September – November 1996
A vast sea of grasses once covered the middle of the North American continent. In the seventeenth century French explorers described these grasslands as the belles préries or beautiful meadows. From Saskatchewan to Texas and from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains, grasses were the essence of a complex ecosystem that became known as the prairie.
Although grasses characterized the prairie, it was home to hundreds of other species of plants and animals, including huge herds of migrating bison. The selective grazing habits of the bison, as well as the regenerative effects of fire, were crucial to the existence of the prairie. Lightning fired the grasses during thunderstorms; Native Americans fired the grasses to manage their environment. Whatever their cause, prairie fires limited the growth of trees and large shrubs, thus keeping the forests at bay and ensuring the survival of the grasslands.
In the first half of the nineteenth century travelers published reports of their journeys across the American prairies, creating an image that appealed to those with a taste for adventure. Eastern writers offered a romantic vision of a vast, open and abundant land awaiting settlement. They addressed a young nation seduced by the spirit of progress and eager to expand. The assault on the great central grasslands had begun.
Settlers came in the tens of thousands, bringing their Western European culture and values. The transformation they effected was rapid, relentless and all-consuming. The bison were nearly eliminated, and the Plains Indians were forced onto reservations. The newcomers, with their oxen and and steel-forged breaking plows, turned millions of acres of fertile grasslands into the farms of the modern day Middle West and and Plains.
People struggling to survive in a harsh and threatening environment had little time to appreciate the stark beauty of the native prairie, and they were unaware of the toll their farming methods were taking on the land. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s exacted the ultimate price for the destruction of the grasslands.
With a few notable exceptions, the biological diversity that was once the middle American grasslands survives only in scattered, small preserves. Iowa preservationist pioneer, Ada Hayden, though we had much to learn from the prairie’s innate ability to sustain itself. Today with the tallgrass prairie on the brink of extinction, increasing numbers of people are beginning to appreciate her wisdom.
This exhibition was prepared by Dean Koster, Pam Barta-Kacena, Marguerite Perret, Rita Henderson, Kathy Wachel, and Pam Spitzmueller with assistance from Joyce Barker, Jennifer Bell, Lucy David and Rich Green.