Molly P. Rozum, Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies (University of Manitoba Press and University of Nebraska Press, 2021).
“Are you an environmental historian?” The surprise question came at the end of a public discussion about Grasslands Grown. Without hesitation, I answered, “Yes, if one studies the Great Plains one has to be an environmental historian.” Settler colonial society developed a conflicted relationship with prairies and plains landscapes. A marked strain of environmental determinism and a heightened sensitivity to space, born out of a painfully slow and often imperfect adaptation, inheres in us settlers. (I grew up in South Dakota, a descendant of German, Irish, and Bohemian settler colonial immigrants to the northern grasslands.) I am also a cultural historian interested in geography and the ways human beings organize ecological experiences into places and regions.
“Grasslands Grown argues the first generations of settler society raised on the northern grasslands of Canada and the United States claimed a sense of place and created the cultural products that lodged regions—the Prairie Provinces, the Northern Great Plains, the Middle West—into their respective nation states.”
Grasslands Grown argues the first generations of settler society raised on the northern grasslands of Canada and the United States claimed a sense of place and created the cultural products that lodged regions—the Prairie Provinces, the Northern Great Plains, the Middle West—into their respective nation states. Novels, poetry, memoirs, painting, nature guides, hybrid agricultural seeds, parks and preserves, historical societies, and the archives that collected many of the personal papers I analyzed, all of this cultural expression, constitutes the work of settler colonialism down the generations to the middle of the twentieth century. The rise of grasslands places and regions in settler society’s national cultures is the work of next-generation settler colonialism, a cultural way of claiming land that elaborated on the homesteads and land purchases made by “pioneer” parents.
The children of settlers grew up imaginatively attached to grasses, rivers, skies, berries, boulders, and the trees the space hosted in unique configurations, even as they and their parents spent many days actively transforming nineteenth century grasslands landscapes into grainlands and grazelands for commercial agriculture. The children of settler colonials dug down, sensuously immersed themselves, into diverse ecological environments, while Canada and the United States purposely sought to separate Indigenous children from their relatives and cultural landscapes by sending them to far away boarding schools. Play, work, and travel with domestic animals (cows, oxen, horses, and chickens) and encounters with wild animals (jackrabbits, gophers, prairie dogs, geese, swans, and coyotes) introduced settler children to northern grasslands ecology and shaped the rhythms and pace of their senses of place. Eventually, concepts learned through formal education and adult work and travel joined the untutored sensual immersion of childhood environmental experiences to allow for the creation of new settler regional identities.
Skeleton Weed and Wild Rose drawings. Intimate knowledge of plants made the settler society artist Albertan Annora Brown question plowing the grasslands. Skeleton weed has deep and thick roots with minimal bloom and foliage, which symbolized to Brown a necessary adaptation to the “arid regions.” She lamented the attitude that allowed agricultural experts to classify the wild rose as a weed. Original images from Brown’s book Old Man’s Garden, 130, 195-97. By permission of Glenbow Museum, Calgary.
The fusion of diminishing northern native grasslands habitats and steadily increasing cultivated agricultural landscapes, marked by grain sheaves arranged in stooks (Canada) or shocks (U.S.) in the field, best expresses a sense of place shared by settlers across the forty-ninth parallel of international boundary. The development of distinct cultural geographic regions: Prairies, Plains, Midwest, especially during and after the 1930s, suggests the growing cultural power of the border. The persistence of Indigenous nations and their claims to the same spaces, never contained by modern reserves and reservations, contested those of settlers. Indeed, Indigenous peoples maintained senses of place based on different cultural configurations of the same resources. Ultimately, settler society’s determined focus on commercial row-crop agriculture elevated annual precipitation (aridity) to a regional delineation tool, particularly in the U.S. where the 98th-100th meridian zone divided North America’s grasslands into the West and Middle West. The zone marks the place beyond which unaided crop agriculture becomes precarious with less than twenty inches of annual precipitation. However, the choice to elevate annual precipitation over grass in the creation of regions is as much a cultural choice as it is “natural” or environmental. To be an environmental historian perhaps always requires one also to be a cultural historian.