Today marks Zach and I’s first week on the road. We left from New Hampshire last Wednesday night and drove twenty hours straight to Minnesota so I could make a college visit. We then had to stay in Minneapolis another few days as I made another college visit out in California. Hence, it all really began yesterday, when Zach and I drove from Minneapolis to the Black Hills of South Dakota, a scenic nine-hour drive. On our way, we drove through Badlands National Park, and although the park gets its name from the Lakota, who called it mako sica, meaning “Bad lands” due to the difficult terrain, I thought the park was quite spectacular.
The landscape contrasts vast sprawling prairie on one side and hundreds of stripped orange and khaki buttes on the other. I think Frank Lloyd Wright, a renown architect, gave an accurate description in 1935, saying, “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands… What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere—a distant architecture, ethereal… , an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” Lloyd captures the beauty, but he also gets at the ancient past of Badlands. 75 million years ago, Badlands and the entire Great Plains were the bottom of an ocean which is why fossils can be found throughout the layers of sediment. However, what strikes me the most is the relatively recent history of the land.
Zach and I both have our books– he is reading the lengthy classic The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and I by chance am reading Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, by Dan O’Brien. I arbitrarily downloaded the book after seeing it in a Patagonia store, but it actually talks a lot about the very hills I’m writing this post from. O’Brien owns a ranch in the Black Hills, and unlike many other ranchers, is interested in the restoration of the land. From personal experience, he points out that although American culture has fostered a romanticized life on the plains with cows, open fields, and agriculture, the farming and cows that were introduced during homesteading are actually playing a major role in destroying these precious plains. He goes on to say that though cows seem fitting to the Great Plains in our eyes, they originated in Europe, whereas Bison are America’s true grazing animal, having evolved with the land itself and creating a symbiotic relationship. Sadly, agriculture and plowing destroyed the top soil causing major erosion, and the introduction of cows forced the creation of stock dams which expanded grazing areas thus taking away more wildlife habitat. Most potent of all though, is the degrading effects of overgrazing which is forced on ranchers by the economical struggles of making a living on the Great Plains. Of course, the book goes into greater detail and also shares anecdotes of ranch life, but what I most like is how the book is truly about a single person, a single grass root activist, making the effort he can to rectify the past and look to a brighter future.
A similar story holds true with Badlands National Park, when conservationist, and Senator of South Dakota during the 20s and 30s, Peter Norbeck, fought successfully for the creation of Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Grand Teton National Park, and Custer State Park. Although, he had much more pull than O’Brien, he still dedicated his career to preserving American lands as is clear when he said, “I would rather be remembered as an artist, than as a United States Senator.” He felt himself an artist in planning Mount Rushmore, and the intricate Needles Highway in Custer State park that, driving today, took me back to winding through the Italian Dolomites (minus vomiting from car sickness).
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that while it can seem daunting or impossible to make an impact on your own, just trying can make all difference whether it’s in the way you buy and run your own life like O’Brien, or dedicating your career to it like Norbeck.
You can start now by challenging President Trump’s move yesterday to have national monuments created over the past 21 years reviewed for possible scaling down or dissolving, in order to give control back to the people. Although, possibly sounding good, O’Brien’s story of the homesteaders’ destruction of the land should go to show what can happen when economical pressures or greed can override caring for our lands. Explore the links below to learn more and take action!