Sailing on Oceans of Grass

“Prairie schooners” they called them. The covered wagons that moved across the tallgrass prairie of the American mid-west in the nineteenth century would have revealed no daylight under their carriage. Their wheels would have been completely obscured by grasses and forbs that stood five or six feet high. The only objects visible from afar would have been a few side planks of the creaking wagons, the canvas of their covered tops, and perhaps a couple of horse heads bobbing rhythmically among the seed pods a couple of yards in front. A casual eye cast across the prairie on a breezy day would have seen schooners making slow progress across the ocean of vegetation on which they appeared to sail.

I was in Illinois for a climate change conference. Of all the ecological losses that can be pinned on climate change, the loss of the tall grass prairie is not one of them.  Its demise was caused by the same forces that killed off the passenger pigeon and most of the buffalo in roughly the same period. The eagerness of white settlers to take advantage of unusually productive soil together with the power of their plow sealed the prairie’s fate. Today less than a thousandth of the original grasslands remain, scattered in tiny pockets across the central plains. Tallgrass prairie is one of the U.S.’s most endangered ecosystems.

Before the conference started, I went for a wander and found my way to the university’s arboretum and the nearby Meadowbrook Park. In the former are graceful pastures of broad trees, a number of neatly tended flowers gardens, a pond or two, and a handful of orderly-looking greenhouses. Dirt trails provide opportunities for pet owners to walk their dogs and for runners to do laps. Thoughtfully placed benches offer tranquil vantage points for students seeking a break from campus and for old men watching the afternoon inch by.

In Meadowbrook Park, a new cement path heads off in a loop through what at first looks like some untended, yellow-flowered plantings.  A few walkers and bicyclists move swiftly through the four-foot high stems. The first interpretive sign makes it clear that this is no ordinary unkempt plot. It is the beginnings of tall grass prairie restoration.

Todd EhrlichThere has been quite a lot of chatter in the environmental community recently about whether all conservation is now “gardening.” This line of thinking starts with the observation that there is no untouched nature left anymore. Every square inch of the earth reveals the human trace. Introduced species, fragmented habitats, climate change, roads, and dams have all taken us over a significant threshold. Beyond this threshold, nature has been extinguished and humans are compelled to assume active responsibility for deciding its new form. It is too late to let nature be. We have to steer our surroundings along a deliberate course. Some uncomfortable conservation battle lines have been drawn between those who think this type of management view is pragmatic and responsible and those who think it abandons the most important precepts of environmental thinking.

Both the arboretum and the restored prairie are in some sense “gardens.” They have both involved conscious design. Neither would be there without the introduction of seed stock and its careful planting.  Both require ongoing maintenance. (While I was in Meadowbrook Park a city worker was hoofing around a bottle of herbicide, spot-spraying for undesirable weeds).  You might say that both parks are there to satisfy some sort of human aesthetic.

But probe a little deeper and there do seem to be some differences between the two endeavors. The “design” of the arboretum serves nothing but a human purpose. It is there to educate and to inform, to provide a place for people to stroll and for scientists to do research. The “design” of the prairie restoration, however, as well as doing all of this is also meant to serve history and native ecology. It is an attempt to bring back – perhaps even to honor – something that originally had no design. It involves a bit of gardening, for sure, to reestablish the Andropogon gerardii, the Silphium laciniatum, and the Eryngium yuccifolium that belong there. But the goal is to re-create a taste of something that exceeds any human plan or project. To some extent, it seeks to displace humans from the foreground and return them to the background of the picture.

Patricia HendersonThe displacement, of course, is not complete. Humanity still has its print in the park in the form of the maintenance, the recreational activities, and the occasional viewing platform dotted around the site. Part of the park also contains a sculpture garden. Every hundred yards or so a simple plaque announces a piece of metal or stonework that is slowly finding a home in the landscape. Some of the sculptures border the edge of the restored prairie. Some of them are right in it.

Among the sculptures is one called “Prairie Buoy.” It is a seven-foot high piece of metal, a couple of feet around at the base, and tapering towards a small triangular flag that waves from its top.  It leans sharply to one side as if blown that way by a strong wind. For a second it is easy to forget that the sculpture is firmly anchored to a cement base and to imagine a dancing ocean stretching for miles around it in every direction. A sailor might brace against the anticipated heave of rolling water passing underfoot.

“Prairie Buoy” is, of course, a reminder of the vast ocean of undulating prairie that use to cover the soil in places like this. It offers, if you will, an ethical de-centering. Captured by this wonderful mixture of art and restoration, the mind momentarily wanders backwards across time. The directional arrows that point from the past to the present start to spin lazily on their axes. You look up to the horizon to scan the grasses for signs of a prairie schooner or two heading slowly towards a distant port.


First image by Todd Ehrlich
Second image by Patricia Henderson

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