Great Prairie & George Catlin   Robert Leverett
  May 20, 2002 15:58 PDT 

   Thanks for the detailed description of the fire history of the Kaibab. As
paradoxical as it may sound, I see human interevention as essential to
protecting wilderness areas that would otherwise be adversely impacted by
human activities on their periphery and from the past suppression of fire.
We have to be realistic.

   As of late, I've been re-reading 'North American Indians' by George
Catlin as edited by Peter Matthiessen and published by Penguin Books in
1996. George Catlin was one of, if not the premier artist of North American
Indians. He was also a fairly good naturalist and historian. He traveled
among the Indians of the eastern and western U.S., observed their culture,
and painted their dignitaries. Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1796.
he was educated as a lawyer and practiced law in Philadelphia for a couple
of years before abandoning his profession in 1823 to pursue a new career as
a portrait painter. He traveled extensively among the western tribes between
1831 and 1837. He produced over 300 oil painting of notable Indian leaders
plus 200 oils of other subjects. he collected many artifacts to great
acclaim in this country and abroad. Catlin died in Jersey City, NJ on
December 22, 1872 - almost 4 years before the battle of the Little Bighorn
and near the time of the establishment of Yellowstone NP.

    Catlin's understanding of Indian culture and what to whites was the
inscrutible nature of the Indian personality far exceeded the understanding
of Native Americans by other whites of Catlin's day. His book makes for some
of the best reading of authentic descriptions of the West, Indian nations,
and the real American wilderness, which was fast disappearing.

    Catlin's observation of the hunting of buffalo by the plains Indians is
classic. During the period of observation, there were many wolves that
roamed the prairies weeding out the sick and old among the buffalo,
antelope, mule deer, etc. Catlin speaks of the wolves as commonly of a white
coloration. This fascinates me. I had always assumed that the wolves were
predominately tawny to gray in color. Apparently, there were plenty of
wolves of a white coloration, which has set me to thinking. How many species
of animals and plants that were almost completely extirpated have undergone
such a genetic reduction, that we have only a faint understanding of the
range of diversity that we Europeans inherited? Did the giant White Pines of
New York, New England, and the upper Mid-west reflect a far broader genetic
heritage? Could the Catskills of New York in the early 1800s have had
Hemlock forests that would have rivaled those still surviving in the Great
Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee? One can speculate forever.

    Catlin's book provides ample food for thought about the nature of
wilderness in the 1830s and what we have lost. From Catlin's works, one can
make a strong case that the best role to be fulfilled by our national parks
and national forests is preservation of the genetic base of as many species
as we can account for.

More on Catlin and Some Summary Thoughts    dbhguru
   May 21, 2002 18:36 PDT 

    Micro-habitats created by aninals the size of bison are not to be passed
of lightly. First a description by Catlin of buffalo wallows.

"    In the heat of summer these huge animals, which no doubt, suffer very
much with the great profusion of their long ans shaggy hair of fur, often
graze on the low grounds in the prairies, where their is a little stagnant
water lying amongst the grass, and the ground underneath being saturated
with it, is soft, into which the enormous bull, loweerd down upon one knee,
will plunge his horns, and at last his head, driving up the earth, and soon
making an excavation in the ground, into which the water filters from
amongst the grass, forming for him in a few moments, a cool and comfortable
bath, into which he plunges like a hog in his mire.

"   In this delectable layer, he throws himself flat upon his side, and
forcing himself violently around, with his horns and his hge hump on his
shoulders presented to the side, he ploughs up the ground by his rotary
motion, sinking himself deeper and deeper into the ground, continually
enlarging his pool, in which he at length becomes nearly immersed and the
water and mud about him mixed into a complete mortar, which changes his
color, and drips in streams from every part of him as he rises up upon his
feet, a hideous monster of mud and ugliness, too frightful and too eccentric
to be described!

"    It is generally the leader of the heard that taks upon him to make this
excavation; and it is not (but another one opens the ground), the leader
(who is the conqueror) marches forward and driving the other from it plunges
himself into it; and having cooled his sides; and changed his color to a
walking mass of mud and mortar; he stands in the pool until inclination
induces him to step out, and give place to the next in command, who stands
ready; and another, and another who advance forward in their turns, to
enjoy the luxury of the wallow; until the whole band (sometimes a hundred or
more) will pass through it in turn; each one throwing his body around in a
similar manner; and each one adding a little to the dimensions of the pool,
while he carries away in his hair an equal share of the clay, which dries to
a grey or whitish color, and gradually falls off. By this operation, which
is done in the space of perhaps half an hour, a circular excavation of
perhaps of fifteen or twenty feet in diameter, and two feet in depth, is
completed, and left for the water to run into, which soon fills it to the
level of the ground.

"   To these sinks, the water lying on the surface of the prairies, are
continually draining, and in them lodging their vegetable deposits; which,
after a lapse of years, fill them to the surface with a rich soil, which
throws up an unusual growth of grass and herbage; forming conspicuous
circles which arrest the eye of the traveler, and are calculated to excite
his surprise for ages to come.

" Many travelers who have penetrated not quite far enough into the western
country to see the habits of these animals, and the manner in which these
'mysterious' circles are made; but who have seen the prairies strewn with
their bleached bones, and have beheld these strange circles, which often
occur in groups, and of different sizes- have come home with beautiful and
ingenious theories (which must 'needs be made'), for the origin of these
singular and unaccountanble appearances. "

     Imagine between 30 and 60 million of these great shaggy beasts, the
males able to reach weights of 2,000 pounds, roaming for centuries and
centuries. Add an equal number of pronghorn antelope, many mule deer, the
Great Plains grizzly, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs,
ferrets, prairie rattlers, in places elk, and many other animals. To this
potent mix add the impacts of fires, of Native Americans village sites, both
the static and mobile types, locusts. The Great Plains was not a simple
ecosystem. Yet it bore its abundance until Europeans came with ideas to
simplify in mind, reducing complex prairie ecosystems to a few
non-competitive species, substituting domestic cattle for buffalo, wheat and
corn for drought resistant prairie grasses, and creating a very different

     However, with respect to the conditions of the prairies, I don't hear
agricultural scientists and farmers contending that the prairie ecosystems
of the past were unhealthy (they may have been considered wastelands, but
not unhealthy). The abundance of game spoke to balances that persisted, so
long as numbers of humans didn't grow too great. Neither do I hear
scientists and others contend that desert systems are somehow unhealthy. We
accept the deserts as they are. They support what they support and the
plants seem appropriate and introduction of exotics doesn't make sense.

    I don't hear mariners and fishermen contend that the lakes, seas, rivers
and oceans are unhealthy in their natural states. We agree that human
generated pollution and over-fishing create unhealthy conditions in our
water systems - but not Mother Nature.

    I don't hear scientists, aviators, balloonist, etc. contend that our
atmosphere, when in a natural state, is unhealthy. We agree that human
generated wastes cause atmospheric degradations.

    Now isn't it odd that when it comes to our forests, where we seek the
wood, many in our society have a very different perspective. They would have
us believe that the natural forest systems are somehow unhealthy. I find
these differences of viewpoint with respect to the different ecosystems very

Col Henry Inman's Accounts   dbhguru
  May 23, 2002 16:57 PDT 

        As of lately, I've become obsessed with understanding more about
past American landscapes. Part of what drives my obsession is a need to
understand how others are treating anecdotal material that support their
views about landscapes of the past. Bonnicksen's book really set me to
thinking about forests, plains, savannas, deserts, jungles, swamps, etc. and
how we see them through a lens of intent.

    I've often read about the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed the
Great Plains. Estimates of from 30 to 60 million animals are commonly cited.
But no modern scientist was around in those days to establish inventories.
We have to arrive at answers in other ways. Certainly past descriptions of
good nature observers has been essential to our understanding of past
landscapes. Colonel Henry Inman was such an observer. He was no ordinary
Army officer. He had a since of destiny and recognized the need to describe
the West as he knew it. Consider his description of the buffalo population
in his excellent book "The Old Sante Fe Trail".

     "   When I look back only twenty-five years. and recall the fact that
they roamed in immense numbers even then, as far east as Fort Harker, in
central Kansas, a little more than two hundred miles from the Missouri
River, I asked myself, "Have they all disappeared?"
    "    An idea may be formed of how many buffalo were killed from 1868 to
1881, a period of only thirtenn years, during which time they were
indiscriminately slaughtered for their hides. In Kansas alone there was paid
out, between the dates specified, two million five hundred thousand dollars
for their bones gathered on the prairies, to be utilized by the various
carbon works of the country, principally in St. Louis. It required about one
hundred carcasses to make one ton of bones, the price paid averaging eight
dollars a ton; so the above-quoted enormous sum represented in skeletons of
over thirty-one millions of buffalo. These figures may appear preposterous
to readers not familiar with the great plains a third of a century ago; but
those who have seen the prairies black from horizon to horizon with the
shaggy monsters, they are not so. In the autumn of 1868 I rode with General
Sheridan, Custer, Sully, and others, for three consecutive days, through one
continuous herd, which must have contained millions. In the spring of 1869
the train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad was delayed at a point between
Forts Harker and Hays from nine o'clock in the morning until five in the
afternoon, in consequence of the passage of an immense herd of buffalo
across the track. On each side of us, and to the west as far as we could
see, our vision was only limited by the extended horizon of the flat
prairie, and the whole vast area was black with the surging mass of
affrighted buffaloes as they rushed onward to the south."

    In explaining his research, Inman had this footnote.

"    These statistics I have carefully gathered from the freight departments
of the railroads, which kept a record of all the bones that were shipped,
and from the purchasers of the carbon works, who paid out the money at
various points. Some of the bones, however, may have been on the ground for
a longer time, as decay is very slow in the dry air of the plains."

    Remembering that the area of collection for Inman's numbers was a very,
very small part of the west, it boggles the mind to contemplate how many
buffalo roamed the vast expanses of western territory and how very different
the landscape was during those final years of the reign of the buffalo and
of the plains cultures.

    Whatever the role of fire in keeping the Great Plains a grassland, the
immense herds of herbivores also played a significant part. The ecosystem
functioned century after century in shifting balances, but extermination was
not part of the system. One might contemplate the vast difference between
the great White and Red Pine forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota
in the pre-settlement period. How very different that landscape was from
today. If anecdotal accounts are even close to being correct, the trees were
a sight to behold. Our very best today would have been very ordinary. One
can extend the upper Mid-west model to other locations, coming to similar
conclusions about the fecundity of the land and the impressiveness of the