Lost Horizon

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In the midst of so much life, it is difficult to remember that throughout the first half of the nineteenth century mapmakers identified this area as part of the “Great American Desert,” following the lead of such explorers as Zebulon Pike, convinced that treelessness and desert were synonymous conditions. Life surrounded those early visitors, but it was not a kind of life with which they felt comfortable, and so they were inclined not to regard it as life at all, but as some perversion of what they thought nature, naturally, to be.

The first question raised by a place like the Konza is, Why are there no trees? Thomas Jefferson, always eager to account for everything, suggested that fire was the answer, that fire kept encroaching forests at bay. Josiah Gregg, in The Commerce of the Prairies (1844), offered, as evidence for this hypothesis, the trees that fringe prairie rivers and streams, seeing in those waters fire protection rather than nourishment. Further, he argued, where the “devastating conflagrations have ceased their ravages,” timber is already advancing into the old barrens.

In contrast, Horace Greeley returned from the prairie fifteen years after Gregg and declared that far from yielding ground, “the desert” was “steadily enlarging its borders and at the same time intensifying its barrenness.” This he attributed not to fire but to winds whose velocity prevented the growth of timber.

The circuit-riding missionary John Mason Peck, in his A Gazetteer of Illinois (1834), noted the presumption in asking why there are no trees on a prairie. “We might as well,” he argued, “dispute about the origin of forests, upon the assumption that the national covering of the earth was grass.” Grass, not fire or wind, was the decisive factor, he insisted, asserting that “where the tough sward of the prairie is once formed, timber will not take root. Destroy this by the plough, or by any other method, and it is soon converted into forest land.” Only the plow, Peck claimed, could bring trees to the prairie.

Fire receives the vote of the people who wrote the Konza Prairie pamphlet, and fire, carefully managed, is a part of the Konza’s maintenance program. But it is the Flint Hills, a two-county-wide strip running south from Interstate 70 down into Oklahoma, that most resembles the terrain burning in America’s best-known portrayals of prairie fire, the paintings of George Catlin. There, in the late-afternoon light, I could see the rounded slope down which Catlin’s braves rush on horseback, barely escaping the flames and smoke. Neither is it difficult to imagine buffalo on these hills, in part because much of the land now belongs to cattle, diminished reminders of the earlier inhabitants, and because it seems, like the arctic tundra, a place prepared for great migrating herds. It is easy to picture a rough brown line interposed between the lines of blue and green. Even the house-high rolls of hay seem designed for larger beasts than those I saw seeking shelter in their shade.

 

In large part because of the buffalo, the notion of desert eventually yielded before a notion of an American garden, and some Americans began to suspect what Coronado had suggested: that an ecosystem that could sustain millions of head of buffalo had, in fact, an unequaled life-supporting capacity. So in 1857 William Gilpin—that sometime soldier and politician and, above all, tireless promoter of the West —declared, “These PLAINS are not deserts, but the opposite, and are the cardinal basis of the future empire of commerce and industry now erecting itself upon the North American Continent.”

In time the enthusiasm for cattle, the most obvious analog for buffalo, gave ground to a cultivating impulse. Farming adapted to the tallgrass prairie, then to the higher plains, bringing with it a new agricultural technology and creating a new culture as it transformed both the North American grasslands and the food market of the world. After the Civil War, a war fought in part to determine what culture would prevail in the prairie states, the old American desert became the foundation of a very different nation. Its agriculture differed from that practiced in either the pre-war North or the pre-war South, and its physical presence, which just a few decades earlier had merely separated east from west, came by the end of the century to be what held the two together and provided the cohesion for a restored Union. It had become, however, a transformed place: the buffalo gone, the surviving Indians herded onto ever-shrinking reservations, the lower prairies plowed under, the high plains either grazed by cattle or given over to winter wheat. And it was as well a transforming place, changing the institutions and laws that had emerged from the timber zone earlier in the century to serve the realities of a new landscape and culture.

The Flint Hills, like the grasslands of Oklahoma, remain cattle country, the wide expanses have continued in grass, and in Oklahoma’s Osage County, north of a line running from Pawhuska to Ponca City, a vast tallgrass prairie preserve has been proposed by the National Park Service. If approved, the preserve would contain around one hundred thousand acres in a tract more than ten times larger than the Konza.