|Henderson, Norman. Rediscovering the Great Plains: Journeys by Dog, Canoe, and
Horse. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. $29.95. ISBN 080186688X.
Johnsgard, Paul A. The Nature of Nebraska: Ecology and Biodiversity. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2001. $29.95. ISBN 0803225962.
The two books reviewed here have several things in common. First, they are about the Great Plains, or rather portions of that remarkable grasslands region of North America that stretches from Texas well into Canada. Second, they focus primarily on natural history, but recognize humankind’s impact on the environment. Third, they both feature wonderful line drawings of the region’s flora, fauna, and landscapes. Lastly, both books focus on environments that were once traversed by explorers, then settled, and now are pretty much taken for granted.
Norman Henderson’s Rediscovering the Great Plains has the more ambitious title. In it, however, Henderson sets out to explore one fairly small portion of a huge region, notably, the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan. In the process of exploring this part of the Northern Plains, Henderson rediscovers the subtle beauty and rich complexity of the varied habitats that comprise the environment here, including the riparian corridors that slice through the sweeping grassland. Like many who have written about this region, Henderson reminds us that the word “plains” is something of a misnomer; there is considerable rolling relief to much of the landscape, and its rivers and streams meander through it like arteries. Henderson’s journey is enriched by the numerous modes of transportation that he used—dog-pulled travois, canoe, and horse. Perceptive readers will immediately grasp the significance of these modes of travel, for they were used by early explorers who traversed the region several hundred years ago. Some of Henderson’s experiences were humorous, others nearly disastrous; all deeply reveal how tenuous humankind’s hold is on this fascinating area. Rich in detailed description and philosophical insight, Rediscovering the Great Plains makes wonderful reading. This is the kind of book one savors. Henderson’s vivid text is complemented by Robert Cox’s wonderful line drawings of the sights and events that the author experienced. In both rendering and placement, Cox’s drawings give this book a retro feel somewhat reminiscent of late nineteenth-century adventure novels.
The second book is more scientific in nature but still very approachable. As suggested by its title, The Nature of Nebraska focuses on the natural history of one state. In it, Paul Johnsgard reveals Nebraska’s ecological richness and surprising geographic variety. This book offers a prescription for those who speed through Nebraska without pausing: Slow down, look more carefully, and you will experience a world you never knew existed. Johnsgard helps readers do this by carefully piecing together the state’s complex natural history. Geology, climate, drainage, soils, flora, fauna—all fit together in a fascinating mosaic. Johnsgard covers the state’s varied habitats and eco-regions, including the prairie, sandhills, riparian corridors, and deciduous and coniferous forests. One chapter addresses Nebraska’s vanishing habitats. Johnsgard knows his subject intimately. And his descriptive writing is further enhanced by his many excellent line drawings. In an age where scientist and artist frequently travel in separate circles, it is wonderful to encounter an author who can also draw his/her own natural history illustrations. In retrospect, this book’s title is somewhat modest. Because Nebraska itself is such a wide, representative slice of the entire Central Great Plains, Johnsgard’s book is far more than simply a statewide inventory: rather, The Nature of Nebraska is destined to be regarded as the definitive natural history of the Central Plains. Although written from an ecologist’s perspective, this book can help modern-day students of exploration place early discoveries in context.
That is the rich irony of both of these books which have one more thing in common. Both are filled with astute observations that could only be achieved after centuries of observation; through them, we now more fully appreciate the environment encountered by early explorers. Both remind us that discovery is an ongoing process, and that important discoveries about places continue to be made in the present.
The University of Texas at Arlington