I never knew I had grown up on the steppes. Well, perhaps I was only at the edge of them, Oklahoma city being reckoned just outside the limit on the map I’m looking at. But my grandparents, whom we visited at least once a year, lived fair and square in the midst of them in the northwest of Oklahoma. We didn’t call them “the Steppes”; we called them “the Plains.”
Much of Oklahoma qualifies as plains. But there are plains and then there are plains. Major County, where my Countryman grandparents lived, even had mountains. Well, they would be called red clay hills in other parts of the country, I suppose: thick beds of red soil eroded into small mesas, with bits of gypsum crystals eroded out of the capstone and glittering on the slopes. They were called, grandly, “the Glass Mountains.”
But Beaver County in the Oklahoma Panhandle, where my mother’s parents farmed, was simply and purely plains. I remember my Uncle Bill, who grew wheat there, giving some visitors a tour of the farm. To the outsider, one field looked pretty much like the next. Somewhere along the tour, though, he announced that we were now coming to “the hilly section.” Everybody laughed, which was probably part of his purpose. But he wasn’t making it up. Since he was the person who plowed and planted and harvested that land, he knew exactly where the water drained, which spots stayed wet longest and might bog down the unwary tractor-driver and where, conversely, the water drained off too fast and might leave a crop starved for it during a time of drought (pronounced “drouth” in our part of the world).
So, yes, it was the Great Plains—in fact, the High Plains, the westernmost, driest part of the Great Plains. Early nineteenth-century travelers were less polite; they called it “the Great American Desert.” After all, it was just grass, grass, and more grass, a little rain and a lot of heat in the summer, very different from the climate of the Midwest and East. Oklahoma in some ways had both the best and the worst of it. The weather came from both north and south creating thunderstorms and tornados in the summer and ice-storms in the winter. But it also meant that the vegetation was enormously varied, including plants from all directions, many of them at the edge of their ranges.
But steppes? No, those were a place far away in Russia: endless stretches of grass and a few cossacks. And presumably very cold. One thought of Russia as a frigid place.
I suppose the first shaking of that absolute separation came from Timothy Egan in his extraordinary book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dustbowl. That would be my mother’s people, among others. (My father’s father was a blacksmith. They had to survive the Dust Bowl, too, but they were a little east of the hardest hit areas and not directly dependent on a wheat crop.) Egan made the first link for me between the Great Plains and the Steppes when he noted that the hard red winter wheat that is the staple of Panhandle farming was brought there by emigrants from the Russian steppe—German-speaking Russians who were fleeing a new imperial decree that deprived them of their historic exemption from the military draft. That bit of information hooked up with another. Someone (I think my dad) told me long ago that our tumble weeds were really called “Russian thistle.” They had arrived, it seems, in some poorly cleaned shipment of animal fodder and made themselves at home.
More recently I came across a fascinating book that expands the connections much further: Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World’s Semi-arid Regions by staff of the Denver Botanic Gardens (Portland: Timber Press, 2015). Living and gardening as I do in coastal California, I’m used to hearing about “Mediterranean climate” regions and knowing that many plants I grow here come from South Africa or Western Australia or coastal Chile or the lands around the Mediterranean itself. I never thought of a region like the Great Plains as having a similar family across the world. But here it is, laid out in a very accessible form.
The text is good—quite readable, with its liberal allowance of travel and exploration narrative. It inevitably uses some technical language in explaining what defines and links these distant areas: along with the Great Plains of the US, the Inter-Mountain Basin further west , the Pampas of South America, the South African Karoo and Highveld, and, of course, the vast Eurasian Steppe, stretching from Hungary to Mongolia with few interruptions.
And, besides the text, there are the pictures—great numbers of them showing some remarkable scenery and a vast array of plant life. The authors, after all, are all devoted to horticulture and are keen to suggest the broad variety of plants that might be of interest to gardeners as well as to botanists. The gardener who reads this book will probably feel the same range of longings that a good nursery catalog arouses—with the difference that no nursery catalogue I know has shown me anything as unearthly as the Nastanthus patagonicus, which looks like a good argument for inter-planetary plant trafficking at some distant time in the past.
Since the steppe that I grew up in and near had already been plowed and planted to wheat, I saw little of its earlier floral diversity. (My mother must have seen it, and to this I credit her lifelong enthusiasm for wildflowers.) But it still had its moments and its places of great beauty. The Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas, is a place of astonishment. And I have a deeply imprinted memory, from my early twenties, of times when I drove down into the Canadian Breaks–the flat expanse of the plains slowly opening up to show its underpinnings of white limestone as the road wound down to a river lined with huge cottonwoods. It is a sight that seems almost impossible, so secretively and intimately wrapped into those exposed, sun-scoured uplands.
That was step one of my recent reckoning with the steppes. Step two came with the help of another book, focused on the history of those old-world steppes that shadowed the fringes of the Greek world I studied and for several millennia kept bursting into the settled worlds of Europe and Asia. To be continued. . . . .