“On the Range” is place-based initiative created by three faculty members at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Their faculty appointments are in departments with no history of collaboration and between which there are few obvious overlapping interests. In spite of (or perhaps because of ) the challenges posed by these disciplinary differences, Mary Ann Vinton, PhD, associate professor of biology, Jay Leighter, PhD, associate professor of communication studies, and John O’Keefe, PhD, professor of theology, have come together to study the Nebraska Sandhills as an interdisciplinary team.
The Sandhills in north central Nebraska stand apart as one of the largest, intact grasslands and most unique biophysical ecosystems in North America. Writers, artists and scientists alike have found themselves drawn to this vast area since the nineteenth century. No other landscape evokes Willa Cather’s words as much as the grass-covered dunes of the Sandhills region in north central Nebraska. Its 20,000 square miles comprise the largest area of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere and the porous soils make the Sandhills the main area of recharge for the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer, the key source of ground water for Nebraska and multiple surrounding states. In addition, the erodible, sandy soils made row-crop agriculture and high-density human settlements impractical. Thus, current land use tends to be low intensity cattle grazing on widely spaced ranches.
We have named the project “On the Range” deliberately because the term “range” evokes several important notions about the place, the people, our purpose, and our work together. Of course, range evokes the memory of a classic American folk song and we are ready to confirm that this is a place where deer and antelope play. We use it additionally to focus our attention on the vast grassland “range” that is the Sandhills. We also are interested in smaller details, like the range and extent of fence lines or the way that “range” is used as a technical descriptor among surveyors to delimit the size and extent of townships. There is also the active notion of “ranging,” and we, like the vast herds of bison in the past (and cattle in the present), find ourselves roaming across this enormous landscape as a necessary requirement of mapping. Finally, we expect to discover a vast range of meaning associated with the term “Sandhills,” we have witnessed that both the gaze and thought of Sandhills residents are wide-ranging, and our interdisciplinary training will hopefully provide an expansive perspective on this place.
Launched in 2017, the project has received initial support from a Dr. George Haddix President’s Faculty Research Fund grant from Creighton University and a NASA Nebraska Space Grant