Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything we do takes place within a context — a physical context, a social context, a historical context, etc. One reason for studying history (besides the fact that it contains so many deeply interesting stories) is to get a sense of our own context — either because it is the history of our family or just because it’s the history of the area in which we now live and which we are now adding our own story to. But it’s also worthwhile to look at the contexts of where these old-timey stories come from.
Yesterday I visited Soapstone Prairie for the first time. I’ll be headed back tomorrow to watch the release of the bison. As I walked the trail with my mom, I thought a lot about how the land looked today vs. how it looked a hundred years ago, or even a thousand years ago. How different was it? And how much the same? And of course, over and over again I thought of the earliest pioneers as they trundled in their wagons through areas like this. What did they think of this arid prairie? I would love to be able to see the land through their eyes for just a moment.
In addition to visiting Soapstone, I recently starting reading through “People of the Poudre: An Ethnohistory of the Cache la Poudre River National Heritage Area” (pdf), by Lucy Burris. It gives descriptions of the Poudre river using excerpts of people who either passed through, or lived, in the Poudre River Valley over the past almost two hundred years. I’m learning a lot about the climate, flora and fauna of our region. But in reaching the end of Chapter 1, I was struck by the changes that have taken place as well. This is how the author sums up those changes:
“Looking at the Poudre River today provides only hints of the river of the past. Today the river is warmer, slower, more heavily vegetated, and less flood prone than at any time in the past. Grassy bottomlands have been replaced by agricultural and urban activities. Access to the river has been controlled by fences and barriers. It may be hard to visualize the river during prehistoric times as a clear stream teaming with trout, banked by a few sparse cottonwood trees, visited by nomadic hunters and gatherers for over twelve thousand years. When Euroamericans arrived with their ideas of land ownership and water management and their creation of permanent settlements, they initiated the destruction of nomadic lifeways on the Poudre by limiting access to water, grazing areas, and camping locations by eliminating local bison populations.”
The changes that we have made to the land would take a lot to undo. And I don’t think we really want to take the land back to where it was hundreds of years ago anyway. I like living here in a house that I don’t have to unpack and repack over and over again as we follow our food source from place to place. And I like living in these United States, and in Colorado in particular. As a Ukrainian/Irish hybrid, I don’t really have a people group to return to. I have settled into being a mutt among mutts in our altered landscape.
But there are things we can do to mitigate our footprint upon this land. The City of Fort Collins has recently removed several berms and barriers that constricted the river between Taft Hill Road and N. College. Restoration projects may not return the river to where it was before the trappers and pioneers arrived. But mitigating the damage that has been done is a means of reaching a compromise that helps to keep the river healthy, while also allowing us to continue living in the river valley. It builds a healthier relationship between ourselves and nature, one in which we recognize that the vibrancy of the natural world in which we live holds many positive benefits for us as well.