Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



The Changing Prairie: North American Grasslands (A. Joern & K. H. Keeler, editors).


Copyright 1995, Oxford University Press. Used by permission.


Preserving remaining North American grasslands requires a multiability approach. In this book, we investigate three aspects of an admittedly larger problem: (1) how we as humans perceive grasslands; (2) the ecology of grasslands, in order to define the framework within which conservation and preservation efforts must operate; and (3) conservation issues. Additional sociological, economic, philosophical, and cultural considerations will provide important additional insights to preserving and managing grasslands, but are not included here. By restricting our focus to only three issues, we feel that we can provide a basic, but appropriate, understanding of grassland ecosystems for the prairie enthusiast. This provides an essential framework required for what we perceive to be necessary quick action.


As humans, we are trapped by our own perceptions and experience of the world, and we act within these constraints. Our first concern in this book is to highlight this issue. We are not in a position to exploit such insights fully and then offer prescriptions for identifying the best approach to describe natural landscapes. However, we feel that it is important that both professionals and lay students think about this problem. These issues are not new. Language is now known to be more than just a vehicle for communication. Our choice of words and metaphors for describing things develops an atmosphere surrounding our subject that limits our intellectual opportunities to investigate the object (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Hayakawa and Hayakawa 1990). Language often shapes our thinking modes as well as constrains the prescriptions that we offer to solve a problem. In the present context, for example, the phrase “balance of nature” provides a very different investigative framework for grassland study than does “struggle for existence” even though both are routinely used and accurate—even complementary in their own way.

Written impressions of grasslands obtained from well-crafted novels by Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, or the children’s writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, each written from a pioneer’s perspective, suggest that pioneers and settlers brought order (often through agriculture) to an otherwise unruly natural enterprise. Of course, this is just another view of order. Similarly, others have argued that religious, political, and moral backgrounds shape the metaphors and models that we construct to describe natural systems and hence subsequent research. These cultural and psychological issues clearly direct our actions toward appreciating and conserving native grasslands.