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Grass: In Search of Human Habitat

Foreword by Harry W. Greene
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Part autobiography, part philosophical rumination, this evocative conservation odyssey explores the deep affinities between humans and our original habitat: grasslands. In a richly drawn, anecdotally driven narrative, Joe C. Truett, a grasslands ecologist who writes with a flair for language, traces the evolutionary, historical, and cultural forces that have reshaped North American rangelands over the past two centuries. He introduces an intriguing cast of characters—wildlife and grasslands biologists, archaeologists, ranchers, and petroleum geologists—to illuminate a wide range of related topics: our love affair with turf and how it manifests in lawns and sports, the ecological and economic dimensions of ranching, the glory of cowboy culture, grasslands and restoration ecology, and more. His book ultimately provides the background against which we can envision a new paradigm for restoring rangeland ecosystems—and a new paradigm for envisioning a more sustainable future.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94452-7
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-ix)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. x-xiii)
    Harry W. Greene

    Grass: In Search of Human Habitatis the eleventh volume in the University of California Press’s series Organisms and Environments, whose unifying themes are the diversity of plants and animals, the ways they interact with each other and their surroundings, and the implications of those relationships for science and society. We seek books that promote unusual, even unexpected connections among seemingly disparate topics, and that are distinguished by the talents and perspectives of their authors. Previous volumes have spanned topics as diverse as ethnobiology and lizard evolution, but none has so directly and synthetically addressed our relationships with nature as...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. xvi-xix)

    After many years of studying wild animals, I am convinced we can learn a lot from them in our quest for sustainable prosperity. As is the case with the other species, habitat limits our abundance and well-being; however, most of us seem to have lost touch with this reality. Fooled by dizzying advances in energy capture and technology that have obscured the constraints of habitat, we have lapsed into a kind of collective hypnosis that denies limits to our numbers and appetites, that assigns us godlike ability to stretch indefinitely the ecological bonds that confined our ancestors.

    This culture of...

  6. ONE Promethean Legacy
    (pp. 1-6)

    Energy fuels life. Like other animals we seek the best ways to capture it and funnel it to our own purposes. Our bodies glean energy from the food we eat. Some half a million years ago, anthropologists say, our ancestors gained control of fire to cook their food and warm their bodies. May be the ancient Greeks would have pointed to those long-ago campfires on the African savanna as evidence of the original visit by the mythical Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and bequeathed it to humans.

    But that was only the beginning. The next installment came...

  7. TWO Out of the Forest
    (pp. 7-11)

    I had little admiration for grass when the professors at Texas A&M started serving it up in class. By the time I left home I’d had enough of chopping Bermuda grass from rows of corn and beans, trimming carpet grass and crabgrass with a 1950s reel-type mower, and swinging a weed cutter at the really tall stuff. Most of all I hated the push mower. Exasperation is the word that best describes following this beast through rank grass at the bidding of country housewives who paid only occasional homage to the social code of Short Grass in the Front Yard....

  8. THREE Science and Faith
    (pp. 12-18)

    At university I ran head on into the contradiction between science and faith, something I cannot recall being an issue before that. I attended church very irregularly in grade school and almost never in high school, I think now because of my father’s mistrust of rural Baptist preachers. Only one teacher at my high school had dared venture onto the treacherous ground of evolution. That state of blissful ignorance ended at Texas A&M.

    One memorable incident took place the first day of a beginning class in ecology. After the professor had described how we would study plants and animals from...

  9. FOUR Playing God
    (pp. 19-22)

    In 1972 near Fairfield, Texas, I got a chance to play God and some money to do it with. The drama started innocently enough. The Industrial Generating Company, a subsidiary of Texas Utilities, had started building the Big Brown Steam Electric Station several miles east of Fairfield. A sevenstory generating plant neared completion. Designed to be fueled by lignite—a low-energy version of coal to bemined nearby—it soon would generate electricity to feed into the Texas power grid that electrified homes, offices, and industries throughout the state.

    The U.S. National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, had become law two...

  10. FIVE Pleasing to the Eye
    (pp. 23-30)

    Can science measure what the eye finds pleasing? Artists generally say no. But in a way, that’s what I set out to do at Big Brown before the bull dozers razed the landscape. Those planning restoration wanted to understand what features of the habitat attracted animals. With this information, reclamation specialists could bring back the animals by restoring the contours, soils, trees, and grasses that had attracted them in the first place. So in a sense I needed to measure what the various species found pleasing totheireyes or, for some, their noses or ears.

    Into the field I...

  11. SIX Where the Short Grass Grows
    (pp. 31-37)

    Mike Rose claims the ability to envisage the natural human habitat on the basis of the last bone in the big toe. Mike lives with his wife, Cordelia, on a shortgrass mesa just north of the small town in which I live. From their yard the view sweeps 360 degrees to horizons of near and far mountains, giving the impression of standing on a platform at the edge of a huge, shallow bowl. The night darkness, punctuated only occasionally by artificial light, stretches pregnant with prospect in all directions.

    The wordsavannabest describes the hillsides and valleys that drop...

  12. SEVEN Turf
    (pp. 38-50)

    My first sense of chronic failure came on a bermuda grass field at the hands of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound behemoth named Roy Harris. I already knew occasional failure, having grown up with the perfectionist tendencies of my father. He so seldom praised my brother and me that we got used to being not quite good enough.

    I dealt with Daddy’s tendency to criticize by doing well in conspicuous activities I knew he valued. Making good grades in school, completing work assignments, and showing courtesy to older folks topped his list. I also played a fair game of soft-ball in grade school,...

  13. EIGHT Grass and Grazers: An Ecological Primer
    (pp. 51-60)

    Very soon after becoming third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson determined to consummate a long-held ambition. He wanted to explore the interior of the American continent and map a travel route to the Pacific Ocean. But encumbered by the presidency and advancing age, he could not think of doing it himself; he would have to depend on someone else. So he sent word to a young friend who carried the curious name Meriwether Lewis.

    In March 1801, Lewis hastened to Washington from where he lived in Pittsburgh. For the next two years he lived in the White House...

  14. NINE Bison Plains and Prairie Dogs
    (pp. 61-70)

    Apart from its intended mission, the Lewis and Clark expedition turned out to be an interesting experiment in landscape appreciation. This was a group of young men raised Euro-American style in the eastern woodlands of late-eighteenth-century America. How did they adapt to a life of hunting and foraging in a vast interior grassland peopled by aboriginal tribes? What qualities of the landscapes they traversed appealed to them as they made this transition? Thomas Jefferson’s instruction that they record in detail their observations and impressions resulted in an evocative and informative written legacy of tame dispersers gone feral.

    Both Lewis and...

  15. TEN Taming of the West
    (pp. 71-82)

    Few things stir the imagination of the human male as does the mythical odyssey. Young man leaves home, travels far, endures dangers and temptations, and finally returns home triumphant. The legendary Greek hero Odysseus gave name and plot to the first major epic of this genre. When young he left home to endure the siege of Troy, then started back across the Aegean Sea only to blow off course in a storm. After years of adventure in strange lands he returned safely home to the arms of his wife, Penelope.

    Young men probably have been moved by legends of travel...

  16. ELEVEN Production Science Comes to the Range
    (pp. 83-92)

    The dust of the last cattle drive from Texas to Montana had scarcely settled and the last plains Indian sent to reservation when the trickle of westering Anglos turned into a flood. Free land drew Civil War survivors west like blowflies to a skinned bison. Surging onto the central grasslands came people dedicated to food production, European style. The farmers among them swarmed out over the tallgrass prairie and moister parts of the mixed-grass and, by the end of the nineteenth century, occupied nearly all the regions wet enough to grow the corn or wheat varieties of the time looking...

  17. TWELVE The Last Pariah
    (pp. 93-105)

    The turn of the twentieth century to the twenty-first coincided with an occurrence that, though noticed by few, I thought pregnant with millennial symbolism. The incident, which sought to protect an animal capable of shunting a lot of sunshine away from human food production, waved a gauntlet of challenge at utilitarianism, the ancestral philosophy of the ranchman.

    The challenge went public on February 4, 2000, appearing as a notice in theFederal Register.This daily publication contains rules, proposed rules, and announcements of the federal government. It sometimes reports an instance of taxpayer largesse but also wields the hammer of...

  18. THIRTEEN The Trouble with Livestock
    (pp. 106-116)

    The project started innocently enough in the next-door yard. My wife noticed a few young men digging holes in the ground with what looked like a post auger, but she couldn’t see very well what was happening because a ragged hedge of shrubs separated us from them. Then came the steel pipes.

    When I first saw them, they had already been erected. They stood about fifteen feet high, two of them, may be eight inches in diameter and ten feet apart. Judy explained the construction procedure: The fellows chained the pipes to a backhoe bucket and lifted them, setting the...

  19. FOURTEEN Subsidizing John Wayne
    (pp. 117-125)

    Most people in the small town where I live depend heavily on a food supply brought from long distances. Even those who harvest backyard gardens, milk goats, or annually kill a deer or cow get most of their calories from town. The food on the supermarket shelves—bread, milk, beans, vegetables, breakfast cereals, bacon, hamburger, and corn and soybeans in a thousand guises—comes from animals and plants grown in faraway places and shipped down highways built and maintained mostly by other people’s money. In this sense, we are subsidized.

    My dictionary defines subsidy as a “gift or grant to...

  20. FIFTEEN Collateral Damage
    (pp. 126-137)

    Mushroom cloud! It rose ever higher into the clear blue sky. The top billowed out like a cauliflower growing at time-lapse speed. A slice of horizontal gray separated the cap from the stem. A low rumble of thunder sent a shiver across the glass window of our old house.

    But this couldn’t be a thunderstorm. The calendar proclaimed it to be too early for the monsoons of summer, and the air felt bone dry. But in yonder sky, the roil of white pushed higher, many thousands of feet into the air, seeming to defy the laws of meteorology. The sinister...

  21. SIXTEEN Cowboy
    (pp. 138-144)

    I first got drawn into the glory of the American cowboy by Zane Grey. His books caught my attention in about the fifth grade. This Pennsylvania dentist turned western novelist spun tales of pure women and rugged menwho by and large followed the rules of Victorian social etiquette, and his stories kept me huddled under the bedside lamp often until the small hours of morning. Once I had read all the Zane Grey books owned by our school and town libraries, I began to reread them. One of the few possessions of another I really envied was a matched set...

  22. SEVENTEEN Resurrection
    (pp. 145-155)

    As we pulled up to the ranch entryway, a steel barrier blocked the way: two hinged bars that spanned the cattle guard a couple of feet off the ground met in the middle. Our pickups—mine and the Bureau of Land Management truck ahead—idled for an uneasy thirty seconds or so. Then the BLM biologist stepped out, walked onto the cattle guard, and rattled the chain holding the ends of the bars together. Locked. The weather on this cloudy January day in 1995 began to look ominous.

    “I’ll have to radio in and have our office call the rancher...

  23. EIGHTEEN Pleistocene Park
    (pp. 156-166)

    On August 18, 2005, the prestigious journalNaturepublished a grasslands restoration vision so bizarre that some took it as a joke. Featuring a dozen authors, mainly from universities across the United States, it aimed at people who already had heard so many novel ideas for conservation as to be severely desensitized. But theNaturearticle startled them awake.

    Responses began pouring in even before the paper issue made it to subscribers’ mailboxes. Some were complimentary, some angry, many incredulous. Within a few days after publication, emails and phone calls to the main author had climbed into the hundreds. Commentary...

  24. NINETEEN Diversity
    (pp. 167-176)

    Encountering diversity in nature can titillate the senses but at the same time generate anxiety. It’s like owning a lot of stuff or having too many people or pets in the house. Diversity offers grand prospect, interesting opportunity, but at the same time can challenge one’s sense of control. Birdwatchers spend a lot of time seeking out diversity, lawnkeepers and farmers a lot of money getting rid of it.

    Conserving biodiversity justifies a lot of political rhetoric and management action these days. What is biodiversity? Biologists squabble endlessly over definitions and perspectives, but getting too detailed can be confusing. So...

  25. TWENTY Long Road Home
    (pp. 177-188)

    My studies of wild animals and their habitats prompted me long ago to join the growing cadre that sees us humans near the limits of our own habitat. This belief arose not from religious conversion or teachings of a doomsday cult. It came from a few immutable principles familiar to habitat ecologists.

    The logic runs like this. Habitats invariably have limits to the numbers of each kind of animal they can support. Symptoms of habitat limitation typically show up as starvation, malnutrition, disease, escalating social strife, or some combination thereof. No species, including ours, has proved capable of stabilizing or...

  26. Epilogue
    (pp. 189-192)

    A quarter century ago, ecologist Garret Hardin in his bookFilters Against Follylamented the inertia of cultural tradition. Resistance to social change, he observed, hinders people from adjusting to new circumstance. To face an uncertain future, he said, we need “far-reaching modifications of longstanding social arrangements.” Such adjustments seldom come from within existing institutions or with their blessings, however. New ideas require outside thinking.

    Traditions of grassland management, solidified as they are by isolation and by the power of the landscape to stiffen the psyche, resist change particularly well. The good, the bad, and the ugly of cowboy culture...

  27. Notes
    (pp. 193-198)
  28. References
    (pp. 199-210)
  29. Index
    (pp. 211-217)
  30. Back Matter
    (pp. 218-218)