Faren Dancer's Green Talk

Our Life Breath: Restoring the Grasslands

"...leaving the land alone, as in no disturbance, in attempts to rehab from the effects of overgrazing and erosion, has turned out not to be the answer..."

Date October 5, 2011 at 12:25 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Culture Education Lectures & Workshops Green Living


Since childhood it’s been considered a given that forests were the “lungs” of the world. But, it was recently brought to my attention that grasslands produce more oxygen and pick up more carbon than rainforests. And the issue here is that these very grasslands are rapidly turning to deserts in many places around the globe. Given the havoc created by modern man’s mindless approach to dealing with nature, (why not take a cue from the indigenous cultures or mother nature herself?) aspects of our eco-system are being compromised and the affects can be alarming. But there is, through understanding, education and willingness, the potential to stem the tide and restore this precious and vital aspect of our natural world.

Grasslands co-evolved with hoofed animals over many centuries. It was, and continues to be, a symbiotic relationship. In the past, giant herds performed the extremely important function of stimulating the grass by biting, chomping and stomping from one location to the next. And all along the way, dropping their nutritious byproducts, fertilizing the soil and guaranteeing a perpetual wealth of healthy grass. Because the herds were constantly threatened by predators, they moved quickly and never lingered too long in one location. They would just eat, stomp, pee, poop and move on. When the European settlers began creating fence lines, and the animals couldn’t move as often or as quickly, the erosion began and the topsoil began to disappear.

One of the most dramatic stories regarding human impact on the environment belongs to the American bison. In the 17th century, an estimated 60 million bison roamed the plains of North America. The grasslands moved in waves like a rippling sea. With the arrival of settlers, the bison were pushed out of their native land and hunted ruthlessly. By 1890, less than 1,000 animals survived. In striking contrast to the native Americans, who traditionally hunted the bison for food, tools, and their hides, the European's slaughter was essentially for sport, with “gamesmen” shooting from the newly constructed railway, wagering on how many they could kill in a single day. Fortunately, the American Bison Society was formed in 1905 to secure the survival of this species. As a result of captive breeding and re-introductions to the wild, in the past century the American bison population has returned to approximately 500,000. One can only wonder what aversion to nature could drive this level of disregard for a species to the very edge of extinction.

In Europe the affects of its high density civilization has impacted the land over many thousands of years. Here, in North America, the devastation that has occurred over the past one hundred years is downright scary. The near elimination of the Bison was a precursor to the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, when a massive percentage of the topsoil across the Great Plains blew away during nine years of unceasing winds during the worst drought in United States history. These were the events, resulting in such a parched and depleted landscape, that paved the way for the chemical pesticide and chemical fertilizer companies to launch their campaign with the ironic title of “green revolution.” This new direction, proudly led by modern chemical science, was to create a true panacea, a revolutionary approach that was to invigorate the land and produce limitless yield to feed the world. The sad reality has been the continuing degradation of the land and water, along with the known and unknown impact on the health of humans, the food chain and the planet.

Fortunately, we are now evolving definite scientific procedures for restoring the land. The land has a great healing capacity, similar to our bodies. But leaving the land alone, as in no disturbance, in attempts to rehab from the effects of overgrazing and erosion, has turned out not to be the answer. But what does appear to be working is a combination of stimulation and rest, based on moving herds quickly and often, simulating how the great herds moved before fences. The Europeans parceled off the land with a protective approach to securing their land and the possessions of their cattle. But had they merely viewed how the natural ecology was functioning and attempted to follow that model, this continent could still be a an unending paradise. So, how can we help restore what’s been damaged and realign ourselves with the oneness of life? I think it can be as simple as something called the “Triple Bottom Line": How does it affect finances? How does it affect the environment? How does it affect society?

With each of these questions being asked, and some appropriate time spent in determining how all three can be considered and accomplished, unlike the prevailing single “bottom line” mentality that demands profitability at the exclusion of people and planet, the outcome can be one of unity, harmony and prosperity…all worthwhile ingredients for our sustainable future.

Reach the author at faren@unicopia.org or on www.unicopia.org. Follow on Twitter.