Dec 17, 2011

Reduced Tillage in Organic Vegetable Production Webinar - YouTube

This webinar will take you along Helen Attowe's 25 year journey to develop a reduced tillage organic vegetable production system.

Helen talks about her horticultural philosophy which she calls veganic permaculture.

Allelopathic plants: nature’s weedkillers | Earth Friendly Gardening

Allelopathy is a process by which a plant releases chemicals that can either inhibit or benefit other plants. Since most allelopathic plants cause harm to other plants, that’s the what I’ll be discussing here.
Species competition ensures the biodiversity of ecosystems. All plants and animals have developed techniques for out-competing other species for nutrients, water, territory, and other resources. For example, certain plants have extremely dense root systems.
Allelopaths are plants that have an advanced weapon in their arsenal. The allelopathic plant competes with other species through “chemical warfare” by releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of its competitors.
Allelopathic substances work like herbicides, preventing the germination and growth of the seedlings of competing species. Plants that are under stress, such as those with pests, diseases, or less than optimum access to nutrients, sun, or moisture, are at an even higher risk for being eliminated by allelopaths.
Depending on the plant, allelopathic substances can be released from a plant’s flowers, leaves, leaf debris and leaf mulch, stems, bark, roots, or soil surrounding the roots. Some of the chemicals biodegrade over time while others can be persistent in the soil.
Probably the most well-known allelopathic plant is the black walnut (Juglans nigra) tree. All parts of the tree–roots, bark, leaves, nuts, and even rainwater that falls off a leaf–release an allelopathic substance called juglone. Some species are affected by it and others aren’t bothered at all.
My great-aunt used to have a huge black walnut tree in her yard. I always thought it was bare underneath because we kids were always playing and horsing around underneath it! Maybe that was part of it, but the juglone must have been at work as well.
If you’re wondering what to grow near your black walnut tree, try serviceberry/juneberry/shadbush (Amelanchier sp.), tulip Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), speedwell (Veronica sp.), or American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), or one of many others. More information about plants that are affected by juglone, and those that are not, is available here.
Other common trees with allelopathic properties include eucalyptus, sugar maple, tree-of-heaven, hackberry, southern waxmyrtle, American sycamore, cottonwood, black cherry, red oak, black locust, sassafrass, and American elm.
Allelopathic study is in its infancy, but early research suggests that allelopaths can be used as effective herbicides for organic weed control. For example, an allelopathic crop might be used to control weeds by planting it in rotation with other crops.
I wonder if organic herbicides based on allelopaths are commercially available, or will be soon. It’s interesting to think about the possibilities of allelopathic chemicals for the organic gardener.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Grow Free Fruit Trees

Most fruit trees are best grown from grafted trees that cost $25 to $35 each. But with peaches, nectarines and apricots, you can cut your cost to zero by growing trees from seeds.

Because cross-pollination between varieties produces variable results, apples and some other fruit trees are usually not grown from seeds. (Instead, cuttings or buds of the best varieties are grafted onto rootstocks to produce trees that bear fruit just like the parent tree’s.) But the almondlike seeds in pits from peaches, nectarines and apricots do a good job of carrying on the desirable traits of their parents. You can simply sprout and grow a seed from a great-tasting specimen, and you have a good chance of sinking your teeth into sweet, juicy fruit from your own tree in only three to five years.

Summer is the best time to kick off this project, because you can seek out mid- or late-season varieties grown in your region. The best seeds come from fully ripe fruit. Avoid seeds from early maturing varieties because their seeds may not develop enough to sprout. Locally grown varieties are more likely to prosper in your garden compared to varieties grown a thousand miles away, and looking for likely candidates is tasty fun! Eat lots of peaches from farm stands and farmers markets, and save the pits from those that taste like peach heaven. And if you live where you can get local apricots and nectarines, you can try growing them from seeds too.

Cracking In Safely

Let the pits dry on your kitchen counter for a few days. Drying allows the seed inside the shell to shrink slightly so it’s easier to get out. The shell also becomes more brittle and easier to crack as it dries.

When the pits look and feel dry, you can crack them open to harvest the actual seeds, which look like almonds, a close botanical cousin. You can hold pits on edge and tap them with a hammer, which works well for a few pits but can cause high casualties in terms of accidentally smashed seeds (and fingers). You will lose far fewer seeds by cracking the pits with a vise, lodging both sides of the pit’s long seams between the opposing jaws. (See photo in the Image Gallery.) Crank the vise closed slowly — be careful for your fingers! — until the pit cracks.

If you don’t have a vise, try a nut cracker. Or you might get enough pit-cracking compression from another type of screw clamp, including the one that holds your food grinder, juicer or hand-cranked grain mill to your kitchen counter — you never know until you try! After you get the seeds out, put them in a closed container in your refrigerator or other place cool enough to store raw nuts.

Strategic Stratification

The time for vegetables and flowers to sprout from seeds to transplants is measured in days or weeks, but with peaches and most other temperate-zone tree fruits, the pregermination process adds two to three months to the timetable. Natural sprouting inhibitors present in the seeds must be deactivated by exposure to cool temperatures for a two- to three-month period. In nature, this chilling period occurs naturally as winter cold comes, fluctuates and invariably leads to spring.

To trick seeds into sprouting when you want (usually early spring), use a method called stratification — a nursery term that basically means exposing seeds to cool, moist conditions. You can simply plant them in pots and bury the pots in a corner of the garden. Seeds that are not discovered by marauding squirrels, curious dogs or other vagaries of the great outdoors will probably sprout in spring. If you’d rather not take chances, your refrigerator will make a perfectly satisfactory stratification chamber because ideal stratification temperatures range between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. To help your seedlings hit their best growing schedule, start the chilling period about four months before your last spring frost date. Varieties from warmer regions often require a shorter chilling period.

To start the process, soak the seeds in room temperature water overnight, then pop them into a jar of slightly moist potting soil. Close the jar and put it in a not-too-distant corner of your refrigerator where it won’t get frozen or forgotten.

Begin checking the contents of the jar after about a month. It never ceases to amaze me how almost all the seeds sprout (as if a switch had been turned on) after they’ve spent enough time being cool and moist. Depending on the particular seed, that time might vary from one to three months (apricots take only four to six weeks), but after the chilling requirements for those particular seeds are satisfied, they’re ready to grow. When you check the jars, the fat, white rootlets will stand out visually against the darker potting soil.

Now you have to do something with those young sprouts, which are eager to get on with the business of growing. If it’s still freezing outdoors, keep the sprouting seeds in the refrigerator a bit longer. A month or so before your last frost date, either pot the sprouts or plant them where you want them to grow. Keeping the seedlings in containers for a couple of months makes monitoring their progress easy. Waxed paper milk cartons with drainage holes punched near the bottoms work well, because when it’s time to plant, you can merely cut away the cartons to minimize any root disturbance.

Growing On

The better the growing conditions, the sooner your tree will bear fruit. Good growing conditions for peaches and their kin mean fertile, well-drained soil with a near neutral pH. If you must plant where the soil tends to stay wet after rains, haul in some well drained soil and build up a 3-foot wide mound at least a foot high for each little plant. Mix in lime if a soil test shows the pH is too low.

Pruning will delay bearing, so trim your seedling trees only to remove dead, diseased or broken stems, as well as those that grow low on the trunk or are crowding others. Most seedling peach trees will grow to 20 feet or so, while apricots typically grow 12 to 15 feet with annual pruning. Pay attention to weeds, water and nutrition. An organic mulch such as compost, leaf mold, leaves or straw goes a long way toward taking care of all three needs. Create a circle of mulch over the root zone that’s a couple inches deep and 3 feet or more in diameter. Keep the mulch a few inches from the trunk to avoid rot and rodent damage. A better solution for keeping rodents at bay is to surround the trunk with a cylinder of quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth. Various insect borers can be deterred by wrapping the trunks with scraps of garden row cover to prevent them from laying eggs in bark crevices.

Peaches self-sow so easily that naturalized peach groves became extensive in America not long after peaches were introduced. Early botanists assumed peaches were native to this part of the world, though their origin has since been traced to China. Sow a few peach pits around your homestead, and before you know it you’ll have a lovely tree that covers itself with beautiful pink blossoms every spring, and homegrown, tree-ripened fruit with flavor to die for.

Dec 16, 2011

Diatomaceous Earth (food grade): Bug Killer You Can Eat!

by paul wheaton
Diatomacious Earth (often referred to as "DE") is an off white talc-like powder that is the fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton. When sprinkled on a bug that has an exoskeleton (such as bed bugs, ants or fleas) it gets caught between their little exoskeleton joints. As they move, the diatomaceous earth acts like razor blades and cuts them up. But it doesn't hurt mammals. We can eat it. We do eat it! It's in lots of grain based foods because lots of grains are stored with diatomaceous earth to keep the bugs from eating the grain!

Die bugs! Die! Die! Die! I have heard two explanations of how diatomaceous earth works.
One is that on a microscopic level, the diatomaceous earth particles are very sharp looking. These particles stick to an insect and get stuck between its exoskeleton joints. As the insect moves, it gets physically cut up.
The other explanation is that diatomaceous earth sticks to the insect and somehow causes them to dry out. I think this approach involves scratching the insects waxy layer which then allows precious moisture within the insect to get out. So their teeny tiny bug-innards turn into teeny tiny bug-innards-jerky. A reader, Sue, in Washington state writes:
Both are true and connected. DE is almost pure silica (with some beneficial trace minerals); under a microscope, it looks like shards of glass (glass is made from silica). On any beetle-type insect that has a carapace, like fleas and cockroaches, the DE works under the shell and punctures the body, which then dehydrates and the insect dies. DE is totally nontoxic. There is no buildup of tolerance like there is to poisons because the method of killing is PHYSICAL, not chemical. The important thing to us is that if an insect with an exoskeleton gets diatomaceous earth on them, they die. At the same time, we can rub it all over our skin, rub it in our hair, eat it .... whatever ... and we are unharmed.
Diatomaceous earth kills all bugs. It has been reported to be the most effective solution when fighting pests like fleas, ants and bed bugs.
Farmers dump food grade diatomaceous earth by big scoops in with grains when the grains are stored. It kills the insects that want to feast on the grain. This is a great improvement over the stuff they used to put in with the grain.
Farmers feed gobs of diatomaceous earth (food grade) to animals in the hopes that it will cure whatever ails them. Many farmers swear that the stuff kills all sorts of worms in their critters.
Many people eat a quarter cup of food grade diatomaceous earth every day. They mix it into juice. I have visited with several people that are keen on living past 100 years that believe that eating lots diatomaceous earth every day will help them with that goal. I have found references where it is cited for colon cleansing, parasite control and detox.
One strange thing about diatomaceous earth is that for it to work on killing bugs, you have to keep it dry. Even morning dew can make diatomaceous earth ineffective.
I have encountered over a dozen ignorant boobs that have proclaimed "Diatomaceous Earth does NOT work!" I have read this statement in all caps. In extra big fonts. With italics. And I've even had it screamed at me. I'm gonna stick with "ignorant boobs". On closer inspection of each case there is always a flaw. Usually the problem is that it was not used correctly. Diatomaceous earth is not a bait. If you put a little bit in a pile somewhere, the bugs are not drawn to it and invite all their friends. I kinda wonder if the pesticide companies pay people to go to internet forums and say this sort of thing. Diatomaceous earth is super cheap, non toxic, and generally more effective than anything the pesticide companies have to offer - so it kinda cuts into their profit margins a bit. I've been meaning to create an experiment to set the record straight on this topic, but a participant in the diatomaceous earth discussion, Stephanie, beat me to it:
I tried my own experiment with the diatomaceous earth to see how quickly it kills the fleas; I caught a few fleas and put them in a jar with a pinch of diatomaceous earth - all were dead within just a couple of hours. It just doesn't get any more clear than that.

How safe is diatomaceous earth? The only known problem for people, mammals and birds that I have ever been able to find any reference to is breathing it in. For food grade diatomaceous earth, there is only the bother of breathing in any dust. There exists another variety of diatomaceous earth that has been fiddled with so it can be used for pool filters. The pool grade stuff would be bad for you because it contains up to 70% "crystalline silica". My understanding is that if you work with the pool grade stuff all day, every day, for years, you could get cancer. Don't mess with the pool grade stuff. Food grade diatomaceous earth will contain less than 1% crystalline silica.
This article is really about the pure, food grade diatomaceous earth. I have to say "food grade" over and over or some nitwit will quote a small slice and then bring up the pool grade issues.
I have heard from two people that said that they won't use diatomaceous earth anymore because "the tiny particles cut my lungs!" --- (deep sigh goes here) All I can say is "Did you actually examine your lung with a microscope and watch the diatomaceous earth cut into it?" - of course, they did not. I think the truth behind these reports is that these folks heard how diatomaceous earth works, and when they would breathe in the dust, it would make them cough - just as breathing in flour or corn starch would make you cough. And then they thought of the sharpness at a microscopic level. My understanding is that when diatomaceous earth becomes moist, the sharp thing is no longer happening. That's why you have to keep it dry when you use it.
I have heard that people working in the diatomaceous earth (food grade) mines have no greater health problems than the people working in any other mines. (I would like to get some sources for this info - if anybody has a link, please email me)
As long as you are using food grade diatomaceous earth, you are perfectly safe. Even if you breathe in gobs of it. Of course, if you are asthmatic or have lung problems of any kind, I would think breathing in big gobs of any kind of dust would be a bad idea.

gimmie gimmie gimmie! There are a lot of varieties of diatomaceous earth, so when you are shopping, be sure to get the right stuff!
Make sure that you get food grade diatomaceous earth. Some people make 3% of the food they eat be diatomaceous earth. There are claims at parasite control, longevity and all sorts of perks. I know that food grade diatomaceous earth is used heavily in storing grains - so you are probably already eating lots of diatomaceous earth every time you eat any bread, pasta or other grain based food.
Farmers feed food grade diatomaceous earth to their animals to reduce parasites and provide other benefits.
Some places sell the diatomaceous earth (food grade) mixed with other stuff. And that is something I do not recommend. When I see a label that says "97% diatomaceous earth" I have to wonder what the other 3% is. If the packaging is about killing bugs, is it some sort of toxin? Did they add something like borates or pyrethrin for a little extra kick? I don't want that!
Some places sell diatomaceous earth that is for swimming pool filters - that is definitely what you do NOT want.
Some places sell an 8 ounce shaker. I think it is wise to get at least a few pounds of the stuff. It keeps well (it's already millions of years old) and is useful for so many things. And if you get too little, you are likely to not use enough.
So I've done a lot of research on this .... and I've used diatomaceous earth from about eight different sources ... and here is what I'm recommending: This is food grade diatomateous earth guaranteed to be "less than 0.5% crystaline silica". After a long talk with the guy that runs this outfit, I found out that most of this diatomaceous earth runs about 0.1% to 0.2% crystaline silica. By far the best I've ever heard of.

diatomaceous earth (food grade) This next one is food grade diatomaceous earth where all they would tell me is that it has less than 0.5% crystalline silica. Not as good as the stuff above, but still way better than the others I could find:

Diatomaceous Earth (food grade) - Five Pounds
Diatomaceous Earth (food grade) - Ten Pounds
Diatomaceous Earth (food grade) - Fifty Pounds
more! I made a diatomaceous earth podcast.

flea control
 I have more to say about using diatomaceous earth to solve specific problems:

ants and aphids
sugar ants
carpenter ants
flea beetles
bed bugs
slug control
dry preservation of legumes and corn
pin worms
hens and mites other resources

McGill University

Looky! A whole book on diatomaceous earth!
So the author sends me an email about the book and I say "If you comp me a copy I might mention it on my DE web page." And the book arrives in my mail! So for months it sits on my desk. And when I finally read it: it is exceptionally good! Well researched and, my favorite part, the information is well qualified: anecdotal information is labeled as anecdotal. Research data is labeled as researched. Nothing is presented as absolute fact unless it really is absolute fact. The book explains stuff I didn't know, like how it works to control parasites in mammals. The book also covers how diatomaceous earth is used for cleaning and personal hygiene. A big thumbs up!
The diatomaceous earth book at amazon.
More about the diatomaceous earth book from the author.

download diatomaceous earth podcast

The full article: diatomaceous earth. Please make a link to the article just like this link!

During the podcast I mention the diatomaceous earth articles about flea control, and ants and aphids on my apple tree.

Diatomaceous earth is the best stuff you can use on bed bugs, sugar ants, carpenter ants,flea beetles and chicken mites. I’ve heard of it being used on slugs and pin worms. It is often used for long term storage of legumes and grains.

Dec 14, 2011

Raised Bed Gardening

For space efficiency and high yields, it’s hard to beat a vegetable garden grown in raised beds. Raised beds can improve production as well as save space, time, and money. They also are the perfect solution for dealing with difficult soils such as heavy clay. In addition, raised beds improve your garden’s appearance and accessibility.

Raised gardening beds are higher than ground level, and consist of soil that’s mounded or surrounded by a frame to keep it in place. The beds are separated by paths. Plants cover the entire surface of the bed areas, while gardeners work from the paths. The beds are usually 3 to 5 feet across to permit easy access from the paths, and they may be any length. You can grow any vegetable in raised beds, as well as herbs, annual or perennial flowers, berry bushes, or even roses and other shrubs.

One reason raised beds are so effective for increasing efficiency and yields is that crops produce better because the soil in the beds is deep, loose, and fertile. Plants benefit from the improved soil drainage and aeration, and plant roots penetrate readily. Weeds are easy to pull up, too. Since gardeners stay in the pathways, the soil is never walked upon or compacted. Soil amendments and improvement efforts are concentrated in the beds and not wasted on the pathways, which are simply covered with mulch or planted with grass or a low-growing cover crop. Also, the raised bed’s rounded contour provides more actual growing area than does the same amount of flat ground.

Raised beds also save time and money because you need only dig, fertilize, and water the beds, not the paths. You don’t need to weed as much when crops grow close together, because weeds can’t compete as well. Gardeners with limited mobility find raised beds the perfect solution—a wide sill on a framed raised bed makes a good spot to sit while working. A high frame puts plants in reach of a gardener using a wheelchair. For best access, make beds 28 to 30 inches high, and also keep the beds narrow—no more than 4 feet wide—so it’s easy to reach to the center of the bed.

Building Raised Beds
The traditional way to make a raised bed is to double-dig. This process involves removing the topsoil layer from a bed, loosening the subsoil, and replacing the topsoil, mixing in plenty of organic matter in the process. Double-digging has many benefits, but it can be time-consuming and laborious. See the Soil entry for details.
The quickest and easiest way to make a raised bed is simply to add lots of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, compost, or shredded leaves to your garden soil. In the process, mound up the planting beds as the organic content of the soil increases. Shape the soil in an unframed bed so that it is flat-topped, with sloping sides (this shape helps conserve water), or forms a long, rounded mound. The soil in an unframed bed will gradually spread out, and you’ll need to periodically hill it up with a hoe. A frame around the outside edge of the bed prevents soil from washing away and allows you to add a greater depth of improved soil. Wood, brick, rocks, or cement blocks are popular materials for framing. Choose naturally rot-resistant woods such as cedar, cypress, or locust. If you choose some other type of wood (don’t use chemically treated wood), keep in mind that you’ll need to replace it when the wood eventually wears and rots away.

If your garden soil is difficult—heavy clay, very alkaline, or full of rocks—you may want to mix your own soil from trucked-in topsoil, organic matter, and mineral amendments. Then you can build beds up from ground level, without disturbing or incorporating the native soil. You may also need to add extra materials to raised beds if you want them to be tall enough for a gardener in a wheelchair to reach easily.

Lasagna Gardening
This is a no-till option for building raised beds and great soil. It is similar to sheet composting and allows you to build raised beds without stripping grass or weeds off the site. You can also build a lasagna garden on top of an existing vegetable garden site.

If you are starting on a new site, first cut the grass as short as possible and/or scalp the weeds at ground level. Next cover the bed with a thick layer of newspaper (6 to 10 sheets) to smother existing vegetation. Use sheets of cardboard or flattened cardboard boxes if there are vigorous perennial weeds on the site. Either wet down the newspapers as you spread them or have a supply of soil or mulch at hand and weigh them down with handfuls as you spread. Be sure to overlap the edges of the newspaper or cardboard as you work.

Gardening in layers. To make a lasagna garden, spread newspapers or cardboard to smother existing vegetation, then pile on layers of grass clippings, chopped leaves, kitchen scraps, finished compost, and topsoil.

After that, begin layering organic matter on top of the site. Combine materials as you would in a compost pile, by mixing “browns” and “greens.” Add layers of organic materials such as grass clippings, finished compost, chopped leaves, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, seaweed, shredded mail or newspaper, garden trimmings, used potting soil, sawdust, and weeds (don’t add ones that have gone to seed or perennials with vigorous rhizomes, which will spread and grow in the bed). You can also add topsoil, which will help speed things along. Make a pile that is 1 feet or more deep, and top it off with a layer of mulch to keep weeds from getting a foothold. Then wait several months for materials to decompose.

You can build a lasagna garden any time of year. Building one in fall to plant in spring is a good idea, and there are plenty of leaves available for chopping and adding to the mix. If you’re building in spring or summer, you can speed up the time when it will be ready to plant by adding extra compost and topsoil in the mix. Top the bed with 2 to 3 inches of topsoil and/or compost for annual crops (more for perennial plants) and then plant seedlings directly into the topsoil/compost mix.

Intensive Gardening
Rich soil coupled with intensive gardening practices are what make raised bed gardening so successful. Intensive horticulture has been practiced for centuries in many parts of the world. In America, one of the best-known methods is French intensive gardening. Intensive gardening methods all have their own disciplines, but all use raised growing beds, close spacing between plants, careful attention to building and maintaining soil fertility, and succession planting to make the best use of available growing space.

Applied skillfully, intensive growing methods can (and consistently do) produce harvests 4 to 10 times greater than might be expected from a conventional garden. But intensive gardening also demands more initial work, planning, and scheduling than row gardens. If you wish to convert to intensive methods, it’s best to start gradually. For example, you could try building one or two raised beds each gardening season for a few years.

Plantings managed using intensive planting systems require fertile, well-balanced soil rich in organic content. Without plentiful additions of compost along with soil amendments, intensively gardened soil soon loses its vitality. Cover crops or green manures also help keep the soil fertile.

Close Plant Spacing
One reason that raised beds are so productive is that they are planted intensively, putting as much as 80 percent of a garden’s surface area into crop production. Pathways and spaces between crop rows make up the remainder. Plants are placed close together over the entire bed, usually in a triangular or staggered pattern, so that their leaves overlap slightly at maturity. This allows for more plants per square foot and produces a continuous leafy canopy that shades the bed, moderates soil temperature, conserves moisture, and discourages weeds. Close spacing also means plantings must be carefully planned according to each crop’s growing habits, including root spread, mature size, and water and nutrient needs.

Succession Planting
Another technique used to maximize harvests in raised bed gardens is succession planting, which is the practice of rapidly filling the space vacated by a harvested crop by planting a new crop. This can be as simple as following harvested cool-season spring vegetables, such as peas or spinach, with a planting of warm-season summer crops, such as beansor squash. Once harvested, those crops could be followed by a cold-tolerant fall crop such as spinach. Another technique is to stagger plantings at 1- or 2-week intervals to prolong the harvest. Advanced intensive gardeners also interplant compatible short-, mid-, and full-season vegetables in the same bed at the same time. They then harvest and replant the faster-growing plants two, three, or even four times during the season.

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Top 10 Beneficial Bugs for the Garden

Published on Organic Gardening (
Top 10 Beneficial Bugs for the Garden
Created 2011-12-08

Aphid Midge
The larvae of this tiny, long-legged fly feed on more than 60 species of aphids by paralyzing their prey with toxic saliva. Pollen plants will bring aphid midges to your garden.
Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Braconid Wasps
The adult female of the species injects its eggs into host insects. The larvae then feed inside their hosts, which include moth and beetle larvae and aphids. The host dies once the larvae have completed development. Grow nectar plants with small flowers, such as dill, parsley, wild carrot, and yarrow, to bring them to your garden.

Damsel Bugs
Damsel bugs feed on aphids, small caterpillars, leafhoppers, thrips, and other pesky pests. Collect damsel bugs from alfalfa fields, using a sweep net, and then release them around your site.
Photo credit: Frank Peairs, Colorado State University,

Ground Beetles
The nocturnal ground beetle is a voracious predator of slugs, snails, cutworms, cabbage maggots, and other pests that live in your garden’s soil. One beetle larva can eat more than 50 caterpillars! Plant perennials among garden plants for stable habitats, or white clover as a groundcover in orchards.

Both adult lacewings and their larvae eat aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, scales, thrips, and whiteflies. Angelica, coreopsis, cosmos, and sweet alyssum will bring lacewings to your garden.
Photo credit: Frank Peairs, Colorado State University,

Lady Beetles
Adult lady beetles eat aphids, mites and mealybugs, and their hungry larvae do even more damage to garden pests. Plant angelica, coreopsis, dill, fennel, and yarrow to attract them.

Minute Pirate Bugs
The quick-moving, black-and-white patterned minute pirate bugs will attack almost any insect. Goldenrods, daisies, alfalfa, and yarrow will attract these bugs.
Photo credit: Bradley Higbee, Paramount Farming,

Soldier Beetles
The soldier beetle feeds on aphids, caterpillars, and other insects, including harmless and beneficial species. Attract this flying insect by planting catnip, goldenrod, and hydrangea.
Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Spined Soldier Bug
The spined soldier bug’s pointed “shoulders” distinguish it from the peskier stink bug. Plant permanent beds of perennials to provide shelter for this predator of hairless aterpillars and beetle larvae.
Photo credit: Russ Ottens, University of Georgia,

Tachinid Flies
Tachinid fly larvae burrow their way into many caterpillars, destroying these garden pests from the inside. Plant dill, parsley, sweet clover, and other herbs to attract adult flies.
Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Learn more about how to attract beneficial insects to the garden.
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Dec 11, 2011

Why Quartersawn Lumber Is So Stable: The 0-1-2 Rule In Action « WunderWoods

So, now because of my earlier post, “Have You Heard About Shrinkage,”you’ve been thinking 0-1-2, 0-1-2, slow, slow, quick, quick (if you’ve ever taken a dance class with your wife you’ll get that one), and you are still a little confused. Most likely you got bored reading about the 0-1-2 rule I wrote about earlier and drifted off, but this is where it all comes together.

Lumber basically comes in three categories of cuts, which refer to the angle of the growth rings in relation to the surface of the lumber; flatsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn. A board can be any of these three or anywhere between these three, and since the growth rings form a circle, the category can even change within a board. That’s right, wider boards can have centers that are flatsawn while the outer edges are riftsawn and possibly quartersawn. That is why I push for an understanding of the cut of lumber and worry less about the name.

Lumber cuts are determined from the end grain, not necessarily from the process that produced them.

To the right are the three cuts in their most pure form (the three in the top right of the log diagram) and others that are thrown in for fun. The “fun” ones are to show that it doesn’t matter what process was used to get the lumber from the log (flatsawing, quartersawing, etc.) or its orientation in the log, it is the growth ring direction that counts. The growth rings of flatsawn lumber are parallel to the widest surface, while the growth rings of quartersawn lumber are perpendicular to the widest surface. The rings of riftsawn lumber are at a 45 degree angle. Remember, these refer to their purest forms and there are many cuts in between (as demonstrated by the “fun” names like Nifty Rifty Flatsawn).

This illustration shows how little quartersawn lumber shrinks compared to other cuts.

The next illustration shows the 0-1-2 rule in action. The three illustrations are table tops glued up from several pieces of wood. The first one is flatsawn lumber, the second is riftsawn, and the third is quartersawn. The numbers represent proportionally how much each piece will move in a given direction (remember that the length moves 0). In this case it is shown as shrinkage from a low-humidity environment, but it could also be expansion if the piece was stored in a high-humidity environment. Either way, the proportion of movement is the same. To make the proportions mean something, make them into fractions. Across the width, flatsawn lumber moves 2 over 1 when expressed as a fraction or 2/1, which simplifies to 2. Quartersawn moves 1 over 2 or 1/2. If you compare those two numbers (2 to 1/2), flatsawn moves four times as much as quartersawn across the width.

If I didn’t just lose you, then you can see by looking at the numbers and the second illustration that quartersawn lumber has the least amount of movement across the width, while flatsawn has the most. This makes the quartersawn the more stable of the two as far as expansion and contraction goes.

The other advantage to quartersawn lumber is its ability to stay flat. While flatsawn lumber has a propensity to cup, quartersawn lumber does not cup, and the 0-1-2 rule is the reason why. All of the heavy internal forces exerted on quartersawn lumber are in the thickness of the wood and going in only one direction, and they have little effect on the shape of the lumber. Those same forces on a flatsawn board are going across the entire face and in an arched trajectory. When these forces pull hard during shrinkage or push hard during expansion, they cause the lumber to take an arched shape that we call cup.

Quartersawn lumber will stay flat and move the least amount when in service. However, it is not so stable that the wood movement can be ignored in construction. When joining two boards, any movement between them that is not proportionally the same and in the same direction must be addressed by allowing the wood to move. Remember the 0-1-2 rule, and look at the boards you are joining to see if the numbers match. It is as easy as 0-1-2.

Sepp Holzer Plans Visit to Missoula MT | Eco Friendly Town

Here is a pic of me and Sepp a few years ago standing in front of one of his root cellars under construction

The mighty …. the glorious … the amazing …. Sepp Holzer.

Of all the people in all the world, nobody is more important. To me. And probably to you too, only you don’t know it yet.

And he’s coming to Missoula.

Missoula is an eco savvy town. And if you care about the earth, wholesome living, people, goodness and decency, you become aware of the accomplishments of some great people and what they have done. Art Ludwighas taught us the benefits of using graywater. Ruth Stout has taught us about having a garden without digging. Masanobu Fukuoka has proven that we can feed the world’s population without chemicals. Ianto Evans and Mike Oehler have taught us about how we can build our own beautiful home for less than $5,000.

And then there is the man that has done it all and then some more. And he’s coming to Missoula.

Sepp Holzer has done so many huge things, that his property is crawling with dozens of doctoral students doing their thesis work based on Sepp’s work. Sepp has a farm in Austria that has a climate that is almost identical to Missoula. He’s at a slightly higher elevation and has slightly warmer temperatures. He produces huge amounts of food, but he does not fertilize, irrigate, control pests, prune fruit trees … and a lot of his annuals are self seeding. Once an area is established with growing food, he can go years with doing nothing more than harvesting. He raises trout that feed themselves. In a desert in Spain, he brought back lakes. He has been able to get fish to breed where experts said was impossible. He has proven that a farmer can earn a professional wage.

While people are arguing about fluorescent light bulbs and calling that eco, Sepp Holzer is blazing trails in things that are really saving the world. Some people might protest against chemicals being used in agriculture. Sepp Holzer is proving to farmers how they can earn ten times more money per year by not using chemicals. As the word spreads, I suspect that eventually everything at Safeway will be beyond organic because farmers just make more money doing it that way.

Oh, and it is my opinion that he has cured most forms of cancer. And several other lethal ailments. And that would take me 20 pages to explain.

I got a call from a woman up in the Flathead a few weeks ago asking me about Sepp Holzer. Apparently, she had visited his place in Austria and talked to him. She was thinking of arranging to have him come to Montana. Well, a lot of people think about having rock stars come to their dinner parties – but okayfine, I’ll come up and have a look at her place and tell her what Sepp would say. I put her off several times because I was getting flooded with people wanting a bit of my time and then it happened ….

I got an email from Sepp Holzer. Praising my work. Talking about how he is definitely coming to Montana and would like to hear about this property. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, so I had to run it through the Google translation contraption, but there it was. Wow.

Okay, this woman now has my full attention. I dropped everything else and buzzed up to have a look at her place and start talking about Sepp Holzer coming to Montana.

It really is happening. Very cool.

I can’t stop telling everybody: Sepp Holzer is coming to Missoula; Sepp is gonna be here. For two weeks.

I was up at the thousand Buddhas project in Arlee explaining that Sepp Holzer is coming to Montana. And they said “Who is Seth Hoser?” I explained that in their world, the ultimate cool guy is the Dalai Lama, and in my world, it’s Sepp Holzer.

(Today I learned that you spell “Lama” in “Dalai Lama” with one “L”)

For more info, see the full details on these missoula presentations.

Click here to see Paul Wheaton’s blog archive.


BIO: Paul Wheaton is is the tyrannical ruler of two on-line communities. One is about permaculture and one is about software engineering. There is even one for Missoula. Paul has written several permacutlure articles starting with one on lawn care that he presented at the MUD Project 17 years ago, including articles on raising chickens, cast iron and diatomaceous earth. Paul also regularly uploads permaculture videosand permaculture podcasts. In his spare time, Paul has plans for world domination and is currently shopping for a hollowed out volcano in the Missoula area, with good submarine access.

See all of Paul’s contributions to MakeitMissoula on this Blog Homepage here.

Sepp Holzer: The Agro Rebel

View this movie at - Larger, high quality version!

Sepp Holzer - "There are still heroes in the world today... this is one of mine... a man who searches for truth and is not intimidated by what others say... a man that still dreams...  Agro Rebel with the cause of our time... "  - Monte

The Agro Rebel : Director: Bertram Verhaag | Producer: Bertram Verhaag

Genre: Documentary | Produced In: 2001 | Story Teller's Country: Germany
Synopsis: Sepp Holzer, the Austrian farmer and forester practices "permaculture" a different kind of farming on his mountain property. With this certain form of organic-agriculture, he is very convincing and successfully. Contrary to all conventional rules and despite annual average temperatures of 4.5°C and an altitude of between 900m-1400m, he cultivates cherries, apples, mushrooms, kiwis, lemons, pumpkins, potatoes and zucchinis. This year he also started big permaculture-projects in Brazil, Columbia, Peru and Venezuela.

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture
Sepp Holzer Plans Visit to Missoula MT | Eco Frien...
Sepp Holzer - Permaculture - Farming with Terraces...
Hugelkultur ... 30yr self-sustaining garden
Holzer Permaculture - Sepps site

Goggle Map of Where Sepp lives and farms!

View Larger Map

Sepp Holzer - Permaculture - Farming with Terraces and Raised Beds (Part 1)

Sepp Holzer - Permaculture - Farming with Terraces and Raised Beds (Part 1 of 3)

Sepp Holzer - Permaculture - Farming with Terraces and Raised Beds (Part 2 of 3)

Sepp Holzer - Permaculture - Farming with Terraces and Raised Beds (Part 3 of 3)

Savory Institute: Changing Our Future - YouTube

The Savory Institute holds the key to reversing desertification, which is possibly the greatest contributor to man-made climate change. To find out more about this extraordinary company, visit their website at:

Holistic Management
(Click here to download a brief overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making)

Deep paradigm shifts have great difficulty taking hold unless there exists a simultaneous need. This need has manifested itself in the form of global climate change, combined with the broadening recognition that our economic models, based on the flawed presumption of infinite growth in a world of finite resources, are inherently unsustainable.

Holistic Management is the paradigm shift that will address this need. First conceived and developed by Rhodesian biologist, game ranger, politician, farmer, and rancher, Allan Savory, over 40 years ago, Holistic Management is driven by a decision making framework which ensures economic, ecological, and social soundness, simultaneously, both short and long term. Savory articulated four key insights which are pivotal to our understanding of the natural world —insights which underpin the Holistic Management decision making framework. Land, grazing, and financial planning procedures complement the framework, enabling on-the-ground managers to effectively handle the inherent complexity of stewarding natural “wholes”.

Our core competency in Holistic Management is the ecologically regenerative, economically viable, and socially sound management of the world’s grasslands, rangelands, and savannas. These environments comprise two thirds of the planet’s surface area. Their degradation has been ongoing since the first hominids discovered the tool of fire, and has accelerated in concert with the expansion of the human population (with its associated eradication of most of the world’s grazing and browsing megafauna, the subsequent replacement with fewer numbers of more sedentary, domesticated livestock, and soil degrading cropping practices). This degradation is characterized by a loss of soil cover (comprised of both living plants and decaying plant litter), which leads to less effective water and mineral/nutrient cycling, poorer solar energy flow, and reduced biodiversity. This all leads to the loss of previously sequestered soil carbon (a major source of our existing atmospheric CO2 load), severely degraded land or deserts, and the loss of food production capacity.

In a natural context, constantly moving, healthy herds of large herbivores, interacting with their associated predators, create the disturbance (grazing and animal impact) necessary to maintain healthy ecosystem processes. Their presence ensures the continuation of the carbon cycle (with the all-important step of “decay” accelerated by the microbes in their digestive tracts), high levels of plant diversity, and a covered soil surface. Because the animals are constantly moving to new grazing, plants (between episodes of heavy grazing) have the chance to fully recover their above-ground leaf area and restore carbohydrate reserves in their crowns, roots, and stem bases. Holistic Management’s expertise is in re-creating/imitating these natural grazing patterns with domestic livestock, and regenerating the land in the process.

After nearly fifty years of practice, we now have successful Holistic Management practitioners spread across the globe, from Canada to the tip of Patagonia, and from Zimbabwe to Australia to Montana. Bring Back the Buffalo!

A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains
By Ernest Callenbach

Chapter One: The Bison Heartland

For more than ten centuries the bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn played in grasslands that covered what we now label as a dozen states, over which they ranged freely as forage and browse and water sources drew them. They were kept from overrunning their foods resources by two major kinds of predator, human hunters and disease organisms, though wolves and bears had some effect too. The sun-powered productivity of the continent's sea of grass was shared with millions of prairie dogs, with ferrels and badgers and hawks that preyed on the prairie dogs, and with billions of tiny decomposers that consumed dead organic material and sent it on its next life cycle. Thick, rich soils were held in place against the fierce Plains winds and the scouring Plains rainstorms by a deep, tough network of perennial roots; thus, erosion was minimized and streams ran clear. The bounty of the landscape immeasurable and eternal, with bison as it dominant feature.

Bison are quintessentially American animals, noble symbols of wildness, freedom, and self-sufficiency. In their heyday, when 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America, they were the most numerous grazing animals on earth, far surpassing even the great American wildebest hends.

The largest and most powerful animals on the continent, bison have a special claim on our attention. They are intimately tied to the history of America, as well as to the ecology of our grasslands. And, as we shall see, hey have a place in our future as well.

The breathtaking splendor of the bison herds of three hundred years ago was almost indescribable to the first European observers. Today, when our cattle stand meekly behind fences and bawl for their dinner, those thundering wild herds are beyond our imagining. Then, bison were a standard part of the American landscape across half the continent, as omnipresent as cars as today. The random bounty they represented was incalculable, like that of falling fruit from tropical trees--they were simply there, part of the endless plenty offered by the original garden of the continent.

In several prehistoric forms, bison had endured in North America for hundreds of thousands of years. Indeed, it may well have been in pursuing bison that hunters first crossed the Bering land bridge and populated the Western Hemisphere. During the long centuries of Native American occupation of the continent, bison provided the Plains dwellers with food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and artifacts. Later, during settlements of the Midwest and Plains, bison furnished the Euro-American immigrants with food, warm robes and coats, and clean-burning dung chips for their cooking fires--an essential in largely treeless regions. Although later whites showed little compunction about wiping out the bison, America could not have become what it is if bison had not provided a living bridge across the Plains.

The first Spaniards who spotted bison understandably called them racas, cows. But bison only superficially resemble cattle. For one thing, bison are surprisingly agile and fast: they can spin instantly on front or rear legs and can outrun the fastest horse over a five-mile chase. Bison are magnificent, muscular beasts: bulls weigh as much as a ton; cows, more than half that. Their stampedes literally make the earth tremble. They are eye-catching in their unique humped profile and shaggy coats; resourceful in finding grass, whether in dry seasons or in the teeth of blizzards; cooperative and resolute against predators.

As early observers learned, bison are wary of humans. People sometimes tame newborn bison calves, but not for long. Today's wild bison, such as those on the National Bison Range in Montana, can be herded by expert riders into enclosures for annual culling and vaccination, though a few recalcitrant bulls always elude the herders. Once driven into the corrals and chutes, many bison get hurt trying to kick or butt their way out even through 4-inch-thick timbers. The implicit motto of the bison rings with a determination we remember well from out history; Live Free or Die!

Their dominance of the American landscape rested on the fact that bison were perfectly adapted to life on the enormous grasslands of the continent. Bison are ruminants, with multipart stomachs that maintain a resident population of microbes to ferment chewed grass and render it capable of absorption. A typical bison day, whether over the long centuries or now, begins with a predawn grazing period, followed by the alternating periods of regurgitating and chewing their cud and more grazing. This process enables bison to digest cellulose, the principal solid component of plants, and explains why they could be so numerous over such an extensive range.

A basic bison group numbers twenty to fifty animals; the endless herds described in frontier tales gathered only during migration. It was once believed that bison migrated seasonally over long distances from north to south and back, but it is now thought that their migrations covered only a few hundred miles and were generally directed toward better grazing land or water. Bison also move around because of weather, as has been observed in Yellowstone National Park and historically; fierce blizzards drive them toward rougher or timbered country, where they can shelter from the wind and snow. A bison group will sometimes cross long stretches of dry country. Bison tend to visit water at least once a day, though they can, if necessary, go several days without water--far longer than cattle can. Movement over the land is led by mature females, who are widely thought to be more intelligent than males and have an excellent memory for seasonal and spatial patters of grass availability and locations of water sources. Nobody now alive has seen a really large migrating bison herd, but historical accounts describe, with perhaps some exaggeration, herds stretching as far as the eye can see, estimated to be as much as hundred miles in length.

For bison, grazing involves movement while eating, over distances ranging from a quarter mile to three miles, followed by a brief resting period--not the relatively stationary grazing of cattle. Grazing bison may appear from a distance to be moving slowly, but they often travel at a good walking pace for a human. Due to their different anatomical structure, the gait of bison is not exactly like that of cattle.

In the wild, bison live for an average of twelve to fifteen years, through some individuals may live to forty. They are fearsome in defending themselves against predators. Predators, of course, are essential to every healthy ecosystem as regulators of population balances. Since the 1930s, scientists have known that predator control harms rather than helps bison and other large wild species, for steady predation is necessary to weed out weaker animals and thus keep the herd as a whole strong. In Canada, wolves have been observed hunting bison successfully--though they prefer to go after the relatively solitary moose--but careful observation in Yellowstone has revealed that severe winter weather kills far more bison than do predators of any kind. Native American hunters also played a crucial role as predators on bison before the European period. Their hunting impacts did not become ecologically unbalancing until whites brought them firearms and provided markets for hides and tongues.

The condition of a bison's fur varies from the deep, thick, warm coat of late fail and winter through the ragged-looking coat of spring and summer when the heavy for is being shed in patches. Because bison eyes are set farther out on the sides of the head than those of cattle, they have practically 360-degree vision. They can detect very distant movements that are almost imperceptible to humans. However, at closer ranges they rely more on their excellent senses of smell and hearing. Like other social animals, they remain acutely aware of the locations and dispositions of nearby herd-mates, on whom their welfare and sometimes their safety depend--but who in return demand unceasing attention to dominance-submission relationships.

Whether on the move of loafing around, a bison herd is surprisingly noisy. Groups of cows and their calves, either newly born or yearlings, tend to stick fairly close together and engages in steady interchanges through reassuring grunts--not the mooing many people expert. Attention is secured and deference demanded through a variety of sounds ranging from snorts to growls, often accompanied by attitude-adjustment butting. Occasionally bison will utter a sonorous snort that bears some resemblance to sounds made by their distant mammalian relatives, humpback whales. Bulls have a wide repertoire of threatening noises, from an early-warning low rumble with extended, whitish tongue to terrifying bellows and roars, which become so loud in the mating season that they can be heard as much as three miles away.

Like other animals, including humans, bison also signal their intentions by body postures. They maintain firm and stable dominance orders, among females as well as males; moreover, a dominant cow can intimidate a subdominant bull. Rank-indicating gestures with head and horns are very common, especially among the top animals. The bison tail is also very expressive. As Milo J. Schult and Arnold O. Haugen, experienced observers of contemporary bison under all imaginable conditions, put it:

An observer can get some idea of a buffalo's state of mind by looking at the position of the tail. When undisturbed, the buffalo's tail hangs down or flicks back and forth occasionally to get rid of a pesky fly. When mildly excited, the tail is raised somewhat; the greater the degree of excitement, the higher and more rigid the tail posture. Such excitement is frequently accompanied by defecation. Finally, when fully aroused and combative, the tail is held in a rigid, upright position. It is at this time that the observer should be most wary.

The fly-whisk function is important; like other large grazers, bison are bothered by a variety of flies.

Considering their size and weight, bison are remarkably light on their hooves. They can scramble slopes quickly, and its is frequently said that they can jump over a six-foot fence from a standing start. They can scratch their shoulders or face by delicately bringing a rear foot forward. They enjoy licking and grooming themselves and other bison. And they love to frolic; young animals especially often simply run about aimlessly, mock-mating, play-fighting, and even play-stampeding.

For most of the year, bulls live on the fringes of groups of cows and calves. Individual bulls may wander deep into woodsy canyons, enjoying patches of grass too small to interest the whole herd. Only during the rutting season, in midsummer, do bulls mingle with the cows. The bison mating season is a time of much bellowing, challenging, threatening, and head-to-head butting contests between dominant bulls. Bison skulls are remarkably thick in the forehead area, which is covered with a heavy pad of fur, and the horns are curved in such a way that frontal butting does not usually involve goring. A fight normally ends with the weaker bull backing away and trotting off. Here nature seems to be aiming for genetic sorting but not death; a few dominant bulls, who intimidate all the others, mate with the cows. Only in captivity, where one bull can get cornered, do fatal fights seem to be common.

A bull who has just been dominated by another bull seems to "work off his frustration" by roaring, pawing the ground or even goring it, and wallowing--lying down and rolling back and forth vigorously, often in a dusty depression that is also used for insect-control wallowing. A dominant bull patiently "tends" a cow in whom he is interested, staying close behind or alongside her for many hours, or sometimes even several days if necessary. During this time he fends off the approaches of other bulls, occasionally rests his chin on her rump, does a certain amount of stuffing and licking, and waits until she is ready to be mounted. In this process, he smirks at her in a stylized, neck-extended grimace called the lip curl, the precise function of which nobody--except, presumably, the bison themselves--really knows.

Most calves are born in late April to mid-May following a nine-and-a-half-month gestation period. Whereas the coats of adult bison are varying shades of dark brown, the calves are bright orange-rust and remain so for about three months. Initially, they have no humps. They weigh between thirty and seventy pounds at birth and are extremely winsome. A bison cow is ferociously protective and allows nothing and nobody to get between herself and her calf.

Our Lost Companions

Among the Indians, bison and many other animals were treated in stories and in life as beings who spoke, felt, and thought much as humans do. They were an equal part of the universe, deserving of careful attention, respect, and love; they were spoken of in the same terms as were family or clan members. And animals were to be seen everywhere--close outside the villages or camps, just over the hills, coming down to drink at the streams. (Bison wore deep trails leading to riverbanks.) Not a day passed without important interactions between humans and other species. This constant contact is hand for moderns to imagine. For most of us, animals are merely an industrial resource. Cattle and poultry are produced out of our daily sight, and we consume them in processed forms that are carefully rendered unrecognizable; to acknowledge that our steaks or drumsticks come from fellow beings would be too painful.

We are distantly aware of wild creatures inhabiting landscapes we seldom visit--parks and wilderness areas, where deer and bears and eagles may occasionally be seen--but those creatures do not qualify as part of our "real," everyday lives. We count ourselves lucky to experience them through nature programs on television.

Thus we modern human beings live in a landscape that is, by the standards of our long history as species on earth, deprived of our large animal companions. Yet evolved to what we are in close conjunction with these animals, over millions of years. On some deep level we must miss them, for they gave human world spiritual meaning as well as sustenance. when we came to dominate them almost completely, and subsequently wiped many of them off the planet, we lost essential evolutionary partners, and we are the lonelier for it. Their absence is our loss, psychologically,spiritually, and morally, and it is felt by many besides Indians and poets. If you go to a zoo--a melancholy in the eyes of many--and watch the human animals there, especially the children, you may see in their eyes some recognition of our fundamental comradeship with wild animals.

There are people, and I am one of them, who believe that the natural landscape with its full range of inhabitants can be restored in protected areas. There we can bring in meaningful numbers the great carnivores who evolved with humans as the top predators in North America: grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions. Though the devoted efforts of conservation biologists and their allies we may yet manage to preserve large enough wild areas to guarantee the survival of small remnants of these magnificent species--likes us, predators who occupy the tops of complex food chains.

But in realistic terms, the bison is the only large wild animal with whom there is any prospect of sustained coexistence on mass terms.. (With bison would naturally come smaller numbers of the other species that share grasslands habitats with them, chiefly pronghorn, elk, mountain sheep, and deer.) Bison do not fear humans, and a modest level of human activity does not make an area uninhabitable for bison, as even very limited road-building, mining, or timber cutting do for bears. We can therefore, share land with bison in a way we could not with other large animals. The possibility of our coexisting with bison opens up some novel and exciting prospects for conservation biology (the new field which applies biological science to species preservation), for land management, and for ranching It also challenge us, as well will see later, to imagine new relations between ourselves and wild nature.

In about a quarter of what is now the contiguous United States, bison prevailed as the most numerous, the most impressive, and also the most useful members of the animal kingdom. We will not see huge migrating herds, but it is reasonable to predict that in fifty or a hundred years, a mere moment in the bison species lifetime, there will be millions of these mighty lords of grass again. A large ecological detour will have been completed, and one part of the United States, at least, we will have been restored to a naturally sustainable state.

Land, Rivers, and Climate "In the long run, land determines."

--Wes Jackson paraphrasing John Wesley Powell

Bison once ranged a much larger territory that the Great Plains, which many still think of as bison's sole ancestral home. All the tallgrass prairies just to the east, with better soil and more rain, were bison territory too, and the richer forage of this region must have supported the densest herds. (The general quality and particularly the protein content of grass depends directly on rains, especially springs rains.) But bison also inhabited areas where forests were dominant, since they can browse on leaves as well as graze on grass. There were bison as far east as the Appalachians, where I grew up; perhaps of some deep folk memory, my hometown baseball team in central in Pennsylvania was called the Boalsburg Bisons. When English settlers first arrived in Georgia, they encountered "innumerable" bison. There were bison in Mexico, in Texas, and on up through Canada to the Yukon. There were bison in the Rockies, as there still are--in Yellowstone National Park; at the National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana; in Grand Teton National Park; and on the Flying D Ranchin in Montana, owned by media magnate Ted Turner. However, they never spread in significant numbers through the dry and inhospitable Great Basin into the lusher country along the West Coast.

Nowadays, you can find small, thriving ranched herds of bison everywhere in the country. But their heartland remains the Great Plains, and that is where we are likely to see, in coming decades, the greatest resurgence of bison herds. There land is cheap; most of it is unrewarding for family. But it was home to the bison, and it will be again. The Plains are high, dry, gently rolling country, and until white occupation they were entirely covered with mixed native grasses, including the grama grasses which were the main sustenance for the bison. Originally the Plains were treeless except for cottonwoods and willows along the streams. In some sections, like the Sand Hills of Nebraska, the predominant impression of the region as you move through it is rather like being at sea; you think that once you crest the next rise you will gain a view of a broad vista and get your bearings, but in reality all you see from the rise is a new series of rises. In the absence of mountains or other massive landmarks, early white arrivals, like the Indians before them, relied on the rivers for orientation; without them, they would have needed to use compass and sextant, like seaborne navigators.

It is easy to confuse the Plains with the neighboring prairies to the east. The two domains do not divide sharply along some some boundary line; nor is their topography uniformly different. They are defined by rainfall and soil types, both of which have local variations. In a general way, we could say that the prairies extend through the great, mostly flat central valley that occupies the middle of the country to the edge of the eastern woodlands, which in historical times covered much of the country east of the Mississippi River. Westward, the prairies extend at least through the first tier of states west of the Mississippi and give way to the drier, sparser Plains in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. From there, the Plains run to the Rockies, and within the Rockies there are basins that have a predominantly Plains character. On both Plains and prairies, local differences in landforms, stream patterns, soil and vegetation, and temperature made life easier or more difficult for bison. But throughout this vast area, bison roamed free, occupying what ecologies call their riche--their special place in the great panorama of life.

The Soil and Under the Soil

To people who thinks that grass is just grass, the Plains and the prairies offer an unknown new universe. Short (six to twelve inches tail) buffalo grass, hairy grama, and blue grama grow on the driest, short-grass Plains. On the rainier eastern prairies, Indian grass, big bluestem, and switchgrass reach heights of six to twelve feet. The mixed prairie in between has western] wheatgrass. little bluestem, and sideoats grama. All these grasses intermix in some extent, depending local conditions of soil and moisture, so there is no rigid division of grass types. An undisturbed grassland is a thing if underappreciated beauty. As Lynn Jacobs write,

Prairie grassland usually contains an average of 125-150 plant species and numerous animal species. Here one finds many different grasses and flowering plants. Perennial forbs [nonwoody but nongrass plants] are widespread, especially members of the sunflower and legume families. Annuals typically comprise less than 5 percent of plant species. Thick stands of bushes and trees commonly line drainages.... While generally less biotically diverse than the bunchgrass community, prairie grassland usually has many more individuals and as much greater biomass per unit of area.... Indeed, grassland generally has the deepest, most fertile and productive soil, highest erosion resistance and water retention, and greatest biomass of animals of all the major bioregions.

Plains and prairie soil, like soil everywhere on the planet except in the driest deserts, is home to countless small organisms whose total subsurface mass is much greater, for any given natural area, than that of the most visibly imposing large mammals is aboveground. Studies carried out on the prairies have counted nematodes, which are small roundworms with teeth, and found that they number a half million per square foot, they consume more of the region's basic biological productivity than do the cows or bison that tramp over them. (Subsoil life thrives better, research shows, when the grasses are grazed.) But even these amazing numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of microorganisms more than 2.5 billion bacteria; 400,000 fungi; 50,000 algae; and 30,000 protozoa. It is these microscopic beings that convert nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur in the soil into forms that higher plants such as grasses can utilize. Thus, without these microorganisms there could be no plants, no bison, and no humans. Moreover, they decompose organic matter such as dead grass leaves and stems and animal droppings, releasing carbon dioxide and water into the soil and leaving a residue of fine particles that we call humus, the buildup of which has, in fact, created the deep prairie soils. Thus, in a full biological perspective, life under the soil surface is more critical, complex, and massive than is the life visible to us. This is particularly true of Palins and prairie native grasses, which have larger parts underground than aboveground.

Once the bed of an inland sea, the Plains owe their basic slope and elevation to sediments washed down from the Rocky Mountains. Their nearest counterparts is the Russian steppes. Rainfall is skimpy an erratic, averaging around 20 inches or less per year in recent years it has averaged 13 inches in northwestern Montana, 16 inches in west-central 19 inches in Oklahoma. But multiyear droughts are the norm, and attempts to plow the land, which was originally protected by a thick cover of remarkably deep-rooted, dense grasses, have sooner or later led many farmers to disaster. The soil itself is fertile, and wheat is still a major crop, along with a drought-resistant songhum called milo; indeed, the Plains still produce most of America's wheat exports. But plow agriculture using annual monoscrops like wheat and corn leaves the soil between plants unprotected and is a permanent invitation to erosion.

Throughout the world, erosion by wind and water has been dangerous depleting overgrazed grasslands, causing desertification and lower productivity for human purposes. In America, just as in less-developed countries, we "mine" soil by letting it washed downstream to the oceans. This erosion process is far advance everywhere in the country, including the deep-topsoil area of the Midwest. It is also severe on the dry, winblown Plains grasslands. Even in those extensive. Plains areas that have hardly been plowed, where most of the grasslands are used for cattle raising, degradation due to overgrazing is depleting the land. As we will see, bison are part of the solution to erosion problems.

Bison and Grassland Ecology

"Grazing large herds of bison in large pastures represents a cost-efficient method of cropping native vegetation, maintaining a functional ecosystem, providing local employment in an industry that is indefinitely sustainable, and providing a healthier meat."

-- Craig J. Knowles, wildlife consultant

It is the working theory of The Nature Conservancy's preserves in Nebraska and its just-opened preserve in Oklahoma that bison grazing, together with the effects of occasional fires, will tend to bring back native grasses and lead to a stable ecosystem. The process has also been the subject of research at Custer State Park in South Dakota, at the Konza Preserve of Kansas State University, and elsewhere. In recent years, small, museum-like preserves of native grasses, harbingers of more extensive future restoration, have been established through the persistent efforts of volunteers. The most remarkable of these preserve "islands" is within the giant circle formed by the nuclear accelerator at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago. Another lush example is found on the grounds of the Kauffman Museum in Newton, Kansas. These precious areas nurture an incredible richness of species compared with the desolation to which most Plains and prairie grassland has been reduced. One writer noted their "scintillating interdependence that constitutes a single living a whole."

Devoted souls who care about bringing back the native grasses can be found everywhere. In Chicago, they have banded together in a loose organization called the Wild Onion Alliance. ("Chicago" comes from the Indian name for a wild onion, and the city and its surrounding have a surprising number of vacant spaces suitable for restoration.) Such people set a powerful example and issue effective appeals for physical labor and vigilance from a large force of concerned citizens. Each community, they say, must develop its own "prairie consciousness" in order to push back the concrete, the alien bluegrass lawns, and the cornfields. After ten years of hard work, they have brought back a forest preserve north of Chicago to its ancient state of viability through persistent seeding amid existing vegetation, a method they have found to work better than plowing and planting anew.

There are now such fragments of restored prairie in many states--too small to support bison, but inspiring examples of what can be done. Unfortunately, the extraordinarily labor- and money-intensive work that has gone into these experimental and educational plots is too expensive and demanding to be applied on a regional scale. But The Nature Conservancy hopes that the cropping of grasses by bison, who tend to bite off the top parts of grass rather than tear away the near-ground growing shoots as do cattle and sheep, may aid the recovery of native grass species that cannot survive under livestock.

Native grasses are adapted to occasional heavy grazing, and many grasses actually grow more vigorously when grazed. A free, nomadic bison herd might graze a given grass area one year but not return to it for several years. The constant pressure of fenced and maximum-stock grazing, however, has tended to favor grasses of European origin.

The effects of fire were also undoubtedly crucial to maintenance of the original grasslands. Some fires were induced by lightning and others were set by Indians. Periodic fires, though many researchers like to classify them as disturbances, clean out dead grass materials that do not decay rapidly in dry climates and return them as ash to the soil nutrient cycle. They also create ecological mosaics--spotty patterns where different plant species offer different habitats to different animal inhabitants. Fire stimulates the germination of certain seeds. It is well documented that after a fire, a new round of more productive growth begins, offering new, protein- and energy-rich shoots that please grazers. Fire may even help to prevent outbreaks of pests and plant diseases.

Scientists like Al Steuter, who is in charge of the bison at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska, have worked out the sequence of what they call patch dynamics. An area that bison have been lightly grazing accumulates more dead grass and is thus prone to fire. After a fire, helped by increased penetration of sunlight and warmer soil temperatures, a new round of growth begins; bison may be particularly attracted to burned areas for two or three years. Gradually, however, they turn their attention elsewhere, and dead grass begins to build up again, setting the stage for the next fire.

Indians certainly employed fire, and it seems likely to Al Steuter that their influence altered the grasslands to favor species that could support a wider range of grazing intensives. Without fire, he says, woody plants tend to take over grasslands. Steuter points out that since most lightning-induced fires occur in the growing season, when grass is greener, they are naturally less fierce than dormant-season fires and produce a characteristically small burn patch. Ninety percent of lightning-caused storms in the West burn out or are rained out before reaching an acre in size. The human-set fire regime at the Niobrara Preserve tries to replicate the impacts of Indian- and lightning-set burns.

Bison's observant and great speed meant that they were seldom endangered by the relatively erratic and mostly small-scale fires of presettlement days. Fires are less perilous to fast, alert animals in open country than viewers of Bambi might expect. The fires at The Nature Conservancy preserves should thus be compatible with bison, especially when their free-range area is expanded and there is little possibility of their being trapped by fences.

In short, there is a remarkable match between bison and their ancestral grassland home. The hardiness that enabled bison to survive the severe climate of the Plains is especially impressive compared with cattle's vulnerability. Bison can even reduce their metabolic rate when exposed to intense cold and are much better than cattle at finding sheltered places to wait out storms. One bison ranger and researcher, even though he favors using cattle along with bison on small areas of public lands for ecological maintenance, says flatly, "Clearly, bison are relatively better suited to a continuous year-round presence on a northern mixed prairie natural area than are cattle."

Particularly in the tallgrass prairies east of 94 degrees west longitude (a north-south line passing just east of Kansas City), the abundance of vegetation is astounding, particularly the number and seasonal variety of brightly colored wildflowers. The Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota distributes guides to forty-six species of grasses that can be seen on its nearly 600,000 acres-from crested wheatgrass to buffalo grass to little bluestem to something known as stinkgrass--and displays dried samples of the major grasses in its visitor center. A similar list contains eighty-nine wildflowers: western yarrow, white prairie aster, cutleaf goldenweed, nipplewort, prairie coneflower, miner's candle, lambsquarter, and dozens more. Some of these plants are extraordinarily well adapted to a dry climate: Barr's milkvetch develops a root deep and strong enough to anchor and sustain it for forty to fifty years.

Bird and small mammal populations are extremely diverse on the Plain. Hawks and owls, turkeys, pheasants, flycatchers, flickers, and dozens of other birds are common in grassy areas, while a surprising variety of waterbirds (especially herons, geese, and cranes) frequent rivers and lakes. Crouse, once unbelievably common, are now rare.

The diversity of grasslands is particularly significant for bison. Polycultures, such as the mixed grasses and forbs that bison eat, turn out to be more productive than monocultures. In other words, an acre of mixed prairie grasses produces more biomass--food for humans or animals--than does an acre planted solely in corn or wheat. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising, since peoples in the Western Hemisphere have been planting beans and melons among their corn for thousands of years. But it is only recently that a trend in the social sciences, called rational peasant analysis, has dared to assume that indigenous people who have survived for millennia just may know what they're doing. Unfortunately, our style of development is almost always at their cost. We could surely have learned much about bison from the Plains tribes, but we killed off long ago the hunters who were the keepers of bison lore.

Bison's famous roaming, like that of other wild grazer's on the Plains and on the great grasslands of Africa and Asia, was not merely an inborn predisposition. Bison and other grazing animals become visibly stimulated, in ways we do not yet understand, on entering a new, rich pasture area, and, of course, roaming gave access to continually new forage. Roaming also helped minimize encounters with predators, who more easily concentrate on a sedentary herd, and moving in bends promoted ready self-defense against predators when they appeared. Roaming presumably was also a response to the eventual fouling of a grazed area by urine and dung.

Grazing by millions of bison and other species not only did not degrade the Plains and prairies by promoted coexistence and coevolution of animals and grasses in a remarkably rich and productive symbiotic relationship. The crucial role of the frequency of grazing, as opposed to overall intensity of grazing, went unrecognized during most of the history of the Plains. Received ideas about how many grazing animals can be supported by a plant community have nothing to do with wild species such as bison. This previous thinking derives from rainy European areas, where domestic animals were kept on the abundant grass of small, fenced pastures and a simple rule of thumb sufficed: do not overstock (that is, have too many animals for the total grass available). But an observant and thoughtful former Rhodesian game official named Allan Savory has recently extended our understanding of how wild and domestic animals interact with grasses in dry environments. The inventor of the term "short-rotation grazing," Savory has applied a systematic ecological analysis to the problems of ranching, and we will see later how his ideas are being put into practice by bison ranchers. But his thinking also bears on the history and future of wild species such as bison.

Savory's fundamental was to study closely what occurs at the soil's surface over time. Grass looks relatively healthy, he found, can still be in trouble if the plants are widely spaced and the soil in between is bare and hardened, offering no foothold to new young plants. Conversely, grass that looks severely nibbled down may actually be capable of good recovery if it is composed of numerous young, vigorous plants spread uniformly over the whole pasture. (Unlike leafy plants, grasses grow from the bottom; that is why mowing a lawn does not destroy it.)

Bison grazing in historical times was often intensive in local areas and its impacts were considerable, especially when combined with the bison's wallowing and trampling. However, herds would soon move on to other areas while an affected area recovered. Savory contends that such temporary, intense impacts are in fact essential, whether the grazers are bison or livestock, for they stir up soil and push seeds into the ground so they can germinate successfully.

Jack Norland, a researcher in range science at Montana State University, has concluded from his own work that "bison naturally exhibit short duration grazing behavior when grazing large pastures." Thus, if large enough pastures are available, building a lot of internal fencing and moving animals around among different pastures is unnecessary. Left to themselves, bison move constantly, not staying in any one place for more than a day. Both herds and individuals distribute themselves over all of an area, and bison come back to regraze areas at varying time intervals. Norland argues, "Just leaving the bison alone in an adequately large are (with suitable habitat) is the grazing system would be easiest, most efficient, and would offer the least chance of damaging the pasture. This would also probably be the most productive. Of course proper stocking rates [numbers of animals per acre] are needed for this to work."

We may see for ourselves that an unmanaged herd will prosper on ample acreage by observing the healthy bison in Yellowstone National Park--now about 4,000 animals and likely to grow to some 20,000 before the 2.2 million acre park becomes overpopulated. As we shall see, management of public lands for true multiple use, combined with expansion of bison herds on Indian reservations, could add many more millions of acres for bison. However, on the relatively small areas where bison ranchers have been operating, Savory's novel management strategies can substitute for natural grazing patterns. Yet even on public lands, some managers continue to follow traditional agricultural practices rather than learning to rely on simulating major ecological processes of fire, bison grazing, and natural plant succession.

Although Savory's general analysis of the grazing process and its relation to the health of grasslands is an important advance, his management recommendations are restricted to limited-acreage situations. For the future of bison, we must give priority to Norland's conclusion that bison grazing in large, unfenced areas provides ecologically satisfactory natural rotation. The ultimate bottom line is this large herds of bison can be sustainably (and profitably) kept on suitably large unfenced ranges on the Plains. As long as land remains divided into small parcels, the always precarious micromanagement of grazing impacts becomes necessary; yet cattle raising, burdened by the costs of internal fencing and intensive management, will continue to degrade the land and, if left without subsidies, to cause ranchers to go broke. Nature is giving us a signal that in our current land-division practices we have been thinking like real estate agents and that we must instead learn to "think like bison."

It appears that the only way to replicate the ecological symbiosis that free-roaming herds once had with grasslands is to put bison, elk, pronghorn, and deer back on large territories, along with their appropriate predators (including humans, hunting on a year-round basis), and let the reestablish coexistence with the grasses and the myriad other forms of life there. With bison and their companion grazers, it seems almost certain that the best management is no management. A few large ranches, following the Ted Turner operation's lead, will be able to implement this policy, but for the most part the task will fall to our public lands. Full implementation will probably require a century and will test to the utmost our temptation to imagine that, with our limited understanding, we can do things as well as nature.

Bison affect other features of grasslands besides grass, particularly streamside vegetation. A large herd of bison visiting a water hole or riverbank tramples it severely. In times past, however, when bison had access to unbounded expanses of land, their visits were intermittent, a fact that mitigated their impacts. Certainly bison do not display the predilection for sticking close to water that cattle have, perhaps because of their origins in wet southern Asia. Sharman Apt Russell says it well:

The effect of cattle on riparian areas is well documented. Unlike wild ungulates, cows tend to stay near water, to wallow in it, to lounge on the stream banks, and to trample the same ground over and over. As they lounge, they eat--grasses, tree shoots, whatever they find. On the John Day River, they eat, steadily, the willow and red-osier dogwood than act to slow the force of floods and protect the banks. They eat the grass that shields the soil from sun and wind, keeping soil temperatures low and reducing evaporation. They eat the sedges that are filtering out sediment, cleaning the water, and building up banks at the same time. When this kind of vegetation is overgrazed, the look of a stream changes drastically. Trees such as willow, aspen, alder, and cottonwood disappear as mature trees die out and the young shoots are consumed. In areas with deep alluvial soil, the stream begins to downcut, creating deep channels that result in a lowered water table.

Bison, on the other hand, tend to drink and then move on--far and fast. Bison do wallow, both in dry depressions to dust their coats and in wet depressions to cover themselves with a layer of mud for protection from insects. Nevertheless, they wallow mostly on high, level areas, and their wallowing produces bare, depressed areas that promote species diversity because they become tiny wetlands after rains.

Bison Digestion

Bison consume a greater range of plants than do the cattle that have replaced them. They respond flexibly to forage quality and abundance. Moreover, bison seem to digest what they eat more efficiently than cattle, perhaps because of different digestive-tract bacteria and protozoa; they can certainly achieve protein and energy intake equal or superior to those of cattle.

Bison ferment their cud more than cattle do, and perhaps for this reason, along with their superior nitrogen recycling, they have a higher digestive coefficient--that is, they get more out of the dry matter and fiber they eat. Actually, the nutritional needs of bison may be slightly different from those of cattle, although herd managers tend to treat them alike and rely on cattle rules of thumb in critical matters such as how many acres to allow for each bison. (On the high, dry Plains, a bison may need fifty acres.)

Bison diets tend toward grasses and sedges [grasslike plants with solid stems], though they will eat forbs and shrubs (like willow) if they have to. It intrigues scientists that bison can subsist on low-quality, high-fiber diets, whereas cattle require finer fare. In fact, bison digestions are rated between 3.7 percent and 6.1 percent more efficient than those of cattle. Nature has equipped them well for survival on the Plains.

Like other ruminants, bison emit large quantities of methane, a gas that is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. In this meat-eating epoch, there are more than a billion cows aboard the planet, producing some 15 percent of the methane in the atmosphere. Methane is also produced in voluminous quantities by the flatulence of a human population explosion nearing 6 billion, by decay processes in rice paddies and swampland, and by the digestive processes of the planet's staggering population of termites. Thus, it seems likely that the bison population's methane output, whether that of the past or that of bison brought back to the Plains in the future, is not a significant factor in the global methane level.

Indians and Bison

Even before they had houses, Indians hunted bison successfully. On hands and knees, their human identity concealed with wolf skins, they stalked and killed individually bison with bows and arrows. They surrounded small groups of bison, confused them by shouting and waving, and finished some of them off with bows and arrows. Most dramatic of all, they drove whole herds off cliffs that the Sioux call pishkun and whites call buffalo jumps; people waiting at the bottom clubbed and butchered the fallen animals, leaving deep deposits of bones over the centuries.

Some Plains tribes who lived in settled villages along rivers, and practiced extensive gardening to produce much of their food--the Pawnee, Arikara, Mandan, and others--also hunted bison on semiannual hunting expeditions. However, in traditional tribal life, whether settled or nomadic, the bison provided for an impressive proportion of the people's needs. In fact, Plains Indian life would have been unthinkable without bison. Both Indian traditional stories and later white writings conjure up the thrill of the bison hunts; riders galloping bareback after the dangerous racing animals, shooting arrows faster than a gun could be reloaded. As whites later remarked, the bison was the Indians' general store. Shirts, leggings, dresses, belts, and moccasins came from the hides, as did tipi covers. Bison bladders made good water containers, and rope could be braided from rawhide strips. Spoons, ladles, and cups could be fashioned from horns, which were also important in headdresses.

Bison robes were a basic household resource, used for keeping warm, sleeping on, and sleeping under. Tanned hides were used for storytelling artwork. Knives, arrowheads, shields, and personal ornaments came from bone and hides; bones also made scrapers and hoes. Bowstrings and arrow wrapping came from sinews. Harnesses for horses and dogs, pouches for carrying things on horseback, lariats, snowshoes, sled runners, even covers for balls used in ball games--all came from the bison. So did ceremonial objects like masks, rattles, and winning sheets for the dead. (Even the rails found use--as fly whisks!)

Hump meat was considered a particular delicacy, along with tongue, brains, heart, and liver; dried and crumbled jerky pounded into a cake with berries and fat produced pemmican, a portable, preserved high-energy food. Bison were by no means, however, the sole item in tribal diets. Reading explorers' accounts gives the impression that Plains tribes ate nothing but bison meat, perhaps because the early mountain trappers and explorers themselves, lacking Indian knowledge of the region's plant resources, had to depend entirely on game. It is now recognized that so-called primitive peoples ordinarily enjoyed a much wider, richer, and healthier diet than humans now consume--dependent as we are on just three seed-bearing cultivated grasses (wheat, rice, and corn) for most of our caloric intake. Thus, it should not be surprising that Indians ate not only large amounts of bison but also quite a number of plants. During the winter, particularly, people without sources of carbohydrates could not have survived on bison meat alone because it is so low in fat. Indeed, the limits on Indian populations on the Plains may have been set by the amount of nonmeat foods available not by the supply of bison. It appears that tribal groups may have nomadically followed the development of prairie turnips (or Indians bread-fruit), succulent roots that they tracked more intently than they tracked the bison herds and dug up with sticks made of sharpened elk antlers. And buffalo-below plant flowered at rutting time, signaling people when it was time to head for the hunting grounds. Indians also ate the scarlet buffalo berry. Prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) were a tasty staple, as they were for the whites, who later examined them in many areas; they survive now only in rare places where traditional rotation of crops is still practiced. The grouse depended on seasonal grazing by bison to "open the grass," so they declined with the herds--a correlation that inspired a sad Indian lament, "O come back too, prairie chickens!" Surveying the fate of the species, William Least Heat-Moon reflected, "As goes the prairie chicken, so goes the prairie and its people."

Anlelope were another staple food over much of the Plains, as were elk in some places. Ian Frazier gives a much more exotic list of Indian foodstuffs, which included geese, ants, dogs, grasshoppers, beaver tails, wild peas, chokecherries, rose pods, wild plums, turtle eggs, wild artichokes, morning glory roots, wild onions, juneberries, and cottonwood bark. All in all, then, the diet of the original Plains inhabitants was rich, varied, and without question more healthful than the current American diet heavy in beef, salt, sugar, and fat.

The Balance Upset

The size of the herds that existed when whites first landed on the continent began to diminish early in the nineteenth century. A great drought struck the Plains in 1840, and another drought in 1867 supposedly starved millions of bison on the southern Plains. Diseases from introduced Euro-American livestock probably also contributed to some decline. Nonetheless, the bison-centered ecological balance that had prevailed on the Plains since the last ice age was not fatally disrupted until the arrival of whites. The first few trappers, explorers, and fur traders seemed to pose little threat. But after them came buffalo hunters, preying on the bison. Then came traders, making their living off the hunters and trappers and Indians. Then settlers took possession of the land to extract the accumulated richness of its soil, and gold miners invaded the Black Hills, Bandits, gunfighters, lawyers, and storekeepers arrived to live off the townsfolk and settlers. Finally, the military and its civilian helpers killed or rounded up the remaining Indians.

The water and land were at first exploited by open-range cattle barons and their hired guns, but then came "the plow that broke the Plains." Wave after wave of farmers built sod houses, plowed, planted, watched their crops shrivel or blow away, and went bust. So in time a new variety of predator appeared on the Plains: not carnivore, not even human, but nonetheless voracious. Banks gobbled up the farms, giant grain-trading corporation learned to manipulate commodity prices, producing waves of bankruptcies. Seed companies, fertilizer companies, and equipment companies racked up sales to failing farmers. These new predators were mostly legal fictions called corporations: self-replicating organisms driven by an ineluctable need to maximize profits, protected by law from personal liability claims. They steadily sucked money from the farmers, driving them to try ever harder to squeeze money from the land. For a time, the farmers fought back through populist political organizations. They even formed a new party and sent a few representatives to statehouses and to Washington, but their uprisings were soon beaten down.

As Ian Frazier sums up the situation in his book Great Plains:

This, finally, is the punch line of out two hundred years on the Great Plains: we trap out the beaver, subtract the Mandan, infect the Blackfeet and the Hidatsa and the Assiniboin, overdose the Arikara; call the land a desert and hurry across it to get to California and Oregon; suck up the buffalo, bones and all; kill off nations of elk and wolves and cranes and prairie chickens and prairie dogs; dig up the gold and rebury it in vaults someplace else; ruin the Sioux and Cheyenne and Arapaho and Crow and Kiowa and Comanche; kill Crazy Horse, kill Sitting Bull; harvest wave after wave of immigrants' dreams and send the wised-up dreamers on their vary; plow the topsoil until it blows to the ocean; ship out the wheat, ship out the cattle; dig up the earth itself and burn it in power plants and send the power down the line; dismiss the small farmers, empty the little towns; dry up the rivers and springs, deep-drill for irrigation water as the aquifer retreats....

The Bison Heritage

When historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared in 1893 that settlement from sea to shining sea had closed the American frontier, only a few hundred bison remained, almost all in vestigial herds maintained by a handful of preservationists. There were some in Texas, a few in Montana, some that poachers missed in Yellowstone, a few dozen in (remarkably) the Bronx Zoo. By the 1920s, most Americans believed that the bison had vanish entirely, along with the Indians--both remembered only by their presence on the nickel coin. Nonetheless, during the latter decades of the twentieth century a sustained recovery program, with both private and public support, has had great success. In 1995, there were some 200,000 of these impressive animals in the United States and Canada, and their number is growing rapidly. The species is no longer endangered. Bison are steadily gaining new friends among the public at large, among wildlife biologists, among conservation organization, among Indian tribes (including some with no historical connection to bison), even among politicians. The greatest of American animals is coming back.

But bison restoration on a significant scale will not be easy. Bison are wild, freedom-loving beasts. These weighty symbolic virtues also pose difficult problems--conceptual and practical, economic and political, cultural and ecological. Indeed, if we are to let bison be bison, we will have to modify some of our current ways of being human. These changes will benefit us as well as bison, but they will be profound.