Over the Labor Day weekend I visited my parents in Minnesota. They live just west of the Twin Cities, on the northeastern edge of what used to be tallgrass prairie. They built a home on 6 acres—about 2 acres were seeded in shortgrass, and forbs like grey-headed coneflower, monarda, purple prairie clover, zizia, milkweed, and rudbeckia.
I’ve never visited in fall, several years now after the prairie was seeded (is 2 acres a prairie?). The side oats and little bluestem are filling in around the forbs nicely. But on the empty acreage next door I was astounded to find tallgrass—bluestem, switchgrass, and indian grass, all pushing 6-7 feet.
In the back of that empty acreage is a stand of trees lining a creek, and impinging on the grass is a stand of dozens of short maples. My dad said the land used to be planted in rye, and you can see it coming up among the native short grasses, but it dies out among the taller species next door.
Walking among those turkey feet (bluestem seed heads do look like turkey feet, as the common name suggests) I could almost lift myself into another time, imagining what it was like for Spanish conquistadors moving northeast through Oklahoma and Kansas searching for a lost city of gold, grass touching the bellies of their horses and higher. I could see how fearful it would be centuries later for a pioneer from the east coast—who lived among clear cut forests—unable to see a few feet ahead. What danger is out there? What evil lurks in that grass?
We lurked in the grass. In 150 years 425,000 square miles of grassland have been eradicated, from 1950-1990 alone an area half the size of Wyoming has vanished. Grasslands used to cover 1/3 of the world’s landmasses. All that’s left of the tallgrass in America is 1%, mostly a thin swath in the Flint Hills of Kansas, down into Osage County in Northeast Oklahoma. There are 5,000 plant species native to the Great Plains, but only 70 cultivated crops. In the Plains there are roughly 15 distinct ecoregions, from shortgrass to mixed grass to tallgrass, to conifer and aspen and oak savannah. A bluestem from Manitoba is quite different than one from Oklahoma, the northern one maturing much faster in a shorter summer, so there may be even more subtle ecoregions (is a grass from western Iowa the same as one from eastern Nebraska?).
Speaking of bluestem, a patch of it the size of ½ square yard was once recorded to have 130 feet of roots. The prairie soil has 60-90% of all biologic activity, and one teaspoon can have as many as 5 billion microbes. One square yard 12” deep can have 3-5 million nematodes, which consume twice as much grass as a herd of cattle. In 100 years the top 2 feet of soil is turned over by ants and other soil dwellers, like black-tailed prairie dogs, which we’ve blown up, poisoned, and vacuumed out of holes (there may have been as many as 5 billion prairie dogs at one point, but that number is now in the hundreds of thousandsranchers dont like them even though the most fertile ground is in prairie dog towns, which is why bison frequented them).
What is nature? Landscape architect John Dixon Hunt says there are three: wild, undisturbed nature; agriculture, cities, suburbs; and gardens. Since the first one no longer exists, which of the other two is the lesser evil? I have exactly three clumps of indian grass, five of switchgrass, and two of bluestem. I know the acreage next door to my parents will likely be smothered by lawn and have no native grass. But maybe if left undisturbed after being so thoroughly wiped away, the land will come back, though granted in thousands of years, and nothing like it once was, but at least something like it once was. Is gardening an act of preservation or nostaligia? Hubris or empathy? Is a native plant garden art or artifice? Is it a goal to strive for or a fading echo we should finally let go?
* The stats above were taken from two sources: Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage, and Prairie Dog Empire: A Saga of the Shortgrass Prairie by Paul Johnsgard. Both are excellent primers on the geology, flora, and fauna of the Great Plains.
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