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A Journey through the Heartland

At least three things are in near-constant abundance on the Great Plains: wind, sky, and a great vastness of space. Gabe Dunsmith ’15 knows this well. His family’s heritage—and many relatives—are “firmly rooted” in Nebraska. “I felt familiar with the rolling hills, the wide landscape, the way the sky opens up before you and engulfs so much of what you see,” he says. Other than that, though, “I knew very little about the Great Plains.”

Dunsmith and about two dozen of his fellow Vassar students wanted to learn more. Enter the course ENST 260—Grasslands: Human History and Ecology of the American Plains. History professor Rebecca Edwards and biology professor Meg Ronsheim taught the course, with assistance from Lois Horst, curator of Vassar’s Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History. The class culminated in a two-week spring break trip deep into America’s breadbasket. From the moment they arrived for their whirlwind tour, that ubiquitous wind was blowing. “We were leaning into it just to stand up,” Ronsheim says.

With amber waves of grain—primarily corn and wheat—stretching to the horizon, it was tempting to label the Plains a monochromatic landscape, or to conjure memories of Little House on the Prairie. The reality, students discovered, was much more complex, a fact emphasized by the sheer diversity of their itinerary. It included stops that spoke to the history of the land, such as Homestead National Monument, a reconstructed Earth lodge at a Pawnee Indian village, the Kansas State Historical Society, and Spring Creek Prairie (which features wagon wheel ruts preserved from the Oregon Trail). Other sites spoke to “farming,” whether of crops, livestock, or wind, such as the nonprofit Land Institute (which focuses on natural systems agriculture, compared to one-crop systems), Walnut Creek Ranch (an organic black angus cattle ranch), and the Smoky Hill Wind Farm (a renewable energy project site). Still other spots highlighted the natural history of the Plains—the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary, where students spied half a million sandhill cranes along the North Platte River, for example.

Between each locale was space—and time—to drive. “The size and scale of the Plains is immense,” says Ronsheim. “The distance from one place to another; you drive two hours and you’re not there yet.” This created a surprisingly mundane challenge for the trip: finding bathroom facilities. “Many of the towns have populations of 60 or 70 people,” says Edwards. “There’s no gas station, no grocery store.” And no public bathrooms. “Residents might drive one hour to the nearest real services, where in some places the only grocery store would be the Wal-Mart.”

In addition to the ever-present space, another theme of the trip proved to be juxtapositions: the struggle to retain the last parcels of remaining native prairie in the face of agriculture’s subjugation of the Plains; the ubiquity of the wind, coupled with the challenge of how to store that energy and then transmit it to the places where it’s needed; students having organic beef burgers for lunch at Walnut Creek Ranch, where they met a rancher grieving the loss of one of his heifers, which died giving birth to a calf earlier that day, in sharp contrast with Centralized Animal Feeding Operations, where cattle are little more than an economic commodity; and the tension between the overlapping Native American and pioneer histories of the landscape.

For many students, the trip challenged preconceived notions. “We tend to think of the Midwest as white Protestant,” says Edwards. The Swedish and Norwegian cookbooks on store shelves spoke to the heritage of what Edwards calls “old” immigrants.  But then there was what students didn’t expect to find: “dramatic racial diversity,” says Edwards. At a community garden, they met Hispanic immigrants, not to mention others from Ghana, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Such “new” immigrants were a revelation.

The trip also included meetings with several recent Vassar alumnae/i. At Konza Prairie, Kansas State University, the Grasslands class met with Zak Ratajczak ’10, a Ph.D. candidate at the school, and Sarah Matherly ’10, a history major at Vassar who’d taken Ronsheim’s conservation course two years earlier. In Lincoln, NE, they met with Joana Chan ’08, a grad student focusing on water and sustainability.

Each student gave a presentation while on the trip and wrote a separate research paper upon returning to campus. Dunsmith focused his presentation on herbicide atrazine, which has been found in the water in Nebraska and Kansas—the pollutant disrupts the regulation of human hormones. For his paper, he drilled into the complexities of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a crude oil pipeline designed to bring crude from Canada to points throughout the United States; a proposed expansion would carve a path across much of the Plains.

Delving into such topics yielded intellectual insights for Dunsmith and other students. Dunsmith, for example, realized how “vitally important” it is “to interpret environmental issues that the world faces today through a lens of history, biology, society, and capitalism.” But for some, the most profound and emotional moments came while running with a herd of bison, frolicking across the tops of hay bales, or sitting in a blind for three hours along the shores of the North Platte River as night fell, watching the cranes.

Dunsmith, for his part, came away more deeply connected to a region his family has called home for generations. Plus, the course just might provide fodder for a future story. “Who knows?” he says. “If I’m still interested in investigative journalism after I graduate, perhaps I’ll travel back out to Nebraska and Kansas to report on atrazine contamination!”

–­Peter Bronski

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, October 10, 2012