Lecture 2: The Wild Land


The second lecture takes up the physical geography of the Great Plains. This is not merely prologue: the Great Plains environment holds agency in the story of life on the plains. It should not be considered just the setting of historical action. Much of the history of the Great Plains, rather, is concerned with human interaction with nature.


Outline of Lecture

Introduction: Cather and Nature

Defining the Great Plains

A region, such as the Great Plains of North American, commonly is defined according to two sets of criteria—physiographic and cultural. Only after deciding what the plains are can we decide where they are. In the end, as with so many matters in the Great Plains experience, the definitions and delineations become matters of judgment.

Footprints of Fenneman

Geology and climate are the physical basis for definition of the region.  The physical landforms of the plains, in their diversity and grandeur, belie the popular stereotype of monotony. The continental climate varies from one subregion to another but is rigorous throughout. We begin the exploration of the geology and climate of the plains following American intellectual patterns, the footprints of geographer Nevin Fenneman.

The Canadian Prairies

Whereas Americans commonly begin their examination of the physical geography of the plains with the High Plains, Canadians commonly begin theirs with no reference to points south. The Canadian perception of prairie geography moves east to west, proceeding from the Red to the Rockies, from the First Prairie Plain to the Second and to the Third. With care we can stitch together Canadian and American perceptions of the common geography.

Travel on the Gravel: Living with Nature on the Plains

The Climate of the Great Plains

There are certain great commonalities in the climate of the Great Plains from Texas to Saskatchewan—continental climate and the rain shadow of the Rockies. There also are many subregional variations of climate, many of which trend along east-west or north-south lines.

Plants and Animals

The plants and animals also exhibit great variations both of species and of ecosystems. In the end, though, after sorting through the richness and diversity of Great Plains wildlife, we should remember the essential commonalities of flora and fauna that lead naturalists to regard the Great Plains as a place of regional integrity.

Epilogue: Home on the Range




Check out these web pages that I have posted.

         Plains Folk Map of the Great Plains

         Physiographic Provinces of the Plains


Also have a look at these bison links—since Webb says, "The buffalo is, or was, the most important of the Plains animals."

         Bison Central

         Center for Bison Studies

         Inter Tribal Buffalo Council


Thinking About the Great Plains

Albertson, F. W. “Man’s Disorder of Nature’s Design in the Great Plains,” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 52 (June 1949): 117-131.

Lynch, John. "Escape from Mediocrity," unpublished paper, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1951.

The Great Plains at the Grassroots

William T. Hornaday letter to G. Brown Goode re preservation of the bison, 1887

Henry Kelsey’s Inland Country of Good Report, 1690

Selected Bibliography

Cather, My Antonia or O Pioneers!—the greatest novels ever to come from the Great Plains, by the author whose sense of nature is the starting point for the lecture

Fenneman, Physiography of Western United States—a basic source on Great Plains physical geography

Fleharty, Wild Animals and People on the Great Plains—fascinating depiction of human interaction with nature at the grassroots

Flores, The Natural West—approaching the state of the art for environmental history on the plains


No recommendations specific to the lecture


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