Part 1:The Pre-Settlement
"Ocean of Grass"
the first European explorers crossed the middle of the North
American continent they were met with an awesome expanse of
grassland. They didn't even have a word for it - the French,
in a characteristically dismissive vein, described it as a meadow.
The English were apparently more awed; they adopted the romance
of the French language, if not its literal meaning, and called
it a "prairie." Later, one of the early settlers wrote,
in 1841, that "for miles the prairie gently sloped, hardly
presenting a bush to relieve the eye. In the distance, the green
skirting of woods, which fringed either border of a large stream,
softened down the view. Occasionally a deer would jump suddenly
from his noonday rest, and scamper off..."
the arrival of the Europeans, this sea of grass is estimated
to have contained approximately one person per 5000 acres. The
native peoples lived off the land, as hunters of vast herds
of bison and the pronghorn antelope, deer and elk that roamed
the prairies. They used hides for their clothing and shelter,
and supplemented their diets with native plants; some built
homes using the abundant prairie grasses.
to the land was a spiritual one; they said that the trees spoke
to them, and that the animals were their brothers and sisters.
The sky was their father, and the earth was their mother. It
was a relationship that lasted perhaps 10,000 years before the
white man came.
the great mid-continental grasslands stretched from southern
Wisconsin to western Montana, from central Texas to Canada.
In wet periods the tall grasses of the eastern edge of the prairie
might advance deeper into the midgrass territory. In years of
drought the hardier short grasses, which extended all the way
to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, might expand their range
to the east.
had existed, in one form or another, for millions of years,
as a result of the innumerable interactions of sea and wind
and earth which formed the world as we know it today. Fossil
evidence indicates that most plants of the modern prairie were
present during the Pleistocene time, about a million years ago.
At the time the United States was being settled, however, few
of the settlers had any botanical training, and most descriptions
from journals of the time are written by people who described
the grasses in layman's language. Those who did know plants
were not very much better off - these New World species were
for the most part unfamiliar to them. Whatever we know today
about the composition of these prairies must be inferred from
the few relicts which have survived the grazing, agricultural
and urban uses of the past hundred and fifty years.
of the geographic position of Texas, and its complex biotic
history, it contains a great diversity of both plant and animal
species. The state is located at the crossroads of the eastern
deciduous forest, the coastal plain, the grasslands, and the
Sonoran desert and Tamaulipan biogeographic provinces. Over
5000 vascular plant species occur within Texas, and over 500
species of grasses. More species of animals occur in Texas than
any other of the continental states.
landscape of Texas is, in fact, rarely the unbroken stretch
of grassland which characterized much of the native tallgrass
prairies to the north. Because of the heterogeneity of soil
and climate conditions and the presence of many river systems,
the Texas grasslands, except some portions of the High Plains,
have always been part of a mosaic which includes riparian areas,
bottomland woods, and intermittent streams, making them unique
in all the prairie regions of the country.
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