The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 3 & 4

March-April, 1941

The Prairie Trek by Hillis L. Howie
The 1939 caravan stops for one hundred gallons of drinking water

For the past fifteen summers I have accompanied groups of high school boys on expeditions into all parts of the Rocky Mountains and in to much of the desert country of the southwest. On these expeditions our primary purpose was to train the boys to use their vacations intelligently and to teach them the value of our national parks, national monuments, national forests, indian reservations and other interesting parts of our public domain. We used these areas as laboratories. In them the boys made scientific field experiments under the leaders of our party.

On these treks we sought out the remote and generally unknown wilderness regions. Sometimes we pretended that we were the first white men to penetrate these wilds. In many spots the boys had an opportunity to compare the unspoiled land with country which had been "developed". We led a simple life, did our own cooking, gathered firewood, sagebrush or buffalo chips for fuel and slept under the stars almost every night. We were providing a pioneer experience for the boys in a frontier part of the nation.

Each year on these trips "back of beyond" our party has consisted of twenty carefully-selected boys and a staff of five men. These men were selected because of their ability to transfer their scientific and historic interests to the young members of the party. We used a caravan of station wagons and a truck to carry tents, camping equipment and commissary supplies from our permanent base camps to interesting objectives.

These expeditions are not sight-seeing trips. Each summer we confine our operations to a limited territory. We think it is better to learn everything about a small area than to have a smattering knowledge of a vast territory.

The expedition is a two months glorified nature study. It exemplifies the essential element of every nature walk, hike or excursion. It instills into the boys the spirit of adventure and exploration. A teacher or nature leader who breathes this spirit has achieved the first stage.

Each morning the boys set out from camp with bird glasses, plant presses, butterfly nets, geologists' hammers, snake bags and other such equipment. They are not allowed to carry fire arms. They do not need firearms to identify, collect and study the geology, fauna and flora of the regions in which we camp.

Navajo weaver
A Navajo weaver. Design and perfection of workmanship have their place in tribal economy

The acquisition and identification of things is the second stage in our program. To stimulate this natural interest of boys, and to add incentives for them to learn, we carry commissions from the Childrens' Museum of Indianapolis and from The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We have collected a great amount of exhibit material in a wide range of classifications, and taken still and motion pictures of what we could not truck home.

In the course of the first seven or eight expeditions we learned a great number of valuable and interesting facts. We learned that lizards can grow new tails and that cactus plants are storage tanks. At the same time we created favorable attitudes among the boys. They understood that when we found a dinosaur footprint on public domain it was best to leave it for other people to discover, even though we knew somebody was liable to vandalize it before we got back again. We still looked on Indians and old prospectors as spectacles and museum specimens, but we began to notice the adaptations of other living forms to their environment. We began to notice altitude - and its effect on other living things besides ourselves. We began to see ecological relationships and life zones took on more and more meaning. This, I believe, represents the third stage.

Changes in our Nature Study program coincided with historical changes affecting the land and the people of the Southwest. With our own eyes we have witnessed:

The extension of highway systems and the intrusion of "civilization" into rugged and remote country;

The withdrawal of the remaining public domain from entry;

The bumper wheat crops of 1928 and 1929 and within five years the dust storms;

The major development of the areas of scenic, historic, and scientific interest;

The implementation of the "multiple-use" principle in national forests with increased provision for recreation;

The disastrous forest fires in periods of excessively low humidity;

The widespread introduction of check dams, terracing, contour plowing, basin listing, and contour furrowing;

The planting of shelter belts and resodding of prairie;

The contraction of water reservoirs ranging in size from the catch basins on small farms to Boulder Dam;

The widespread programs for rodent and predator control;

The over-grazing of vast regions and the progressive deterioration of pasture;

The stubble of cornfields after grasshopper plagues;

The abandonment of farms and exodus of the people;

The ghost town in farm, lumbering, and mining regions.

These changes have profound significance, but as significant as they may be, I would not be justified in reciting them in this discourse unless they had altered our nature study program in a way which pointed toward progress.

A prospectors cabin near timber line at 11,900 feet

Inscription Rock
Long before the Pilgrims landed, Spanish expeditions used this camp site and carved their names and dates on Inscription Rock.

We first became dissatisfied with our dilettante ways when we camped on a deserted farm where only the top barbed wire of a five-strand fence was still to be seen above the tumble weed and aeolian sand. It began to dawn on us that the great plains presented problems of considerable more importance than the fact that prairie dogs, rattlesnakes and burrowing owls lived happily in the same hole. We found ourselves thinking and talking in terms of annual precipitation, surface waters, underground water table, wind velocity, soil types, native grasses, public land policy, speculation, ownership and tenure. Instead of working out such interesting but insignificant problems involving prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and burrowing owls, we faced the more consequential problem of whether human beings--thrifty, industrious, God-fearing people---could live happily in the same country by raising wheat or cattle.

We began to understand some connection between a great many interesting but isolated facts, and the necessity for putting them together in order to obtain a true picture of Nature and man's relation to Nature. We began to see things whole. This, I believe, represents the fourth stage. We could now fully comprehend Aldo Leopold's statement, "Civilization is not . . . the enslavement of a stable and constant earth. It is a state of mutual interdependent cooperation between human animals other animals, plants, and the soils, which nay be disrupted at any moment by the failure of any of them. Land despoliation has evicted nations, and can on occasion do it again. It thus becomes a matter of some importance, at least to ourselves, that our dominion, once gained, be self-perpetuating, rather than self-destructive."

This change of emphasis in our Nature study program from minor to major matters is reflected in our choice of camp sites, activities, relations with people, and in the collections which are worth trucking home. For instance there has been a marked decrease in the tonnage of petrified wood, fossil-bearing rock, and ore specimens. We have finally arrived at the stage where we are as interested in people as in things, and of relating them one with another. Since our attention is now focused on human problems growing out of lack of adjustment to environment and abuse of resources, we are increasingly aware of the programs, plans and methods of the Federal, State and local agencies set up to deal with these problems. We see the need for Nature leaders who can interpret the problems to the people so that they as citizens of a democracy may determine whether their taxes are being spent to the best advantage--or more important still, whether the long range view is being taken with regard to the use of our remaining resources--renewable and nonrenewable, human and material.

It does not require too great a stretch of the imagination to perceive that teachers can have equivalent experiences on similar expeditions. There are, in fact, at least two colleges offering summer trips into the same and other regions, and it will be interesting to watch the evolution of their projects in the light of our experience. There is a need for innumerable other expeditions of this sort to other parts of the country. No state lacks worthwhile educational objectives in the form of public parks, forests, and the recently established recreational demonstration projects. The great problem is to get people to use what they already have--and wisely.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002