From Sea to Desert to Today

Jan 26, 2017

The first day of spring.
Credit Karen Madorin, 2015

A fourteen-foot fossil fish Porteus molossus. Visible through the skeletal stomach is a six-foot Gillicus. This fossil pair was found in the Niobrara Cretaceous rocks in Gove County, Kansas. This specimen was collected by George F. Sternberg and is at Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum in Hays, Kansas.
Credit George F. Sternberg / Fort Hays State University Sternberg Museum

What an irony that a landscape geographers and surveyors titled The Great American Desert first existed as a series of shallow inland seas. Over several geologic periods, vast waters supported varied marine life, etched inlets and beaches, while dissolving and depositing sediment. A hike through the resulting rugged hills and canyons reveals fossils that confirm this. A view of derricks and pump jacks sucking  compressed ancient life to the surface cancels any doubt about this terrain’s origin.

Studying Great Plains geology instructs that Paleozoic and Mesozoic waters deposited the region’s shale, limestone, and sandstone foundations over a period of 480 million years. Once salt waters dried, rains fell and channeled into streams and rivers that etched that soft stone landscape. It left what writer Harry Chrisman calls a ladder of rivers and streams connecting one watershed to another.

These braided channels guided ancient and more recent travelers who wandered here before atlases and maps existed. Word of mouth descriptions based on these water-carved paths directed roaming tribes from one hunting ground to another for generations. Over time, newcomers followed those old trails to found permanent cities and towns where seasonal campsites once existed alongside creeks and rivers.

Just as seas dried and morphed into prairie, life in this place changed again. Nomadic beasts and humans found themselves dealing with fences and laws concerning land and water ownership. Huge ranches and farms replaced 160 acre homesteads. Shiny rails linked markets and carried trains bringing land hungry immigrants to this grassland. Communities built churches and schools. Later, asphalt highways and aircraft increased the speed by which individuals crossed this great desert. This gave way to the term Flyover People, words carrying the derogative connotation that folks inhabiting this landscape don’t matter. Those who live here disagree.

As often occurs due to modern technological advances, change creates conflict. Great Plains residents didn’t anticipate such trouble until issues erupted into legal battles that pitted states, families, communities, individuals, and businesses against one another. Struggles so full of emotion generate stories, stories populated by likeable and unlikeable characters.

That leads to the present and to tales, fiction and non-fiction. These accounts explain life in this contradictory landscape that began under water yet now begs to absorb drops of those once familiar molecules. These writings direct inhabitants to examine lives of those who form our communities, understand and protect our playas and prairies, and who earn livelihoods and raise families in a hard land.

High Plains Public Radio Readers has assembled a text collection to explore what it means to hear the roar of ancient waves in winds blowing across native grasses. Writers introduce readers to cultures that don’t agree on how to share the place they all call home. Authors introduce science foreign to many, making readers emigrants into concepts they haven’t considered or don’t want to navigate. Welcome to a group exploration that offers friendly discourse about our common homeland.