Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Human Barrens

When the Europeans first came and destroyed the prairie, they sang songs wishing for death:

When I die, hallelujah, I'll fly away, fly away

They faced horrible resistance. Miles of cordgrasses prevented visits between kin. Swamps grew thick with life, resisting all taming. The settlers  were harried by native people, defending the land and 10,000 years of coexistence.

Until the steel plow, the settlers could not cut through the tallgrasses and the golden wildflowers with their roots 20 feet deep seeking water in the cool of the earth. When the plow arrived, the roots popped like firecrackers when ruptured, 10,000 years of growth severed by the streamlined blades. In fifty years, the tallgrass prairie disappeared.

When the settlers drained the glacial lakes, a holocaust of drought spread over the water-starved land. The great cranes of the sandhills watched as their children withered. The drained lakes became malarial, mosquitos bred unchecked in the still, dead mire. The settlers wept, died, cursed life, and continued on.

When all the land was withered of its abundance, the settlers planted shallow-rooted annuals where the ancient sun flowers had stood. These were sometimes destroyed by the winds and heat. A blizzard of dust, the skeletons of soil stripped of its plants, swept and scoured the land. Again the settlers sang: when I die, hallelujah, I'll fly away, fly away

The golden silphiums, sun flowers with roots like tree trunks set deep in the soil, took last refuge in the cemeteries of the settlers, keeping company with the dead and all that was past.

The inexorable push continued. The cattle diseases of Europe infected the native people, leaving one in ten. Rail lines crossed the prairie, and the herds of buffalo were shot from train cars, for sport. Any life native to the continent was scorned as false, bastard, or weed, and for settlements, European flowers were imported. These domesticates, stripped of wildness, replaced the richest flowering land on earth.

The medicine plants were not spared. The shadows of the clouds which played across rolling hills of echinacea and monarda no longer transformed the tones of these lavender and purple blooms.

All abundance was stripped from the earth. The prairies were disappeared so utterly that, passing through this area now, one might see no hint whatsoever of bobolink, echinacea, or buffalo. Instead, a vast sea of corn feeds the settlers, who no longer sing songs wishing for death, but glut themselves on sugar and salt, having vanquished all else.

A sea of corn across the midwest...

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