Running 100 miles from north to south and 200 miles from east to west, the Sandhills make up about a quarter of the state of Nebraska and constitute the largest grass-stabilized dune field in the Western Hemisphere. Sparsely settled, the region has inspired a fine literature, numbering books by Jim Harrison, Mari Sandoz, and Merrill Gilfillan, among other writers.
Stephen Jones's The Last Prairie is a welcome, elegant addition to that library. An inspired blend of science, natural history, ethnography, and memoir, it recounts Jones's travels along the Niobrara River and deep into the heart of dune country--once the province of buffalo, cranes, and scattered bands of Pawnee and Cheyenne Native Americans, now the site of huge ranches and, as Jones notes, an army of white-tailed deer and other former denizens of wetland forests that edged out onto the plains with the disappearance of large predators. "When it comes to ecosystem disturbances," Jones notes, "the white-tailed deer are just the tip of the iceberg," and indeed the Sandhills are threatened at every turn by industrial agriculture and other manifestations of putative progress. Jones considers some of the programs that have been advanced to save the area, including the apparently ill-advised "Buffalo Commons" preserve that residents fear would make the region an unnatural zoo; he suggests instead a more modest prairie preserve that would attract tourists and provide new revenue for the region's residents, now dependent on ecologically destructive ranching.
But Jones's book is less a program for action than a literate, attractive celebration of a place unlike any other--a book that will inspire readers to go and have a look for themselves. --Gregory McNamee [via]