For Amber Waves of Bluestem

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.

Coneflowers, goldenrod, and bluestem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Bluestem and Indian Grass Turning Color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Turkey Feet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

The Last Summer Monarch?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Nothing But Blue Skies for These Bluestem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 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.

© 2011, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Benjamin Vogt

    Benjamin Vogt has a 2,000 foot garden on a 10,000 foot lot in Nebraska (zone 5). Roughly 80% of his plants are native to either the Midwest or Great Plains. He is the author of SLEEP, CREEP, LEAP: THE FIRST THREE YEARS OF A NEBRASKA GARDEN (essays) and a forthcoming poetry collection, AFTERIMAGE (SFA Press, 2012). Benjamin’s poetry, essays, and photographs have appeared in several publications, including Crab Orchard Review, ISLE, Orion, Prairie Fire, Sou’wester, The Sun, and Verse Daily. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University. He blogs / rants about writing and gardening at The Deep Middle. You can also find him on Facebook, and if you insist, Twitter.

    Comments

    1. Sue Sweeney says:

      natural = untouched, not man-made; youre right its gone but that was probably 10,000 years ago anywhere there are humans they influence the environment.

      However, every little blue stem is a host of uncountable native insects and so what isnt gone is at least part of the native ecology.

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        I agree with you to a point. If everyone in my neighborhood planted one bluestem, its not a prairie ecosystemits not supporting all the life that depends on prairie. Maybe supporting a few things at most. Is that enough? Really?

        Reply
    2. Melnee Benfield says:

      I so enjoy and look forward to these postings. I learn so much.
      Thank you!

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        Knowledge is power, or at least its hope, or faith. Right? Glad you enjoyed this.
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Mind the Gap

        Reply
    3. UrsulaV says:

      Sara Stein, one of the forerunners of the native plant movement, suggested that what we are creating is a garden ecology. We cannot recreate a coral reef or a tallgrass prairie or a redwood forest on a quarter acre lotits simply not possible. Conservation of those that still survive is crucial.

      But we can create a garden, and a garden is a thing in itself, however small, and if I plant one and you plant one and the neighbors plant one, we are creating an odd little mosaic of congenial habitat, and I have to think thats worth something.

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        Hmm, I seemed to have replies to you in part when I replied to Sue. This whole mosaic ideawhich I do support, I mean, I have no choiceis not enough. I guess I feel radical lately. When I look at a mosaic from a distance, it looks whole, but its an illusion. Get up close and the pieces are distinctly separate. I dont know how one can take this metaphor and seem silly, but maybe everything unnatural can only be a mosaichuman culture, America, ships in a harbor. But then what is unnatural? Nothing, really, even nuclear bombs. Am I going off track?
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Mind the Gap

        Reply
        • UrsulaV says:

          Heh. Is it enough? No, of course not. But its what we can do.

          With ecology, its far too easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I fear. There is no bringing back a tallgrass prairie that covered a third of North Americathe cow is not merely out of the barn, the barn has burned down and been paved over and the cow has gotten a job at Microsoft. But we could recreate chunks, (as people are doing) and we could preserve prairie species in gardens and seed banks, we can create habitats where some of the creatures that haunted such prairies feel welcome. We do what we can to provide space for the survivors to figure out new ways to survive.

          To extend the metaphorif the tallgrass prairie was an enormous stained glass windowwell, its pretty well shattered now. Making a mosaic out of the pieces is about all that we CAN do at this point. What results may not be a stained glass window, but we still might be able to make something beautiful, rather than just saying Well, damn shame, and dumping it all in the trash.
          UrsulaV recently posted..The Return

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    4. Elephant's Eye says:

      I vote for nostalgia and empathy. And leopards in the mountains.
      Elephants Eye recently posted..To Driehoek in search of leopards

      Reply
    5. Gaia Gardener says:

      I was intrigued by your comment about how frightening the tall grass prairie would have been to settlers from Europe and the East Coast, given what could be lurking out of sight nearby. Id never thought of that, and its definitely worth pondering.

      As far as using native plants such as big bluestem and Indian grass in our gardens. I figure that, even if we dont use enough to create a prairie habitat right now, at least weve got some of the main components in place. A little is better than none. More is better than a little, of course, but well take what we can get. By having these plants in our gardens, we are at least saving bits of both the flora and, potentially, the associated fauna as sources for recolonizing nearby wild areas.

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        Are we saving bits, I mean real bits? Genetically pure and native bits? Im inclined to think not. We are saving something, but what? I guess part of my whole argument is maybe we should do NOTHING. I dont just mean in the garden, but even in land management. The more we manage, the more it seems we just mess things upand that management is so intensive, and requries so much vigilance, it takes hardly anything to bring it to an end. Im talking about prairie restoration efforts. Maybe if we stopped managing, stopped saving, eventually nature would do what it needed to despite our destructive and fake-constructive actions (how much of prairie is Disney Land?). The point is, too, we are too keen on looking backwardlets save some clumps of bluestem or some polar bears or some ferretsand that will be ok, weve done right by our planet. Have we? Too much nostalgia I say, if this makes any sense at all. It maybe doesnt.
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Mind the Gap

        Reply
    6. Gloria says:

      Ben, I have to say I disagree with your conclusions. Why do a few recent works hold such sway when there is such a bulk of evidence in the records. I take the word of men like Stephen Packard and others in the trenches doing the work and witnessing the amazing transformations. Biodiversity is the backup plan. While falling back and starting over may work in time, the human species may not like their place of order in the aftermath. You do nothing, Ill walk a different path.
      Gloria recently posted..Harvesting seed.

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        I guess I just dont have much hope for us. I have some, but not enough. I know there are amazing transformations happening, but they are happening because of the tireless efforts of a relative few, right? And if those few were to vanish, then what? Yesterday I was reading how ranchers STILL tie bags of gasoline to coyotes and light them on fire, or wire their jaws shut and let them go to starve, and how its considered a special day when a hunter can vaporize a prairie dog from a few hundred yards away with a high-powered rifle. Im not saying the fight for ecosystems isnt essential and right, what Im saying is, perhaps, that it is a surface battle only, not the causeand even if we win it, there is an underlying hatred of self that translates to the planet, an equilibrium that had not existed for millennia for whatever reason, and what is that, how do we restore that equilibrium? Did Eden ever exist in the context that we talked to animals, once understood them, as in many Native creation stories? Why is knowledge of the earth considered evil and subversive (hippy-esque, witchcraft, what have you)?
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Kiowa and Bison Story

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        • Sue Sweeney says:

          In the final analysis, its a matter of faith. We plant trees that take 100 years to mature. We save for our retirements because we might live to see them and then would be very sorry if we hadnt saved. Ditto, we save a not-quite-prefect blue stem that feeds some insects that feed some birds which saves something for a tomorrow that might come a tomorrow which can not come if we dont save for it now. One step here by you, one step there by me, and it does add up. No matter what the neighbors are doing.

          Meanwhile, you know the old joke about starfish? A man is waking on a beach where thousands of starfish were stranded by the tide, throwing starfish back in the ocean, one by one. Another man comes along and says why bother? you cant save them all. The first man picks up another starfish and throws it in. He then says: it made a difference to that one. And the same for the bird who is feeding its kids on the insects that ate your blue stem.

          Reply
          • Benjamin Vogt says:

            But the older I get the more angry I become. I dont think one person doing a bit here and another a bit there is enough, and its not fast enough. And I still argue its simply treating a symptom, not the root cause. We need to get underneath why we destroyis it because we hate ourselves? Is it blindness? Greed? I think it is the violence we show toward ourselves and each other manifested, and perhaps assuaged, in the outward destruction of our planet. What happens when there is no more ice, or corn, or fresh water, or oil? Will we finally turn on each other and do the planet a favor? Or will we go Star Trek and be a quasi utopia, balanced with each other and the other lives on this planet? My argument has been in this piece, and will be in my next book, that if we can let go of our conscious selves the planet will improveif our hands can let go of the planet, in destruction and restoration, and if we can just live in the nowwe will know an eve greater balance and connection.
            Benjamin Vogt recently posted..A Study in Sunflowers

            Reply
    7. Sue Sweeney says:

      For those who are doing the wrong thing such as torturing animals, releasing GMO species or pouring pollutants in their river: what goes around, comes around; every time, no exceptions. They will get theirs on their own no help from us required.

      My view is to concentrate on the positive stuff that we can do and be happy about it; ignore the stuff we cant control.

      Reply
      • Benjamin Vogt says:

        I do hope youre right. But before they get whats theirs, they will be rich and fat and have a good ride.
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..A Study in Sunflowers

        Reply
        • Sue Sweeney says:

          rich and fat, yeah, but never as happy as I am when I sit and enjoy the Scalzi Riverwalk, knowing that were saving it and its critters. Yesterday, after the workday, we were sitting at the waters edge, looking at the fish who were looking back at us. It was so beautiful and restful that we were late to a meeting and were the kind of business-like, considerate people who are never late!

          Yeah, a lot of humans are doing bad stuff like fracking, and may be the best thing for the planet would be for the human race to go extinct ASAP, but other humans are doing good. Who is to say where the balance is?

          Cant wait to get a copy of the book!

          Reply
          • Benjamin Vogt says:

            Im often on my hands and knees outside, not so much in prayer but observing. Maybe that is prayer.

            Its a good book, and I have some good / big reviews coming out. Theoretically. Just cant sell many copies yet.
            Benjamin Vogt recently posted..A Study in Sunflowers

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