PrairyErth: A Deep Map

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9780395925690: PrairyErth: A Deep Map
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Robert Penn Warren pronounced Heat-Moon's Blue Highways "a masterpiece." Now Heat-Moon has pulled to the side of the road and set off on foot to take readers on an exploration of time and space, landscape and history in the Flint Hills of central Kansas.

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About the Author:

Under the name of William Least Heat-Moon, William Trogdon is the author of the best-selling classics BLUE HIGHWAYS, PRAIRYERTH, and RIVER-HORSE: A VOYAGE ACROSS AMERICA. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Along this fossil highway, even though it lies in the bottomlands
that have always belonged mostly to the trees, I am walking in the
time of the birth of the tallgrass prairie, that epoch when turfy
perennials - bluestems and gramas, panicums and ryes - began covering
the American interior as the old sea, now turned to a limestone
anchor, once did. Down in here, the rock is the worn concrete, yet,
as hard as it is, the cement road is nevertheless a fissured seedbed,
a string of a glade full of brand-new prairie, an extinct highway
giving birth to grassland.

Now: I've walked half this remnant, and I've found big bluestem and
little bluestem, silvery bluestem, cord grass, wild rye, sunflower,
bundle flower, catclaw sensitive briar, and also plants of the
woodlands, including a clump of garden iris from I don't know where.
But this strip is not a relict Pleistocene prairie because there
probably never was much grass in this low spot in the bottoms: a
vestigial highway, yes, but a new prairie. The native forbs and
grasses have come in on the wind and maybe on the floods, and now
they have roots under the pavement, and soon the prairie plants will
need fire to clear away the shading and moisture-sucking trees, and
until then the infant prairie can do little more than begin.

Prairie birth: in an earlier time, men believed the grasslands came
as a consequence of infertile ground, or an absence of coarse soil
material, or from glaciation, from bison trampling, lightning fires,
Indian fires, from persistent wind, drought, temperature extremes.

But Chase County has good soil of various composition, the ice sheets
did not reach here, and the temperature range and rainfall differ
only a little from the woodlands of Missouri. The other "reasons" -
fire, wind, grazing - contribute less to the birth of prairie than to
its maintenance. No: the source of the prairie is its midcontinental
position, far from tempering seas, where it lies under an eolian
cleavage zone that mixes westerlies, wrung dry by the Rocky
Mountains, with humid air from the Gulf: here, inches of evaporation
and precipitation are nearly equal, and here, above my head, the rain-
shadow of the Rockies meets in commensurate strength the humid Gulf
fronts so that this land can grow ten-foot grasses and ninety-foot
sycamores, and which one prevails depends mostly on one thing: fire.
In the last half-century, the balance has careened toward trees
because white men have suppressed the keeper of the grasses. To the
prairie, the voice of the Great Mysterious speaks in three tongues:
water, wind, flame. This glade beginning in the abandoned highway has
heard the first two, and now this slender quarter mile of incipient
prairie could use a tossed cigarette from a Santa Fe trackman so that
the highway can flourish as never before.

Copyright (C)1992 by William Least Heat-Moon. Reprinted by permission
by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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