From the Mountains to the Prairies

From the Mountains to the Prairies July 4, 2019

Do you know why the prairies have grown rare?

My daughter knows.

Rosie has been watching quite a few nature shows, lately. She loves the irritating Kratt brothers best of all, and has been devouring every program they hosted in the past few decades thanks to our Amazon Prime subscription. She likes to chatter about them, and tell me the fun facts she’s learned. “Do you know the difference between the African and Indian elephants? Did you know that pikas are lacking in the tail department? Did you know that pigeons give milk?”

Last night, when I thought she was asleep, she opened her eyes to ask me, “Do you know why the prairies have grown rare?”

I wondered if she was quite awake.  “Have the prairies grown rare?”

Rose nodded earnestly. “Do you know why?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Because when the buffalo died out, the prairies began to grow rare.”

“Oh,” I said. “This was from one of your shows? The buffalo were killed off and that changed the environment, there weren’t herds of grazing animals, so now there aren’t many prairies anymore?”

Rose closed her eyes and nodded again.

After she fell asleep, I looked it up– and, indeed, the removal of keystone species over the years is why the prairies are growing more and more rare. They are an endangered ecosystem, and Lord knows what will happen next.

When I was Rose’s age, I hadn’t been taught why the buffalo had died off– nor that the buffalo dying off was the reason the prairies were rare, nor that the prairies were rare at all. I thought the prairies were gradually conquered by earnest pioneers in soddies, and the buffalo were eaten up or wandered away to Canada. But that’s not true. The buffalo were hunted near to the point of extinction on purpose. Bounties were put on buffalo so that settlers would hunt more than they could ever eat, and leave their carcasses rotting on the prairie. This was done on purpose, to starve the Native Americans to death.

And they did starve.

And white settlers came through and built soddies on their land.

And now the prairies are rare.

This is something that America is.


Today is Independence Day. When it is dark, I am going to take Rosie to see the fireworks. They’re not setting them off in the park this year, but downtown at Historic Fort Steuben. Fort Steuben is a museum built on the site of a fort that was built to protect surveyors come to map the new Northwest Territory. It was to protect them from the Native Americans, who are described to us as “hostile.” You can buy copies of the arrowheads they left behind in Fort Steuben’s gift shop, along with wooden replicas of rifles.

I take Rosie to that museum, from time to time, for homeschooling purposes.

“These were the bad guys,” I whisper, as we look at the wax figurines in blue and brown uniforms, posed awkwardly around a canon. “They took something that wasn’t theirs.”

This is something else that America is.

When I was a little girl, on Independence Day, we went to see a parade. Then we went to my grandfather’s house to swim in his backyard swimming pool. He made steak and baked potatoes on the grill and boiled a big pot of corn on the cob; we gorged ourselves at the picnic bench on his back porch, and then waited one hour before getting back into the pool. In the evening, we went to the park near my house to see fireworks. The park was called Whetstone Park. It was named after a river nearby that used to be called the Whetstone River, because the settlers got stones out of it to whet their knives and axes. Sometime before I was born, the river was re-named the Olentangy, after the Native Americans the settlers murdered and drove away. The Olentangy are gone now, but at least we changed the river’s name so they will be remembered.

Rosie also likes to swim in the summer. As I write this, Michael is taking Rosie to swim at the free day at the public pool. She just recently learned to swim without her life vest; she likes to dive for weighted plastic sharks she bought at the Dollar Tree. The sharks get thrown like missiles into the water and sink to the bottom, tail up.

We go to the pool often this summer, because it’s so hot. It’s hotter than the summers of my childhood were. They say that this has been the hottest June recorded in history– so hot that mussels steamed in their shells on beaches and all the oysters fishermen caught were already dead. But we try not to think about that. We don’t eat mussels and oysters very much here in the Ohio Valley. We don’t have seashores but swimming pools. We don’t have prairies either, but the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, where the coal that heats the earth is mined. We go to the swimming pool, and dive for dead plastic sharks, and try not to think about the future.

This is something else that America is.

Rosie told me the other day, that she might like to run for president. She watched a bit of the debates with me, and was bored. But it stuck with her that all of the presidential candidates were talking about children caged and neglected in prison camps. I had to tell her something about those camps and what we’re doing to innocent people who come to us for mercy. I had to explain to a seven-and-a-half-year-old girl that our government puts little ones in prison camps where they’re not allowed to see their parents, or bathe or brush their teeth.

I didn’t tell her that America caused the wars that made those countries so poor and dangerous in the first place. I didn’t know how to bring it up.

It is raining in the capitol today; there’s a flash flood warning in place, and will be for the whole time the president will give his speech. He’s blocked off the National Mall, which is usually a public space, and sold tickets to what is usually a community celebration. For a fee, you can stand up close to the Lincoln Memorial and watch an elderly playboy give a speech, flanked by stationary army tanks. There is concern that the army tanks may damage the old and crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges as they parade by.

This is something else that America is.

God bless America: from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. From the mountains where we mine the coal, to the prairies that are nearing extinction, to the ocean where the mussels steam in their shells, to the prison camps to the crumbling roads to the tanks parked at the fenced-in National Mall, may God bless America.

Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

(image via Pixabay) 

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