North America’s Sea of Grass

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The Great Plains are a vast expanse of grasslands, stretching from Texas north to Canada. Here are two invaluable reference books that form the heart & soul of the Land Library’s prairie collection.

Recently published, the Atlas of the Great Plains (by Stephen J. Lavin, Fred M. Shelley, & J. Clark Archer) includes over three hundred original full-color maps, accompanied by the authors’ insightful commentary. This atlas explores all aspects of our great North American grasslands, including Native American history, modern settlement patterns, ecological regions, agricultural trends, and much more.

Published in 2004, the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains(edited by David J. Wishart) has already risen to the level of a classic reference work. This thick tome contains over 1,300 entries stretched over 940 pages, with illustrations and photographs throughout.

Both books point to the rich natural and cultural history of the Plains. Clearly, North America’s midcontinent is much, much more than flyover country!

Scanning our new arrival shelf of prairie books, we were struck by how many titles found their inspiration from the flowing grasslands of the Canadian Prairie. Books such as these:

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Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds by Trevor Herriot, River in a Dry Land: A Prairie Passage (an earlier book by Trevor Herriot, and the winner of the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award), and Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir from poet Lorna Crozier — full of landscape, family, and stories centered around Crozier’s childhood in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

And here’s two older books, both born north of the border:

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Prairie: A Natural History by Canadian naturalist Candace Savage, and Wallace Stegner’s classic childhood memoir Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (an absolute favorite of the Land Library’s Book Club!).

Last year, the Land Library published a series of posts on the prairie. Here’s a quick look:

Prairie Voices: Red Cloud and Beyond

The People of the Prairie

The Natural History of the Plains

Fleece, Fiber, and Good Stories Too

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Natural fibers are part of our culture, our heritage. They have a living breathing animal (or a growing plant) behind them. They often have small-scale farmers or indigenous communities behind them, too — people and cultures whose livelihoods and historic identities can be supported by their continuing work with these fibers.” — from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook

OK, it’s official — we love this book! The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More Than 200 Fibers from Animal to Spun Yarn, by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, is a wonderful blend of history, craft and science. Robson & Ekarius span the globe in their quest for natural fibers — and the stories behind them. Among the more than 200 animals described are sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, vicunas, camels, bison, musk oxen, yaks, and more. Each featured breed is accompanied by up-close photos of their fleece, fiber & yarn, along with helpful tips on dyeing, fiber preparation, and spinning and weaving particulars.

Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius had this to say about their uniquely valuable book: “…our goal is to look at animal fibers in a way that hasn’t been done before. We are looking in more depth…at the animals that have provided handspinners, knitters and weavers with the foundation of their craft and artistry for thousands of years. You won’t find patterns in this book, but we hope you will learn a great deal about the wool and hair fibers that have clothed and served us for generation upon generation, back to the first person who picked a fluff of wild sheep fibers out of a bush and twisted them together.

You’ll learn so much, with each page you turn!

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A Winter Transformed: “Musk oxen grow several types of fiber, one of which is the animal’s famous underdown, also known as qiviut of qiviuq (as well as a few other spellings). Qiviut deserves its legendary status. This rare fiber has not been readily available for spinning or in yarn form until recently, but now qiviut is making its way into our consciousness (ooh!) and then, if we’re lucky, into our hands (aaah!)….Qiviut’s exceptional combination of fineness, softness, lightness, and warmth make it a delight to work with and wear….About half an ounce of qiviut in the form of a neck warmer — a tiny amount! — transformed our experience of winter.” — from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook

As many of you know, the future home of the Land Library will be at a historic ranch, set in the high mountain grasslands of South Park, Colorado. Buffalo Peaks Ranch has a rich history, including a tradition of sheep ranching. Recently, the Land Library received an extremely thoughtful donation of a fully-equipped weaving studio, which will allow us to hold workshops on a craft strongly in tune with the heritage of South Park. And, of course, we’ll have lots of books to call on for inspiration and advice — books such as these!

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The Natural Knitter: How to Choose, Use, and Knit Natural Fibers from Alpaca to Yak by Barbara Albright, and Sheer Spirit: Ten Fiber Farms, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn by Joan Tapper, with fun & perceptive profiles of farms & ranches from Maine to Oregon.

And, here’s one of our all-time favorite volumes among our books on sheep!

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Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook: In 1972, when the packing and crating for a major exhibition made it impossible for Henry Moore to work in his sculpture studio, he retreated to a small shed that looked out on a sheep meadow. Over the course of several months, Moore captured the scene out his window, and upon completion of his Sheep Sketchbook, it was presented as a gift to the artist’s daughter, Mary.

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Only Connect

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The Spine of the Continent initiative is about protecting big cores of abundant nature, keeping them populated with carnivores, and connecting them to one another so that wildlife can trek from one to the next.” — Mary Ellen Hannibal

How does one connect a landscape that has fragmented? As Mary Ellen Hannibal writes in her new book The Spine of the Continent, “Nature doesn’t work without connection, The web of life depends on a continuous flow of interaction within which to renew itself. Cities, highways, and agriculture have made islands out of even our largest wilderness areas. The solution is ‘large landscape connectivity,’ on an enormous scale: thus the Spine of the Continent. E.O. Wilson calls it the most important conservation initiative in the world today. The Spine seeks to link protected landscapes along 5,000 miles of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to Mexico.

Mary Ellen Hannibal travels the length of the Spine, meeting with many of the people and organizations passionately connecting a fragmented land. Each link presents its own special challenge:

For a salamander in Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada, connectivity is a couple of concrete underpasses that allow him to migrate across the road during mating season without getting squashed by traffic. For a grizzly bear in the northern Rockies, connectivity means huge protected areas across mountain ranges. For a wolf, one of the most highly contested denizens of nature, connectivity means legislative protection across state boundaries.

Here’s two earlier books from the Land Library’s shelves on the importance of biologic byways:

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Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, Dave Foreman’s call for wildland networks instead of isolated protected areas, and, the subject of one of the Rocky Mountain Land Series all-time favorite events: Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, photographer Florian Schulz’s vivid look at a crucial link in the Spine of the Continent chain.

And take a moment to get inspired about one of North America’s most unique landscapes, as captured by the lens of Florian Schulz:

For more on the Spine of the Continent Initiative, be sure to visit their very helpful website!

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Finally, the Spine of the Continent is about connecting landscapes, ecosystems, creatures, and people. It is about connecting our hearts and our heads to honor and protect this most magnificent habitat, the culmination of millions of years of evolution, where every piece has a part to play in what is originally known as Earth, the place we call home.” — Mary Ellen Hannibal

Vital to the Spine of the Continent initiative is the ancient migratory route of the pronghorn, the subject of one of our earlier posts:

–Pronghorn Passage

Learning As You Go

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Travel season is upon us, and if your itinerary includes the world’s first national park, the Land Library strongly recommends the University of California Press’ massive new Atlas of Yellowstone. With over 250 pages of maps, graphs, and supportive text, this atlas covers a wide range of topics, including Native American history, rivers, wildlife, settlement history, geothermal activity, fire — and, last but not least, the supervolcano that underlies it all:

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The Path of the Yellowstone Hot Spot: one of many well-executed cartographic images from the Atlas of Yellowstone.

Wherever you may travel, remember this: travel light, but always bring books! Here’s a few more excellent travel companions from the Land Library’s shelves:

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Geology Underfoot in Yellowstone Country by Marc S. Hendrix — from geysers and volcanics to glacier-sculpted peaks, this is an excellent guide to one of our most geologically important national parks. And for an excellent introduction to Yellowstone’s history, George Black has written a massive new book, Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone.

And there’s plenty of fun books you can add to any young adventurer’s bulging backpack:

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The Wolves are Back by Jean Craighead George, with paintings by Wendell Minor, a beautifully done picture book on the wolf’s reintroduction to Yellowstone — an excellent lesson on how the presence of one animal can profoundly effect an entire ecosystem. Also pictured above: Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge. Artist Thomas Moran was a member of the 1871 Hayden Survey. His paintings helped persuade Congress to declare Yellowstone a National Park the very next year.

Yellowstone’s ability to inspire remains strong. Park Ranger Shelton Johnson was featured in one of our past posts, and his words still move us deeply:

The Relationship We Have with the Land

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The destinies of communities over similar shale gas reserves — in Alabama, Louisiana, Wyoming, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, and other places — are linked to the Marcellus region by local geology and global energy concerns. In all these shale gas regions, the relationships people have with the land, and with their neighbors, are as complicated and multidimensional as the topographical and geological terrain. Here, too, there are cracks. They are created by forces that sometimes pull in opposite directions, at other times collide with great force, and often are buried from view.” — Tom Wilber, Under the Surface

The story is complex, and in no way easy. What you have, in pockets across the country, is a natural gas reserve trapped in rock, that if released, might meet our domestic demands for decades. Along comes an extraction technology, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), that involves injecting drill holes with a mix of water, sand, and chemicals under pressure great enough to split rock and free the gas within (described in a short film clip below).

That frames what has become a fierce debate about the safety and advisability of fracking. Will it contaminate the underground aquifers? What about the surface waste, and the close proximity of drill rigs to people’s homes? Fracking has quickly become a debate over energy, climate change, health, water, jobs, and the economy.

At this time, we know of two books on this multifaceted issue, but there will be many more. The latest is Tom Wilber’s Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale.

The Marcellus Formation underlies significant parts of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State. Its gas-rich shale has spurred a modern day “gold rush”, and that’s the tale Tom Wilber tells through the voices of gas company representatives, local residents, farmers, politicians, and government workers. Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA Office of Civil Enforcement had this to say about Under the Surface:

“Tom Wilber’s thoughtful review of the Gold Rush mentality that drives the fracking industry should give pause to those who think cheap natural gas is the answer to our energy problem. Under the Surface makes sure we hear from those who support development of the Marcellus Shale formation, as well as the skeptics.”

And here’s an earlier book, also focused on the Marcellus Shale:

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The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw (“This is an environmental tale on the surface, yet something more powerful lurks beneath the soil of this wonderful book. Seamus McGraw is really writing about the enduring complexities and contradictions of the United States. He goes beyond the easy stereotypes of greedy promoters preying on farmers and gives us the unvarnished truth about a twenty-first century energy rush in a place we never expected it.” — Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium). Also pictured above: Sandra Steingraber has written several books on the environmental hazards of everyday life. Her most recent, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, includes an examination of the health concerns surrounding hydraulic fracturing.

Whether you live above the Marcellus Shale, or along the Rocky Mountain Front, fracking and our entire energy future will remain a critical issue for years to come. The Land Library hopes to keep current with all the information that we’ll need!
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A drilling rig in Meshoppen, Pennsylvania. Once a rig is in place, the work of gas extraction goes on around the clock. — from Seamus McGraw’s The End of Country.

A Long and Sympathetic Search: Maynard Dixon and the West

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From 1900 to his death in 1946, Maynard Dixon roamed the American West’s plains, mesas, and deserts — by foot, horseback, buckboard, and ultimately, the dreaded automobile — drawing, painting, and expressing his creative personality in poems, essays, and letters in a quest to uncover the region’s spirit.” — Donald J. Hagerty, The Life of Maynard Dixon

Early on, Maynard Dixon and the American West became inexorably linked. In 1901 he joined fellow artist Edward Borein on a rugged horseback trip through several Western states. What he saw changed his life, and can still be traced in the many paintings, sketches and illustrations that would follow.

Donald Hagerty has captured the remarkable life and work of Maynard Dixon in two recent books. The Art of Maynard Dixon is a large-format monograph, and the next best thing to viewing Dixon’s work in galleries across the country. As much as we love this hefty book, our favorite is Hagerty’s The Life of Maynard Dixon — an illuminating biography that is also one of the most brilliantly designed books we’ve seen in many years. Color images of Dixon’s paintings and illustrations accompany nearly every page of this incredibly rich biography.

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The Life of Maynard Dixon is also full of black & white photos from Dixon’s life — here’s Dixon with his wife Edith Hamlin, a noted San Francisco muralist.

Hagerty also documents the more commercial work Dixon undertook. Dixon’s illustrations were featured in several magazines such as Sunset, Scribners, Colliers, Century Magazine, and McClures. To make ends meet he also crafted billboard images such as The Apache Trail via the Southern Pacific, 1917 (pictured above).

It’s a great joy to see the full range of Dixon’s work preserved in Donald Hagerty’s books!

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This is the land of mesas, laid down in layers of colored sandstone, red, yellow, pink, and creamy white; carved and hollowed by the recession of forgotten seas; their sides often sheer, or broken into strange isolated slabs, turrets, buttes — the blind blunt architecture of a pre-human world.Maynard Dixon

Here’s a short film clip, where you’ll have the chance to meet Donald Hagerty and learn more about the life and work of Maynard Dixon:

My object has always been to get close to the real nature of my subject as possible — people, animals and country. The melodramatic Wild West idea is not for me the big possibility. The nobler and more lasting qualities are in the quiet and most broadly human aspects of western life. I aim to interpret, for the most part, the poetry and pathos of the life of western people, seen amid the grandeur, sternness and loneliness of their country.Maynard Dixon

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White Buttes, Utah, 1944

Through long and sympathetic searching, he learned how the almost imperceptible contours of flat plains rise and fall as they flow toward the horizon and how the architecture of mesas and buttes marches rhythmically over the landscape, swelled with the freedom of a deep blue sky.Donald J. Hagerty, The Life of Maynard Dixon

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Open Range, 1942

I do not paint Indians or cowboys merely because they are picturesque subjects, but because through them I can express that phantasy of freedom of space and thought, which will give the world a sentiment about these people which is inspiring and uplifting.Maynard Dixon

Riding on the Chill Mountain Air

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You can feel a definite chill in the air now, and for the past few weeks, Rocky Mountain meadows have been filling with elk in rut, as the mating season reaches high hormonal gear. Part of the bull elk’s strategy is to impress the females with their high-pitched bugle call. Bugling is most common early in the morning, and late in the day. No description can match the other-worldly sound itself:

For much more on elk, the Land Library strongly recommends the Smithsonian Institution Press’ North American Elk: Ecology and Management (pictured at the top of this post) — a 1,000 page tome on all-things-elk.

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David Petersen, an author and naturalist from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, has written a very insightful homage to North America’s elk (also called wapiti): Elkheart: A Personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World. And no elk-shelf would be complete without Olaus Murie’s classic study, The Elk Of North America. In 1927, Murie, a field biologist for the old U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, undertook the first study of elk in the wilderness of Wyoming’s Teton Mountains.

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In 1966, Olaus, and his wife Margaret (Mardy) published a surprise best-seller, Wapiti Wilderness, which describes their adventure-filled years of living in the Tetons, studying elk, and forever remembering distant bugle calls on the frosty autumn air.

Intricate Chains of Connection

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“In the late 1980’s, a series of bark beetle plagues exploded across the West with locust-like ferocity. The beetles, mostly Dendroctonus ponderosae and Dendroctonus rufipennis, attacked conifers in swarms so large that they appeared on local airport radars to be rainstorms. Some beetle flights caught updrafts and crossed the Rocky Mountains, traveling distances of over 175 miles. What some called the ‘Katrina of the West’ attacked mature forest and young plantation trees until there was nothing left for the bark borers to eat. By 2010, the insect had girdled and killed more than 30 billion lodgepole, pinyon, ponderosa, and whitebark pines, as well as White Spruce and Engelmann Spruce. Human loggers destroyed almost as many in a vain attempt to stop the invasion.” — from Empire of the Beetle

An insect the size of a match-head has killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico. Its likely co-conspirators? Science points to a hundred years of fire suppression, and the advance of global warming as the chief culprits.

At long last, we have a comprehensive study of the great change sweeping across the West — Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests. Nikiforuk provides a fascinating natural history of the bark beetle, along with the un-natural history of our western forests today. That tragic combination can be seen in countless dying stands of flaming red trees across the Rockies.

At one point in Empire of the Beetle, Andrew Nikiforuk offers this unexpected and very telling quote:

You get tragedy when the tree, instead of bending, breaks.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And here’s the first children’s book we’ve seen on the bark beetle epidemic, now housed at our Kids Nature Library in Waterton Canyon:

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The Mountain Pine Beetle: Tiny But Mighty by Kay Turnbaugh & David Brooks — this book is full of up-close photos of what the beetles naturally do.

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There is no human being who is not directly or indirectly influenced by animal populations, although intricate chains of connection often obscure the fact.” — Charles Elton, from his classic book Animal Ecology

Chasing Water in the Arid West

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In the two years it took to complete this book, I flew the length of the Colorado River nearly twice with a wonderful collection of pilots ranging from my father and friends to a U.S. border patrol officer, a crop duster, a retired civil engineer, and a large-animal veterinarian. Whether we flew at 200 feet (my favorite elevation) or 2,000 above the river, the perspective of our mighty and ancient western river was always spectacular, awe-inspiring, and humbling.” — Peter McBride

The Colorado is the great life-giving river of the American West. It provides vital water to more than 30 million people living in our arid southwest. It is also one of the most dammed, diverted, and heavily litigated rivers in the world.

Photographer Peter McBride has produced a stunning and disturbing new look at the great river, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict. McBride (and author Jonathan Waterman) follow the river’s epic 1,450-mile journey from its headwaters high in the Colorado Rockies to its dried-up delta touching the Sea of Cortez. McBride and Waterman document both great beauty and incredible environmental abuse along the way. This is a terrific book if you want an up-to-date report on the Colorado River — it does justice to the majesty of one of the world’s great rivers.

Keep this book handy in the next year ahead! As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Rocky Mountain Land Library is one of several organizations that have joined together to celebrate our most precious natural resource. Water 2012 is still in its planning stages, but the next year will see a statewide collaborative effort to promote awareness of the history, use, protection, and stewardship of Colorado’s water. Stay tuned (and for more on Pete McBride’s wonderful book, please treat yourself to aerial images galore, in the inspiring film attached below!).

And here’s a few more classic Colorado River books from the Land Library’s shelves!

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Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River by Jonathan Waterman (author of many books in our collection, and Pete McBride’s river companion), Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems by Robert W. Adler.

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Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West by Norris Hundley, Jr., Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West by James Lawrence Powell

For more on Pete McBride, be sure to visit his website, and please, take a look at this film — as visually engaging as the book!

And here’s a link to our earlier post:

Water 2012 & Beyond

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of the planet.” — Carl Sagan