prairie kaleidoscope

Much of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, in pre-history, was grassland.

Rivers ran through bottom-land forests with massive, cathederal-like scale: gallery forests.

Forests of trees you can rarely find examples of today, towered in the sky. Of giant Tupelo Gum and Water Hickory, Bald Cypress and Black gum, Southern Red Maple and Green Ash, with occasional slight ridges of land where drier ground could be found in a flood. Most land that was high and dry; the pine forests and the prairies, were probably burned by Native Americans. What’s known is that fire rejuvenates and opens-up the landscape and the native people knew this much better than we do.

The prairies were nearly continuous from Lafayette, Louisiana to the west to halfway across southern Texas except for the River areas. Vast Long Leaf pine forests with grassland understory evolved, over ten or twelve thousand years, to what it is today.

When I first looked at the prairie I saw it through the lens of a gardener-horticulturist. Then of course, the ecology of it intrigued me even more and the challenges of trying experiments with seed fully drew me in. And to see all the critters that finally come to your restored work is very complimentary to say the least.

weaver prairie grasses root drawings3

J. E Weaver, University of Nebraska, prairie guru and ecological saint (St. John of Species Diversity), says this when he is describing prairie complexity, in the book “The Prairie”, in 1934,

…” as the seasons advance, the panorama of the landscape varies to an extent that is almost kaleidescopic in character”.


Weaver’s is the best description I have heard of the experience of stepping into a prairie meadow landscape. It sums up the visual and sensory effect pretty well. After twenty years of study, I really know so very little. There are worlds of questions to be answered in the prairie. Twenty years later its still as intriguing as it was when I first stepped into it.

My friend, Jim, who teaches at a local college says there are no negative effects from prairie. He says its a no-waste system. Everything is utilized. But the re-connecting to the earth aspect, I believe, is the best result from experiencing prairie. The prairie, the natural grassland, is a historical relict of the past than instantaneously transports you back into a pre-historic time. Prairie is a time-machine.

again, kaleidoscopic, man.

Aldo Leopold taked about a land ethic. He was a turn of the century pioneer of conservation, I believe, the first graduating class in Forestry at Yale. He became famous with his writing (Sand County Almanac) of ecology and advocated the stewardship of land and conservation of land for the benefit of man and nature’s other creatures.

I used to have a picture of my son Cale at about the age of twelve, when he and I made the pilgrimage to the Leopold “shack”, the weekend cabin Leopold built and wrote the Almanac in, in Sand County Wisconsin. Cale, with his gregarious sense of humor was laughing, standing in front of the The Leopold’s old outhouse, out-back, laughing.

Leopold was a scientist who initiated and promoted restoration, land recovery experiments in the Gila National Forest in the twenties. And went on to do greater work with prairie restoration and forest ecology, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, until his death. His work still stands at the Madison Wisconsin U Arboretum in the hundreds of acres of restored natural areas. The Almanac is still one of the premier ecology handbooks.

He was a cracker jack ecology dude.

Anne Marie Chaker, in a Wall Street Journal article title The New Lawn: Shaggy, Chic and Easy on the Mower, written in 2013, asks “what if the grass in your yard was supposed to be that long?

Sara Stein in her book Noah’s Garden talks of accepting discoveries in the land rather than forcing them. She claims she’s a meadow watcher. A field behaviorist. A grasser. She says.. “there’s no other way to learn their natural history and therefore how to treat them” than to go see them; to live with them.

Neil Dibol, Westfield Wisconsin, in his paper titled Creating a Prairie Meadow Ecology as the New American Lawn in 2004 says

properly established and maintained prairie meadow is a self-sustaining plant
community that will provide landscape beauty for decades to come.
Flowers and grasses form a long-lived, stable, and ecologically sustainable plant
community. This concept of creating plant communities, rather than gardens, is the
central tenet of landscaping with native American prairie plants. This grassland
ecosystem supports a wide diversity of life forms including insects, small mammals,
reptiles, amphibians, songbirds, hawks, owls, and other predators.
My friend Macolm says that working with prairie is “tedious but exceedingly rewarding work”. I believe that to be true.
anyway, that’s all I’ve got.

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