A double row of tents and crude shacks along a wide and muddy “street”, all surrounded by prairie grass and sunflowers. Then a photo of central Wichita today [photo 2 here] – block after block of concrete, brick, glass and steel, much like any other American city of the 21st century.
Or I look at side-by-side photos of virgin tallgrass prairie and an irrigated field of soybeans in Kansas. [photos 3 and 4]
Who would guess, looking at the field, that it once also was covered by tall grasses and flowers, growing from sod a foot thick? (The virgin grassland in the first photo, in northern Kansas, has survived because it grows over shallow rock that prevents plowing.)
And like most of us, my ancestors had a great deal to do with this radical transformation of the land. They were proud of turning wilderness into civilization, forest into farms, prairie into plowed fields. We take our present landscape for granted, in large part, because of the incredible amount of work – blood, sweat, and tears – our ancestors expended to make it.
But we also tend to ignore what this change in the land has cost us. Clean air and clean water have been at risk for generations. Myriads of wildlife have vanished, including hundreds of entire species. Many of the natural resources in timber, minerals, food have been severely depleted. Most of us live in crowded circumstances, far different from the spacious “elbow-room” people like Daniel Boone reveled in (and helped to destroy).
So what can we do? Just like we “can’t give it back to the Indians”, we can’t turn it back into wilderness. Too late for that, not while all 300 million plus of us are living here. But we can, individually and in groups, work to improve what we’ve got left. Support the National Parks system and local park systems. Plant trees. Practice greenscaping. Encourage builders who try to preserve or restore natural vegetation. Join conservation groups. (For example, here in Arlington, Texas, my wife and I are members of the Arlington Conservation Council (http://www.arlingtonconservationcouncil.org/) and we try to stay active in national groups such as Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy. Recycle. Walk or bike when you can. Each of these may seem, in itself, tiny and futile; but collectively, they make a difference.)
Perhaps the heroic, gargantuan tasks our ancestors accomplished to make a home for themselves and their descendants may not have been well-thought-out; but in the end they just meant for us, the children of their future, to be safe and happy. Let’s not disappoint them; instead, let’s improve on their vision by correcting some of the more destructive consequences of past roads to settling the continent. ©2010 John I. Blair
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