The prairie ecosystem of North America once stretched over 100 million hectares, from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from west of the Appalachian mountains to the Rockies. Prairies were mostly extirpated from the landscape in less than a century with the settlement of Europeans. A southern protrusion of this gigantic prairie ecosystem, however, reached almost the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, between southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. This prairie along the southern coast is also known as "Cajun prairie," because this is the territory where Europeans of French origin (the Cajuns) settled in largest numbers, since the last dérangement (mass deportations of French colonists by the British who had settled initially in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1755).
Vidrine could have not done a better job in connecting the natural history of the Cajun prairie (flora, fauna, soils, hydrology, and other abiotic factors) with its people (both non-native and indigenous). A well-seasoned biologist with the knowledge gained in a lifetime in the coastal region of the South, Vidrine chronicles the demise of coastal prairies due primarily to human activities and development. From large-scale agriculture to urban sprawl, this habitat fragmentation must be contained in order to preserve the biotic diversity of prairies for future generations and also to retain the ecological integrity of the region. This is the main message and emphasis of the manuscript. The book is structured in 10 chapters that frame the natural history of the Cajun prairie through the author's upbringing, ecological studies, and professional experience.
The first four chapters describe the Cajun prairie and its people, highlighting major events that determined drastic changes to this environment. Agricultural expansion and development caused the major loss of prairie to the point that in the 1930s, prairies had mostly disappeared from southwestern Louisiana. Chapters 5 and 6 present early studies on prairie remnants by naturalists and botanists often associated with Louisiana State University. The impetus for habitat restoration most likely triggered by the works of Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin inspired more naturalists to reconstruct and restore the habitat that had previously existed. Also, the reader will grasp from these chapters the compelling need to restore a culture of knowledge for prairies that had become almost completely obliterated, leaving the author and his generation as "illegitimate children" of an environment devoid of attributes their parents and grandparents only vaguely remembered. In the 1980s, however, the rediscovery of the Cajun prairie occurred in the vicinity of Eunice, Louisiana (the Cajun Prairie Capital), and this triggered the restoration movement in the region that Charles Allen, regional botantist, and Vidrine, regional zoologist, have been leading since.
Chapters 7, 8, and 9 focus on the ecology of coastal prairies and biotic diversity (plants and animals). The last chapter (10) aims at promoting prairie restoration and reconstruction as a form of sustainable landscape. Regretfully, the author does not have the power to preserve remnant prairies on common rights-of-way or other lands, and often decisions that lead to further extirpation of prairie habitats are made by owners and stakeholders. Conservation efforts can become futile endeavors without significant support from the community; thus, fragile and unpredictable remains the future of the few remnant prairie strips in southwestern Louisiana to this day. Simply limiting the expansion of lawns in the urban and peri-urban environment is a worthy effort to reconstruct habitat and reconnect and educate people about the Cajun prairie on which they dwell.
The volume contains a plethora of appendices, with plant scientific names, phenological data, maps, charts, and other documents related to the 30-year restoration projects in the southwest Louisiana region the Vidrine has led and participated in. This book is a great read for all conservationists, biologists, and environmental educators. It is a must read for the inhabitants of the Cajun prairie bioregion, and it makes an excellent textbook for place-based education in grade schools and beyond.