sources + 8-pp Appendix B – Directory of Representative Tallgrass Prairies + 8-pp Selective References + 12-pp Index.