• Panayoti Kelaidis

Steppes – Plant People Connection

By Panayoti Kelaidis

Excerpted from “Principle Steppe Regions”, the Introduction to Steppes: the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions by Michael Bone, Dan Johnson, Panayoti Kelaidis, Mike Kintgen and Larry G. Vickerman, Denver Botanic Gardens

The new Steppe Garden at the Gardens was built to showcase native plants from the four steppe regions of the world: in South Africa, Central Asia, South America, and North America. The Colorado Front Range is part of the North American steppe, a biome that is now imperiled. An undertaking of major proportions, construction of the garden began in October of 2015; it opened in July 2016.

In addition to these four regional gardens, the Gardens’ stonemasons have created three large planters, beautifully and painstakingly made from hand cut stone, to grow plants from ecological niches that are important microcosms within the greater steppe biome. One features “living stones” (lithops), another contains cushion plants, while the central planter’s trickling fountain illustrates the importance and scarcity of water in steppe regions. Cracks were filled in with a unique “seed slurry” mix for growing the plants, applied carefully by hand using a cake-icing pipette, says Mike Bone, Curator of Steppe Collections at the Gardens.

To understand more about steppe, read the Intro to Steppes: the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions excerpted here.

Early primates evolved at the fringes of the grasslands of southern Africa: they were largely vegetarian, as our cousins, the chimpanzees, still are. Hominoids evolved into the genus Homo only between two and three million years ago, when they ventured permanently as carnivorous hunters onto grassland – where now only rodents, ungulates, and pachyderms survive as vegetarians on the fibrous, cellulosic grasses. It can be said that our generic leap from ape to human was a consequence of our change of habitat from forest to grassland. Ever since, steppes and savannas of the world continue to nurture and alter our species. This vegetation has served as the larder, medicine chest, and superhighway of human migration since our very beginnings. The flora of the steppe has provided healing herbs, roots, and greens for human consumption for countless millennia. That flora was responsible for the vast herds of ungulates that were the primary prey and protein source of our ancestors. Humans have crossed continental boundaries and sailed vast seas in pursuit of prey and fresh habitat, ultimately becoming the pantropical, universal phenomenon we are today.

Humans occupied steppe and their tropical equivalent savanna climates almost exclusively for the millions of years we were evolving into our current form. Although our population grew when we forsook the forest for grassland, it was not until crops were domesticated, around 10,000 BC, that populations began to explode. Once again, this revolution was a consequence of the steppe biome and its flora. A handful of species of steppe plants gave rise to those first cultivated crops…. To this day, farming and gardening in wet climates necessitates heavy fertilization with minerals to approximate the balance that occurs naturally in steppe soils…. The great explosion of humanity’s population subsequently took place in more maritime regions, with their more predictable rainfall and more temperate climates, and the awareness of our steppe beginnings has largely been obscured, or simply forgotten. The vast steppes (almost the only habitat occupied by humans for millennia) largely became the backwaters of humanity – underdeveloped, sparse in population, often overgrazed, but otherwise much the same as they had been throughout prehistory.

As humans maximized and perhaps exceeded the carrying capacity of humid and tropical maritime climates, it’s not surprising that they have rediscovered the promise of the harsh steppe environment. Cowboys are not often encountered in cities like Denver, Omaha, or Salt Lake City, which have burgeoned in recent decades – the so-called Sun Belt population explosion. A comparable boom is occurring across the former Soviet Union’s steppe nations: from the Caucauses throughout the “stans” to Mongolia, cities are expanding and populations are rising again where Genghis Khan and Tamerlane marched their fierce armies.

In the 21st century the various steppe climates have become a geopolitical focus for energy development of all kinds: from fossil fuels to solar and wind power (which can be maximized in these sunny, windy high regions). And many countries in Central Asia – Irag, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – are literal hotspots, politically. Argentina has returned to a somewhat more stable status after the turmoil of the Peron years and a decade of economic collapse. More and more economists predict enormous capital investment and growth in Africa, the poorest continent, in this century; this transformation is likely to be spearheaded by South Africa, by far the wealthiest, most dynamic economy on that continent. But just as protohumans may have taken to bipedalism on the Highveld, their descendants are grappling with atavistic tribal animosity and a powder keg of struggle over the newly discovered resources of the steppe. The new steppe warriors are the frackers and drillers, perhaps – and the land developers.

Our psychology, ecology, and habits as Homo sapiens were undoubtedly shaped by the millennia of evolution that took place exclusively in steppe and savanna environments, where our existence depended on our efficiency and ruthlessness as hunters (and our intelligence evolved rapidly to help us avoid becoming prey). Perhaps our rediscovery of steppe will allow humans to utilize this same intelligence to silence primal tendencies to violence in our nature, and to design a future relationship with natural environments that is mutually sustainable.

Humanity is experiencing a homecoming of sorts, as our future hinges more and more on the political and cultural dramas taking place in the world’s steppes. In the process, fragile landscapes, once graced by vast herds of ungulates and sparse tribes of humanity, is transforming rapidly and radically thanks to resource extraction, marginal farming, and geopolitical wrangling. The warrior has returned to the steppes armed with a panoply of technology this time. Are we fated to continue our role as rapacious exploiters, or shall the steppes help us become wise stewards this time around?