Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Prairie, Literature, and Richard Manning

I've begun the ecological research phase of my next book, and just finished Richard Manning's book GRASSLAND, which is a cultural, historical, economic, flora and fauna look at the grasslands that once covered 40% of the country, from Illinois to California. I'm pasting in quotes, with some of my reflections and context clarifications in brackets. Someone should find this interesting, and perhaps go pick up this book. What will I hopefully be doing in May? Visiting some grasslands in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

262 -- To date, our society has shown no special inclination to mature. We still consider progress to be stoking the very economic engine that already has consumed so much of the planet’s life as fuel. We are still able to rally most “progressive” forces of our nation around candidates who say “It’s the economy, stupid,” when the fundamental issue is not the economy, it is life.

263 -- …everything we know was taught us by nature, but nature gave us brains evolved to their niche, so they are limited in their understanding. All that we know we have learned from nature, but we do not know all that nature knows [and likely never will].

260 – on botanists: I have been afield with many of them, and they are different, almost invariably quiet, distant. Undeniably, they see something different from what I see, as if the knowledge of the plants lifts a veil. The whole of it is there in the plants to be read, the full soul of a place, its life and the abuses of its life, the creation’s intentions and the manifest violations of those intentions. Botanists are our shamans.

250 -- Discussing a biologist at Walnut creek in Iowa who is studying the intricate lay of the land, how species depend on one another, the hills and streams, the topography, and the need to gather local seed to reestablish a total grassland ecology because even bluestem from Kansas is far differently suited to its place than bluestem in Iowa: “Anything else would be just gardening.” [clearly the insinuation is that gardening is just plopping in plants without considering the regional source of those plants, the interdependent community of those plants as regards to co-evolution, and the topography of the land where they grow. I think I can be a much better nongardener, in this sense, though I do think about these things very much in my limited context--my 1/4 acre lot.]

247 -- …the culture of plants is the same as the culture of people.

245 – [part of his logic against vegetarianism] Why is it not ethical to kill and eat a single bison? A single bison does not stand alone, is not an individual. It is, rather, a manifestation of a place, the net result, the capstone of fie, wind, and grass—grass to the horizon—and the hundreds of plants that live in it, and of the fungi, insects, the birds, the wolves, the prairie dogs, ferrets, burrowing owls, compass plant, horned lark, sunflower, and cone flower, all of these things, and can only be understood as such. The return of our eating bison marks the return of all these things to our lives.

[I used to be against saving the mega fauna, the obvious animals. But if you save the largest, the capstone fauna, you must, by extension, be saving, preserving, recreating all that sustains them—which is an intricate web filled with co-evolved organisms designed for a specific place and time. For us to be taken outside this place and time is to be taken out of creation, something as stupid as placing your hand in a vat of liquid oxygen. Perhaps it does start with bison.]

229 – The solitude of the prairie is like no other, the feeling of being hidden and alone in a grassland as open as the sea. Walking toward the horizon through the hills, tawny and loose like the folds in a cougar’s skin, one has a sense that over the next ridge there will rise a brown cloud of bison and over the next, the Pleistocene, unspoiled. Unless one has walked pure prairie, it is difficult to imagine how such a sense of freedom can flow from a landscape that is the giver of harsh rules.

[All over in book – we have a 70% grain surplus, and we use it to fatten cows, and we eat those fat cows and get heart disease and what not. If we raise bison, roaming free across the plains, we would not have to spread fertilizer or pesticides, the bison would take care of themselves. Their grass-fed meat would be much leaner, and we’d be connected to place psychologically and physically.]

155 – Virtually all of agriculture is an attempt to artificially prolong a first or immature stage of succession. The grasses we have domesticated are seral species [annual 1st stage plants in a disturbed area] that grow well only in monoculture. They grow quickly and concentrate energy on producing seed [whereas later perennial grasses store energy in roots and rhizomes, and thus create prairie]. They store carbohydrates in these seeds, which is precisely why we value them as food. From an ecological sense, then, agriculture is a sustained catastrophe. It is the practice of plowing [and cattle overgrazing], then preventing nature from healing itself. It is imposition of a monoculture on a system that wants nothing so much as to diversify and stabilize.


97 – Our science, our poetry, and our democracy fail because they lack specific information of the plants….

206 – We who inhabit the grassland need a new story, a sort of illiterature that rises from the land.

192 – The West is made of one long series of necessary and true fill-in-the-blank stories, and sometimes it seems we are doomed to love them cyclically and perpetually, simply because there is no such thin as The Story. as the colonial culture of the West, we have no culture, which is just the same problem as having no story that tells us how we fit in the place. This is not an original idea, and in fact there is a self-conscious and active movement among western writers to invent a literature for the place. We need stories that will settle us to the land, not more stories reacting to those who would and do destroy it, but as long as the destruction goes on, these accounts of our struggles will be our only story. They are necessary, but seem doomed, a new sort of colonialism.


141 – 1 square yard of bluestem grass has 25 miles of roots

83-83 – 1870 over 2 million bison taken from one heard in NE and KS.

The plains slope 10 feet for every mile toward the MS River.


Heather Holm said...

Wow, great quotes.

I've added this to my book list. Thanks

James Golden said...

Your are a good teacher. You've led me to several books that have opened my eyes to new things. I'll get this one. Speaking of a literature of the west, have you read Lord Grizzly?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Heather--Sue, I see how it is. I do all the work finding books. :)
James--No, never heard fo that one. And someday I want to teach an eco lit course on garden books, horticulutre, trips to gardens, talks with botanists....

Diana Studer said...

Your bison, our springbok ...

Unknown said...

Got your book, Without Such Absence, this weekend. Congratulations. I really liked the Garden poems at the end, of course. My favorite was Photograph, 1990. Brought back memories when my parents put an addition on their house when I was about the same age. Very nice work!

Susan Tomlinson said...


We probably aren't going to be raising bison anytime soon in this country, however. But there are currently people raising rangeland cattle, which is the next best thing. The prairie is a grazing ecosystem. Recognizing this and choosing our nutrition accordingly is much more sustainable than converting all that grassland to cotton (where I live) or corn/wheat/etc.

Sandy Longhorn said...

I read Manning's book several years ago, although I'm more poet than someone who works the land. Still, page 1 provides my favorite quote about writing: "There is no reason to write a book unless the process of imagining it changes one's life forever." I thought it was interesting that a non-fiction writer says this rather than a writer of poetry or fiction.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Michael--Thanks for liking at least one poem! "Photograph, 1990" is one that almost won a contest, and lots of journals said they liked it but never published it. The full-lenght poetry book, which this poem is a part of, has been a finalist in two contests this fall, but didn't win, so no new bigbook anytime soon I guess.
Susan--Yes, it is a grazing system, and Manning admits that cattle is the next best thing, but that we manage their grazing completely wrong at the moment. In Oklahoma it's the same--cotton, wheat, milo....
Sandy--Poets don't work the land? I see a metaphor there. Your Manning quote is spot on, and I'd think--I'd hope--it's something any writer would say; as a port first coming into nonfiction, I think it's something I'd sure say. Manning is right, dream big, feel big, otherwise retool. I tell my students that.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Benjamin, yes, I saw my shortsightedness as soon as I posted my comment. I definitely work the land of the Midwest in my poems, but certainly not in the same dirt-under-the-nails way that my family did, once upon a time. I admire your garden so much. Thanks for sharing it all year round.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Sandy--Always nice to have fellow writers (and esp poets!) see the lyrcism of my garden--and thanks for the garden compliment, too. Hopefully, soon the snow will come and create another story in the landscape.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Benjamin,
I'll add that book to my ever lengthening list. Have dipped into Ill Nature which you recommended. Powerful way with words, Joy Williams has.

I would add that botanists may be among the people that see/feel/inhabit the land most completely, since understanding plants involves having a working (if forever incomplete) understanding of every other part of the ecosystem and how it functions. Botany is a door into "dark green" environmentalism.

Heather Holm said...


I'm half way through the book, thanks again for bringing it to my attention.