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                Where have all the prairies gone?
                Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

                Part 1:The Pre-Settlement Prairie
                An "Ocean of Grass"

                When 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..."

                Before 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.

                Their relationship 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.

                Before 1850, 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.

                These grasslands 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.

                Because 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.

                The natural 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.

                Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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