Continuing with our recent discussions on books about the Great Plains, not long ago I ran across a neat little book called Island of Grass by Ellen Wohl. She is a professor of geology at Colorado State University and an author of several books. She lives in Fort Collins and writes in this book of the Cathy Fromme Prairie, a small sanctuary of native grasses amid the swelling ranks of suburban “McMansions” that occupy the outskirts of many of Colorado’s Front Range communities.
The title refers to the fact that the Great Plains, as well as the tall-grass regions further to the east were often referred to as an “ocean of grass”, or a “sea of grass.” Today, after a century and a half of plowing and other manifestations of the current civilization, the “sea of grass” has been reduced to small patches here and there, which have been preserved through various means as a way of recognizing what once existed in a much larger context. These places Wohl collectively refers to as “islands of grass.” To get a better sense of what the former “sea of grass” is all about, I take the following excerpt from the book:
What Americans now sometimes call the breadbasket was a province of grasses: 46,000 square miles in the state of Iowa alone, and 40 percent of the continental United States, dominated by grasses. This was the landscape the first people of European descent to reach the center of the continent described as a sea of grass. One of the earliest written descriptions of the central Great Plains comes from Edwin James of the Long Expedition, who wrote while crossing the plains east of Council Bluffs, Iowa, in May 1820:
“For a few days the weather had been fine, with cool breezes and broken, flying clouds. The shadows of these, coursing rapidly over the plain, seemed to put the whole in motion, and we appeared to ourselves as if riding on the unquiet billows of the ocean.”
It must have been quite a sight!