NOTE: This article first appeared in Agate Mag. It can read in its original format here.
He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.
— William Quayle, ”The Prairie and the Sea”
When I was in my early 20s, I had a friend who worked for the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin. One of her responsibilities was to collect prairie seeds for a habitat restoration project. She seemed to really love this task and at the time I wondered why anyone would ever want to be out on a hot summer or fall day, dusty, scratchy, sweaty, trying to collect seeds. I did not ask this question out loud but left pondering the why of this. As a child of woods and lakes I had no real understanding of or exposure to this landscape known as prairie. This habitat was like a foreign language to me.
Fast-forward 40 years.
It’s mid-summer and hot. Heat waves shimmer on the horizon and sweat drips from my brow while I am cutting the invasive plant tansy (Tanacetum vulgar) out of a 20-year tallgrass prairie restoration. I am dusty, scratchy, sweaty, and loving it.
The landscape around me is treeless and slightly rolling, replete with the orange of butterfly weed (Asclepious tuberosa), the purple of hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) and the yellows of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and common oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides). These plants, along with the blooming warm-season grasses, herald the ripeness of the season.
The day is quiet, no hikers on the trail that I can see. My only companions are a lone field sparrow, calling to find its offspring perhaps, and an indigo bunting at the woodland’s edge. A slight breeze sighs over me, bringing cooling relief and a reminder that it’s time to stop for some water. As I stand and stretch, my eyes scan the waving vista of grasses and flowers. My heart is full of the beauty of this place. How did I come to love this treeless expanse so open to the whims of nature?
It began as a job offering and walking. Belwin Conservancy, a small non-profit in Afton, Minnesota, needed a restoration assistant to support the work of prairie and oak savanna restoration on their 1500 acres.
Eager to learn more about these special places I enthusiastically said yes to the job offer and jumped in. On my first day with maps in hand I started walking. There is a place at Belwin where several large, old oaks meet the native grassland and as I walked out from under the blessed shade of those gnarled limbs into the open, I was overcome with a sense of what early inhabitants or explorers might have felt as they left the embrace of security that woodlands bring. To walk out into the sun and wind, completely exposed to the elements, must have been frightening and also awesome because of the wide, unhindered view.
I walked many miles over the prairies and savannas of Belwin in that first year. I walked at sunrise and sunset, at moonrise and moonset, in the heat of the day, on the coldest day, in pouring rain and perfect weather days. I learned to listen and look, to wait and watch and learn about this magnificent and harsh landscape. Slowly, but surely, the language of the prairie became one that I could hear and speak.
Prairies and oak savannas once covered nearly one third of North America. Today less than one percent of the original habitat remains. Thankfully, over the last 70 years we have come to a better understanding of the importance of the prairie ecosystem.
Prairies are much like deserts in that water is a limiting factor. Roots must grow deep to find moisture, sometimes two and three times the height of the above ground growth. Plant adaptations to reduce water loss can include hairy stems, flowers that close during the heat of the day or leaves that grow perpendicular to the sun’s movement to reduce transpiration of the life-giving liquid. Animals must be able to dig into the earth for coolness or find respite under clumps of tall grasses to avoid the drying rays of the sun. It’s a hard place to inhabit and yet so much survives and thrives there. There are many creatures that can only live in a grassland, like the bob-o-link, the meadowlark, and one of my favorites, the Henslow’s sparrow. This small, extremely secretive bird prefers grassland areas with a bit of duff, or plant material on the ground. Their nests are loosely woven dried grasses placed on the ground near grass clumps. The birds seldom show themselves, choosing to run on the ground rather than fly to escape danger or forage for the insects and seeds that they eat. Their song is perhaps one of the shortest and simplest of any North American songbird. To our ears it is a simple “tzelick, tzelick” repeated twice with a pause and then followed by silence. Henslow’s sparrows seldom fly up and when they do they seem to stay just below the tops of the plants.
You must stand very still and turn your head slowly to find and watch this well-camouflaged bird. This is probably one of the greatest gifts the prairie has given me, a reminder to be present in the moment knowing it can change in the blink of an eye, never the same again.
While it is true that tall grass prairies have many species of tall grasses in their makeup, it is the forbs, (flowers) that are the basis for much of the life that thrives here. Monarch butterflies drink nectar from milkweed flowers, fritillary butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of the early blooming bird’s foot violet, many species of bees find pollen on the colorful blooms. Birds feast on the seeds of flowers and grasses. Bison graze on the tender shoots of big bluestem and Indian grass. Of particular delight to me is the pasque flower (Anemone patens). This soft, seemingly delicate plant is one of the earliest flowers to emerge in the spring. The long, silky hairs that cover the stems and petals serve to insulate it from the cold. A symbol of resilience, it reminds me that even after the harshest of winter’s cold, life springs forth again.
One cannot talk about prairies without describing the importance of bison. These magnificent creatures have evolved with prairies over thousands of years and because of that are uniquely adapted to contend with this extreme landscape. Thick coats keep them warm in the winter. They use their large heads to scrape snow away from the ground to reveal food. Their large hump counterbalances the head and allows them to pivot quickly should a wolf try to bring them down. Horns and hooves provide sharp protection from predators. As a keystone species in the prairie world, bison create habitat for other creatures. Their wallowing (i.e.rolling in the dirt) creates hard-packed depressions that can hold water after a rain event. These short lived “ponds” are critical as a water source for small mammals, insects, and birds. When bison shed their fur it transports seeds to new areas, keeping the prairie dynamic in its plant makeup. Their dung provides nutrients for the soil as well as living spaces for dung beetles! The presence of bison on a prairie is magical and necessary.
During my time at Belwin I have been fortunate to work on both prairie and oak savanna restorations. For me, it is the definition of transformation. The process always begins with an assessment of what invasive species are present and what native species might be hidden there. Then begins the actual work of editing out those ecologically inappropriate plants. This can include mechanical removal, hand removal and where necessary chemical treatment. The area being restored can look like a demolition zone for a short time, but as the land heals and native seeds are sown, a new vision arises. Where once buckthorn dominated the scene, now lovely native forbs like blue-eyed grass and prairie gentian begin to show up. Butterflies and bees frequent the flowers where before there were none. Hog-nosed snakes and skinks skitter across the ground, Henslow’s sparrows nest in the duff. Diversity has been restored and all is well with the world.
When I am in the prairie, I experience a freedom, a connectedness with the natural world that goes beyond words. Is it the open sky? The unrestricted room for air and thought and movement? Is it the plethora of colors and textures that reach out to me with every step? Is it the animal life that scurries about on foot, scale and wing?
It is all of this and more. I love the prairie. I wear it in my heart.
Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie by Shirley Shirley
Tallgrass Prairie by John Madsen
Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy
Places to Hike
Konza Prairie – Kansas
Belwin Conservancy – Afton, Minnesota
Carpenter Nature Center – Hastings, Minnesota
UW Arboretum – Madison, Wisconsin
How to restore a prairie
Prairie Restorations – Princeton Minnesota
Belwin Conservancy – Afton Minnesota
Outback Nursery – Hastings Minnesota
Attend an upcoming event with Lynette as your guide! Visit our events page for more information.