That’s what Lewis and Clark said when they headed up the Missouri River in 1804 and had their first look at the Great Plains. It was a summer landscape, void of trees, which allowed the grass covered rolling hills to be seen all the way to the horizon. Their daily journals observed beautiful evenings, amazing sunsets and unusual creatures. Surely we have not ruined it all in our two hundred years of occupying the region. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and our eyes and minds may need to be recalibrated to find the same beauty in the modern version of the land that our ancestors changed dramatically in only a few human generations.
I think the greatest American story is the Voyage of Discovery that began when President Thomas Jefferson talked Congress into buying the Louisiana Territory from France. We paid Napoleon Bonaparte the sum of fifteen million dollars for a landscape that drained into the Missouri River. The United States was already moving west, toward the Mississippi River but this astonishingly large region now doubled the size of the country and was purchased for three cents per acre.
The journals of the two explorers, and their thirty-person expedition, describe the river itself as being muddy with banks that collapsed into the rapidly flowing stream with great force. I think we should document that when attempting to regulate its waters back to their pristine state of being. Mark Twain called it: “too thick to drink and too thin to plow” as an illustration of its condition in the lower reaches that dumped into the Mississippi at St. Louis.
The riverbanks, north of Kansas City, had to come as a shock to Lewis and Clark when trees we no longer present and the landscape rolled on forever. They struggled upstream for many hours each day but also spread out onto the prairie to hunt for food. They found vast herds of American bison (buffalo) which Lewis estimated to be over three thousand in view at one time. The elk herds were also common and the deer, he said, “Were as numerous as barn kittens”.
From that beginning, what do we see today? The sunsets are the same and they are magnificent. In every season, the evenings begin with a slight shift in the color of light from white to yellow to orange and then silhouettes of clouds and terrain that become detailed in the intensity of a multicolored glow.
Settling of the plains is often summarized as “Paradise Lost” by those who live afar. There is no doubt that we have marked the land more in our presence than hundreds of generations of native Americans. Our intention, from the beginning, has been to utilize resources in a manner that allows permanent habitation. Building towns, roads and water supplies on the Plains changed the delicate balance of nature. By our hand, we wiped out the many native cultures that Lewis and Clark promised to protect. Our greed brought the bison to the edge of extinction. We substituted cattle for the natural grazers and we built fences to secure property rights. We built dams and diversions and prevented wildfire from removing woody plants. Still, our habitation was tenuous. The pioneers learned that a landscape that could be so benign and peaceful would turn treacherous and cold for months at a time.
All of that is behind us today as we have farmed and grazed much of the land for over a hundred years. Nature’s cycles of drought denied harvest in random years and a growing urban workforce beckoned the once bustling population to move away. Some towns have been removed from the map. An equilibrium seems to have been found or at least a slowing of migration in either direction.
Modern transportation has played a major role in the development of the Plains. No land is out of reach unless deliberately fenced off. A calf born in Texas may spend a year in the grasslands of Kansas before going to a feedlot in Colorado. Sitting equidistant between population centers to the east, west and south allows meat, milk and grain to be produced in the heartland and transported in finished form to people who have no idea of its origin or process.
But what are the thoughts of current residents of the landscape that was called paradise by the first of our race to see it? Have we lost the ability to admire the beauty of each day or marvel at God’s great design on such an expansive canvas? Do we grimace when we taste dust from a roadside or face a cold wind head on? Can we imagine how much easier life is today than on a winter morning for the first settlers?
I highly recommend a drive through the Flint Hills of Kansas for anyone who has a problem with our intrusion into the Plains. The natural state of the Flint Hills remains today because it could not be plowed because of limestone imbedded in its surface. The seventy-mile wide swath, reaches from Northeast Oklahoma well into Northeast Kansas. It is mostly under private ownership so the fences are few and the ranches are large. The Kansas Turnpike cuts across so there are many vistas from which to see it’s magnificent desolation. The late spring and summer seasons are my favorite times to view the hills and valleys, but no matter the date, focus on a landscape that is almost identical to how it has been for millennium. Imagine a grassland that provided habitat for well suited species, including ancient man, who evolved to match its cycles or adapted to benefit from its bounty.
Once you drive out and observe the land that has been under cultivation for over a century, you can see the changes we made as our young nation pushed westward. Nineteenth Century Americans, mostly of European descent, altered the ecosystem to enhance its usefulness to mankind. As each generation passed the land forward, we appointed ourselves caretakers of its sanctity for those to come. The landscape has taken on immense economic importance as it now produces all manner of grains for domestic and export use. A land that produces millions of cattle each year and carries them from grass to grain and on to consumers around the world. People on the Plains may be few in number but their contribution to our society is large.
If we are a fleeting species, and our rise and fall is just a blip in geological time, the Plains will return to its natural state. The symmetry and scars from our presence will soon be scrubbed and healed by the forces of nature. The landscape will become paradise again. So if it was of such beauty before our arrival and would be after our departure, why would it not be the same in our presence?