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Prairie Soil

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Rock Island sits almost in the center of a sea of grass that once covered much of the American heartland. The story of how this tallgrass prairie became the breadbasket of the United States is a lesson in how the past can deceive as well as teach.

Following the War of 1812, Americans fanned west across the Appalachian Mountains, cutting small farms out of the forests which covered the land. At the edge of the great woods, in central Indiana, the migration stopped. From here west to the Rocky Mountains stretched an empty, treeless, undulating grassland.  Previous experience in Europe and America, and common sense, too, told farmers that land where trees would not grow must be poor indeed.

Not until the forests were all gone, forcing latecomers out onto the prairie, did farmers uncover the secrets of this strange land. Prairie farming at first was hard. Teams of twelve oxen often had to make three passes to carve furrows out of the deep mass of roots binding the soil.

Only after John Deere's self-scouring steel plow conquered the roots in the mid-1840s did the farmers forced beyond the woods discover their wealth. The tallgrass prairie was the richest soil on earth—a mantle of fertile wind-blown loess, from three to more than three hundred feet thick over glacial till. On this already rich soil, the roots of prairie plants worked more magic still, over hundreds of years, adding humus and bacteria to condition the soil, and sending roots down as much as thirty feet to bring up more nutrients from deep down.

Still, we Americans did not learn our lessons well. So careless have we been with the riches of the prairie that almost half the topsoil has already blown or washed away, the victim of poor farming methods, of clearing the land for developments, of an attitude that says "there's always more where that came from."

What the prairie took ten thousand years to prepare, we have used up in a hundred. Like a gourmet meal prepared by loving hands, wolfed down in two minutes by kids who have somewhere to go, none of us listened to our mothers' advice to chew and enjoy.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.