By: Matilde Granet
Landmark Crew Member
Gumbo: The element of the Great Plains that shows how complicated it is to live in this territory.

In the Great Plains region where the American Prairie Reserve is located, people often refer to mud as “gumbo.”

The first time I heard concerns about it was on my way to the Reserve, where it had rained a lot the previous week. And, let’s be honest, I was a bit skeptical (it was only mud) and from my point of view, easily manageable.

What I didn’t know at the time: ‘Gumbo’ is not typical mud. Gumbo is what specialists call vertisol soil: a soil that has a great deal of expandable clay known as montmorillonite.

Prairie gumbo mud

Roads and Gumbo don’t mix. Photo: Mathilde Granet

vertisol soil gumbo

Vertisol soil: (AKA) Gumbo. Photo: Mathilde Granet

One of the special features of vertisol soil is shrink-swell processes, or the shrinking and cracking of soils as they dry and their expansion as they get wet again. The shrink-swell processes are due to the high content of expanding clay minerals.*

Particularities of gumbo? Its stickiness and slipperiness when wet, mostly due to the slow rates of water infiltration into the soil. Indeed, according to James Bauder, soil scientist, “when rain hits gumbo’s surface, the water essentially plugs up the pores on the soil’s surface, increasing the time it takes for the water to flow through it.”**

Gumbo creates impossible situations on roads not covered with pavement or a dose of gravel. Cars? They slide in every direction the gumbo decides. Walking? It’s like doing a crossfit session for free! When gumbo is wet, in addition to slipping every meter, it will stick to your shoes and weigh you down as it accumulates with each step.
shoes covered in gumbo

Shoes of Saul, after walking back from camp to the Enrico Center. Photo: Mathilde Granet

Anything positive about gumbo? Yes! The natural vegetation of gumbo, and generally most vertisol, is grassland. Grasslands are home to abundant wildlife, contribute to carbon sequestration and many products/services including: food crops, meat and ecotourism.

The end word? You really can’t describe to people what gumbo is like, unless they’ve faced it out on the prairie. Otherwise they will stick to the proverbial “it’s mud”.

Want some Gumbo advice?
Stay inside and wait. The only solution to the situation is sun and the famous wind of the Prairie!

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*Explanation from Darwin Anderson, in “Vertisolic soils of the Prairie Region
**Extract from an article written by Donna Healy for the Billings Gazette