Angels of Grass
What grass can teach us about the future of the American West.
By Alice Wilkinson
December 13, 2023
Covering roughly a quarter of the state of Nebraska, the Sandhills—all 12.75 million acres of them—are seemingly endless. You can look out across soft, swelling hills, squint, and the horizon becomes a hazy line. There are no trees, except for the occasional cottonwood. Windmills are the tallest landmarks. Any sense of modern-day scale is lost, so you orient yourself around the limited roads and cattle. As the Nebraska Birding Guide website puts it, “the roads that do exist are only slightly improved sandy trails leading to ranches.” What you begin to recognize as you weave through this grassland is the ubiquitous motion, in the plants, animals, and people that inhabit it.
This past September, I drove through the Sandhills for the first time. Starting in Ogallala, one of the original cattle trading posts, we meandered our way along back roads, to Valentine, a small town straddling two time zones in the northwest part of the state. In the span of about four hours only one car passed us and a steam engine train carrying coal chugged off in the distance. The hills, which were lush and green from a particularly wet summer, looked as if they would spill over the pavement and into my lap. As I gazed out the car window, I was reminded of the first time I’d driven through the Chico Basin Ranch gate four years ago, and seen grass in every direction. Jim Harrison says the Sandhills “remind you of a place we like to think we used to be, and even of a place we’d like to live in now.” These contradictory emotions, of reverence and yet, nothingness, swelled up inside me, and the hills formed a melody that lingers in my mind.
Grasslands make up nearly 40% of our country, and yet they are the least populated biome, and, arguably, the most mistreated. This negative stigma gained traction throughout the early 20th century, when immigrants from Europe tried to farm sections throughout the West and Midwest and failed. The aridity, variety of grasses, and lack of elevation were a shock to the European standards of beauty and fertility. Many could not adapt to the landscape and instead tried to conquer it. Native grasses were dug up, exotic plants replaced them, and overgrazing became the norm. Large swaths of native prairie have now been reduced to monocrops as a result of this “Great Plow-Up,” and Americans associate grasslands not only with barrenness, but dullness. It’s a dullness that goes beyond environmental degradation and bleeds into the American subconscious. People think flat, open landscapes are wastelands, but that could not be farther from the truth. If you look closely, you begin to see movement (life!) on a multi-scalar level. A grasshopper on a single blade of sand bluestem, sandpipers scuttling about on silty ground, or shallow patches where mule deer bedded down the night before.
Parts of the Midwest and the Eastern Plains—like the Sandhills and the Chico—are still ecologically diverse and teeming with life. People often rush to visit alpine forests, glaciers, and canyons, and forget about these undisturbed sections of short-grass prairie that exist in remote sections of southeastern Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Life exists on a different scale in these places and it can take an eye attuned to movement to see this. Look closely and you begin to notice the variety of grasses swaying about: little blue stem, blue gramma, sand bluestem—of all shapes and heights, stretching up to meet an infinite blue. Depending on the month, you might see shades of yellow and orange, sage and bright greens, or pale browns and grays.
Despite their geographic distance, both the Chico and the Sandhills are grasslands with high levels of biodiversity, largely due to responsible land management. What makes the Chico special is the lack of human development and a thoughtful grazing plan, which allows plant and animal life to thrive. Cattle are rotated through different pastures—some as small as a few acres, others nearly 3,000 acres—depending on the time of year and grass health, allowing sections to lie dormant for several seasons, or even years, and regenerate. As a result, the ranch is one of the prime breeding locations for birds in Colorado, with about 330 recorded sightings, along with key migration routes for pronghorn, mule deer, and elk. A combination of mixed-grass prairie, the Sandhills are interspersed with sub-irrigated meadows and low-lying valleys, which gives them greater elevation change than the Chico. Also home to hundreds of species of birds, the Sandhills are a major stopover point (the Sandhill Cranes get their name from a marshy spot along the North Platte River on the eastern edge.)
I would encourage everyone to visit one of our country’s grasslands. The lens through which you observe the natural world will widen. The flight path of a monarch butterfly becomes more acute, the wind more pronounced, and you’ll find yourself in awe of the distance it has yet to travel. Paying attention to grass—to its characteristics and its health—is part of our job at Ranchlands. Paying attention to grass on a larger scale—both from a ranching perspective and a land conservation perspective—is the future. Otherwise, we’ll lose more of our country to industrial agriculture and see these grasses replaced with monocrops or housing developments. In order to achieve this, humans must move in tandem with the grasslands they inhabit.
We reached Valentine (population 2,600) after four hypnotizing hours in the car. Neither of us knew what time it was. Our next stop was Plains Trading Company Bookseller, which we’d heard about in Lincoln. Across from the post office, the shop sits in the middle of Main Street, in an assuming building sandwiched between a law office and a Western clothing store. Just past the entrance are books on local history as well as works by Indigenous authors and women currently living and working in the West. As I read the spines, pulling out intriguing titles, I noticed that all these books were about belonging. There was also a calmness to this shop, with its curated selection of books, and the old woman milling about behind the counter. What strange alchemy had I stumbled upon, after hours of driving into infinity, that made this place feel like home? The melody came back to me then, as I kept moving about the shop, and the old woman disappeared into the back.