I didn't give much thought to America's prairies until I moved to South Dakota. I grew up loving the hardwood forests of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, then discovered the great western mountains as a college student. The grasslands of North America were something I skipped over, believing them flat, unvarying, and dull. What little I knew of prairie came mainly from childhood. Fourth-grade geography lessons, Little House on the Prairie, and the favorite Apple IIe game of eighties educators, Oregon Trail—these were the sources of the vague impressions I had about an ecosystem that historically occupied more than 1.4 million square miles of North America.
When I first came to work at Badlands National Park in 2008, the prairie took me by surprise. Far from being a pancake-flat plain with a boring lack of biodiversity, the grassland teems with life.