Our Little House in an Unpredictable Habitat

When I taught ecology to biology majors and minors I would occasionally include a question on the final exam something like this:  Describe two ways in which the study of ecology could save your life.

I was happy to accept answers at any level of the environment from “If I don’t build my house in chaparral I won’t get burnt up in the next chaparral fire.” to “I’ll cut down on energy usage, hence CO2 emissions, and I and the rest of us won’t get drowned when we’re living in Miami, Charleston, or Wilmington and the sea level rises.”

Some students got it, but a few didn’t.  For the latter, perhaps ecology was simply a required course, as remote from real life as a class in theatrical costumes of the 17th century.

Just out is an interesting article by two who get it, Jim Armstrong, a poet, and Kim Chapman, an old friend and former student.  Both got a lot of their schooling in Kalamazoo.  The article is called What Laura Saw: Making a Little Home on the Extreme Great Plains. The article is about the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder but puts it in an ecological context.  Ecology turns out to set the social and economic contexts of the Ingalls’ lives also.

The article appears in the recently published Proceedings of the 21st North American Prairie Conference. The conference was at Winona State University in Minnesota in August 2008.

Western Michigan University was host in 1982 to the Eighth Prairie Conference. Kim Chapman, then a graduate student, served as field trip coordinator, poetry contest chairman, and co-designer of the logo.  He was also finishing up his master’s thesis.

What Laura saw around her little house, in Armstrong and Chapman’s words, was “a highly evolved environment, where several thousand years of drought, fire, hail, harsh winters, and intense grazing by ungulates and locusts shaped a responsiveness in plant and animal life that enabled the whole of the environment to persist even as individuals and species disappeared or shifted in abundance and location. That environment was beautiful and hostile by turns and Laura described this in memorable detail.”

The bison and the grasshoppers (the Rocky Mountain locust) were members of this ecosystem.  The locust is now extinct and the bison no longer around as a free-roaming species.  Still extant because they don’t infringe much on human property rights or economics are most of the bird species whose life histories fit them for flourishing in the years of good rainfall and good growth and pretty much moving out in the droughts.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird is an example that I talked about a few months ago.

“The argument threaded through all the books,” Armstrong and Chapman point out, “is that an independent-minded family, pulling together and with a little help from neighbors, could make a living on the Great Plains by their enterprise and hard labor.  As the books progress, however, the reader understands that Pa [Charles P. Ingalls] was not able to realize that dream for his family.  This tension is what makes the books readable today.”

By 1894, Laura and her husband, Almanzo,  had moved to “the well-watered Missouri Ozarks where they lived for the rest of their lives.”  And where Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, worked on the Little House books starting in 1930.

The books promote individualism, hard work, and self-sufficiency.  These are admirable traits, but were not enough in themselves to bring success in the unpredictable habitat of the Great Plains.  Even here in the “well-watered” eastern U.S. and, in fact, in the world as whole, we now live in an environment  characterized by unpredictability–largely brought on by our own actions.  Other virtues, especially an attention to the whole ecosystem, human, biotic, and abiotic, will have to be added if success is to be ours.

Copies of the Proceedings, which have a lot of other prairie articles besides this one, are available in 2 formats: CD, $ 8.00 per copy or hard copy, $29.50 per copy. The combination CD and hard copy are $35.00.  All prices include mailing.  Make your check out and send to Bruno Borsari, Ph.D., Department of Biology, 175 West Mark Street, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987    Phone (507) 457-2822.