I grew up in Nebraska where the prairie was central to our identity. Although strange to me now, we saw the highest purpose of those prairies as something to be plowed up and planted. I did not realize that those prairies, and their carbon-catching, water-holding soils, were actually made by the symbiotic relationship between their grasses and the bison that roamed them.
Now I live on the Texas gulf coast where, up until recently, I was equally ignorant of its past. Then one day, an archeological site dating back roughly 11,000 years was discovered in the process of building a major freeway near my home. An excavation revealed that the site had been in continuous use for millennia by a people hunting and thriving on this coastal prairie ecosystem. In the end, the site was capped over with concrete out of respect for the indigenous peoples buried there, and today the freeway traffic just buzzes along above it with few people understanding the heritage below.
Lonely American Bison and the Colorado Prairie. United States of America. American Buffalo.
Years later, an old friend wrote a book about the history of the people in this coastal Texas ecosystem synthesizing decades of archeological and geological knowledge. It turned out that that seemingly special site from the freeway project was just one of hundreds in the region that formed a distinct pattern.
For at least 11,000 years, indigenous peoples worked with the natural landscapes of this region to feed and clothe their communities in synchrony with annual animal migrations. For at least 11,000 years, each fall, at this very time of year, the bison would sweep down from the northern plains, and funnel into the coastal prairie for the winter. And for those 11,000 years, the indigenous peoples would sweep the bison into the confluence of creeks and bayous where the bison became trapped in the creek beds, and where hunters on downstream banks would complete the hunting task.
Image: Map from “A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas” by Dan Worrall.
The rest of the community set up hunting villages behind the final row of hunters, and would process the harvest right there, of course putting every bit of the animal to use. It was these communities that formed the residual archeological pattern across the region.
As it turned out, I had been living in the middle of these sites for most of my adult life but had no idea they were even there! One of the largest sites was just off the side of the road I took to work every day. That site now sits right behind a man-made dam at the intersection of a creek and Houston’s main Buffalo Bayou – it’s heritage right there in the name. Just four years ago, this dam was, perhaps fatefully, the site of a no-win after midnight decision during Hurricane Harvey to open the floodgates and sacrifice a large number of homes in order to avert it’s otherwise likely total collapse.
So here’s the thing: another people, the Atakapa, lived here on this land in harmony with their natural world for 600 generations. It took us just 6 generations to break it. First, we plowed up these prairies, and later we built freeways and subdivisions upon them. Now when it rains, it doesn’t soak in, it floods our living rooms. So far, our primary response is to build more and bigger levees.
In my view, the key difference between the people here before us and now is that the before-people lived with the natural ecosystem, and us now-people have come to just live on it. From my perspective, this broken relationship with the land and ecosystem around us is the direct consequence of a mindset that sees nature as something to be conquered and controlled in order to be put to productive use. In stark contrast, the before-people put the land to productive use by working with it, not conquering it.
Today, our food system is still built on the ideal that the highest and best use of a prairie is to plow it up and plant it. Even in the livestock industry, people believe a reason to graze land is when it can’t be plowed. In my opinion, that strategy is long-term suicide.
I believe we need to bury our suicidal mindset that our relationship with nature requires an either/or sacrifice of one for the other. Instead, we must rediscover that humanity is just part of the natural world where, in the long run, we both win or lose together.
I don’t know how to fix that mindset everywhere, but I do know how to fix that when grass and grazers are a natural part of the ancestral ecosystem. Both here and where I grew up, the deep, dark soils were created by the symbiotic relationship between lush and diverse prairies and the bison that roamed them. It’s time to restore that relationship between and grazers.
Image: Forecast map for bird migration on just one day last week from birdcast.info
It’s not lost on me that at this very time of year, when the great annual bison hunts would have been just beginning, the migrating birds still fly over my home, from the land of my birth, to points much further south for the winter. Right now is peak migration season where in times long past, the birds would have been flying over at the very time the bison were entering the ecosystem down below.
I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to celebrate that even as we’ve hurt her, nature is not lost, even today. I do hope we soon rediscover that the only viable way forward for people and planet is one in which we both prosper together.
Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO