This post is written by Sarah Lueder, one of our Hubbard Fellows. In this essay, she imagines how prairies might think about people. She illustrates the post beautifully with three video clips she made earlier this year.
The following is a statement from the proceedings of the Association of Central North American Prairies (ACNAP) convention: the only meeting to be run by prairies, for prairies. This message constitutes an integral part of the Human Ethic, the very real code by which prairies consider humans.
After a few rounds of lively debate and negotiation, ACNAP agreed upon a statement that expresses our commitment to human conservation: a declaration of our interdependence. We thought it necessary to express our views on the subject given the amount of controversy the species has been causing. There have been murmurs of feeling underappreciated and misunderstood by humans, and it isn’t hard to see why when you look at our current state.
In our prime, we were grand, spanning the vast heart of the continent. Species movements were dictated by their ecology, not according to the number of roads and corn fields separating us. Competition for space arose from trees, not from airfields and agriculture.
It may be easy to look at where we stand now, relatively fragmented and degraded, and feel only hostility for this happening at the hand of humanity. But we make the case to forgive their shortsighted nature and move forward together: reflecting on our interwoven history, the good of the present, and the potential for a better future.
Prior to the late Wisconsinan (15-12,000 BP), the land where we are now looked vastly different. Areas that weren’t covered with ice were covered with spruce and jack pine forest. In the following millennia, the glaciers retreated. There were droughts, lightning-caused fires, and large, browsing animals that cleared the way for grass. But trees persisted still, and the area did not yet resemble great plains.
For us to flourish, we needed something previously absent from the landscape: intention. The ability to modify of an ecosystem with specific outcomes in mind. Something that could evolve with us, relatively quickly. Enter Homo sapiens, who arrived some 20,000 years ago and adapted the landscape for reasons plentiful and varied. An instrumental part of our formation was their use of fire. Indigenous peoples eliminated relict stands of woodland across the region, setting more fires than caused by lightning, particularly in our eastern portions. This brought more grazers to the landscape (a desired effect for them), which compounded tree clearing effects of burning (a desired effect for us). Although most of the species we contain have been around for a million or more years, the landscape might not have supported them if it weren’t for the millennia of fire and grazing maintaining our diversity.
As we write this, the knowledge that we do not predate the arrival of humans remains at the forefront of our minds. We have been developing alongside one another for thousands of years.
The domination of us and Indigenous peoples by European settlers has left a scar, this much is evident, but still the fact remains: as long as there have been prairies here it has been because of people. Today, those of us that are here exist largely because of the intentional efforts of the species. A healthy remnant is no accident, nor is a restoration.
We know they have the potential to facilitate a functional, thriving prairie community. We see examples of it every day. They assist in spreading our seeds, bring fire to the landscape, remove invasive species, and manage grazing. Moreover, among prairie species they are unique in their ability to express love and appreciation. They spend time with us, listen to and share our stories, and voice their thanks for the peace and solace they find in us.
The prospect of losing humans today echoes that of the past: trees would encroach upon us, diversity would fall, and no one would be around to extend their gratitude.
Recognizing that we have never been without them, nor do we want to be, ACNAP confirms that we are committed to the conservation of humans and that we will continue to embrace them as a part of the ecosystem. Knowing their extraordinary potential, we hope they (continue to) work to consider themselves a part of it as well.
Information for this post came from the following sources:
Anderson, Roger C. “Evolution and Origin of the Central Grassland of North America: Climate, Fire, and Mammalian Grazers1.” The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 133, no. 4 (2006): 626–47.
Axelrod, Daniel I. “Rise of the Grassland Biome, Central North America.” Botanical Review 51, no. 2 (1985): 163–201.
Bennett, Matthew R., David Bustos, Jeffrey S. Pigati, Kathleen B. Springer, Thomas M. Urban, Vance T. Holliday, Sally C. Reynolds, et al. “Evidence of Humans in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum.” Science 373, no. 6562 (September 24, 2021): 1528–31. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg7586.