Date of this Version
Great Plains Research Vol. 21 No.1, 2011
The saving of bison occupies a central place in Nature's Ghosts, but Mark Barrow's chronicle extends over a century both before and after. The story starts with Thomas Jefferson and fossils that came to be recognized as mastodons, mammoths, and giant ground sloths. "Jefferson and most of his contemporaries were certain that the natural world was orderly, static, and new." In such a worldview, extinction was unthinkable. Fossil evidence plus the historical extinctions of dodos, moas, and great auks forced reconsideration.
This book ranges across centuries and continents, and only a few parts of it are explicitly about the Great Plains. Nonetheless, it contains valuable lessons for anyone concerned with extinction in the Great Plains and elsewhere. First, the book is a tour de force with nuggets for everyone (e.g., slaves were the first to recognize that teeth dug up in South Carolina resembled those from elephants). Second, the long perspective frames the tasks of the present to be both daunting and doable. The book is full of tales of persistence by both endangered species and dogged individuals. The short view remembers that the Endangered Species Act passed by overwhelming margins in 1973. The book extends our perspective back through two weaker previous Acts and the many occasions of failing to act. Confronting extinction has never been easy, and we should not expect it to become any easier soon.