Reimagining a prairie
… Stalwart plants grasp at our shoelaces, whip at our thighs, and send forth seeds to journey to new destinations upon our clothes as our little tour group continues plodding at an undaunted pace through The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands of north-central Illinois. Here at this nearly 3,000-acre site near Franklin Grove, Illinois, the sky meets the ground unimpeded and the forever vista suggests possibility.
Something from the human past seems to be whispering, “This is good.”
It has been suggested by Harvard biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson that humans have an innate tendency “to affiliate with life, to be attracted to it, to like its varieties, to enjoy and prefer certain qualities of it.” He calls this instinctive response “biophilia.” And surely the majority of us have felt the fascination, the sense of well-being and wonder associated with a particular landscape whether hiking through a national park or standing in the midst of a backyard garden in bloom.
Yet, Nachusa belongs as much to our present as it does to our past. Prairieland straddles the realm of reality and legend as one of our country’s most endangered ecosystems. When The Nature Conservancy purchased the first 400-acre parcel for this site in 1986, only small prairie remnants survived among the row crops. Some of the answers an unadulterated prairie ecosystem may have held regarding its complex role within the web of life may already be lost to us. But at least Nachusa has retained the bits and pieces upon which to build viable questions.
“We have to take a blank slate like these agricultural fields and turn them into a diverse community of native grasses, flowers and animals, which requires countless hours of detailed work,” says Nachusa project director, Bill Kleiman. Now, with urgency the country is coming to realize that many species are dependent upon this habitat for survival. We need botanists, agronomists, land surveys, and aerial photographs. We need hydrologists, entomologists, ornithologists, written accounts from early settlers, and the dedication of numerous volunteers to reimagine this system, using our best science and best estimates.
Our guide, volunteer Mike Adolph, stops the group’s progress when he spots an ankle-wrenching hole nearly hidden by the tangled plant life and acts as a human marker until the rest of us have passed by uninjured. From what is known about this land, it could be the former site of a fence post or perhaps the open wound from attempted eradication of an invasive species such as the multiflora rose. In the 1930s, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service promoted the use of this lovely enemy of the prairie for erosion control and as living fences to confine livestock. State conservation departments likewise recommended its use as cover for wildlife. Eventually it became recognized as a pest capable of invading numerous habitats.
There are likely many such stories of misconceptions regarding land usage concealed here by the chaotic growth. But there are also new stories built upon prevailing research and experimentation geared toward reconstructing this ecosystem. We now know that fire was an historic element of a flourishing prairie. And it remains crucial for the restoration and maintenance of preserves, stimulating productivity of prairie plants while killing woody shrubs and trees that would otherwise replace the grasses.
We also know that size counts. The Nachusa Grasslands site has grown to 2,826 acres, in stark contrast to the majority of prairie preserves in Illinois — and in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin — which are tiny, some as small as half an acre. The study of island biogeography has told us that small islands can only support smallness: smaller-sized species; smaller numbers of species; smaller populations within species. Only species vulnerability from disease and drought grows greater as parcels of natural landscape grow smaller. Although not surrounded by ocean, Nachusa is surely an island of life isolated by plowed land and areas of development where the rare and the endangered are huddled like castaways on a land out of time. In fact, Nachusa can boast one of the world’s first successful reintroductions of a rare insect, the gorgone checkerspot butterfly, following its rescue from smaller prairie fragments.
What is also known and must be remembered is that this habitat was very nearly lost to us — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of native prairie survives in Illinois, the “Prairie State,” and less than 5 percent of the country’s prairieland still exists. Also troubling, as the The Nature Conservancy warns, is that “the notion of bringing a landscape back to a former state is still a new one.” As a resource for the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Nachusa additionally plays a role in diminishing the ever-looming threat of future prairie extinction.
“The Chicago Botanic Garden’s seed bank is part of an international effort to cryogenically freeze seeds of various species … just in case,” explains Kleiman, and Nachusa is touted by The Nature Conservancy as “an exemplary source of seeds which may one day be the foundation of restoration efforts in other preserves around the world.” The Chicago Botanic Garden is part of the global Millennium Seed Bank organized by the Royal Botanic Gardens with a global focus on plant life facing extinction and on plants that have “most use for the future.”
Most use for the future?
There are obvious benefits to be derived from reincarnated prairie habitat, such as the return of the rare flora and fauna already found at Nachusa — the Blanding’s turtles, the bobolinks, the Henslow’s sparrows, and one of the state’s largest populations of federally-threatened prairie bush clover. And there are the less obvious benefits as suggested by research conducted at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab National Environmental Research Park in northeastern Illinois demonstrating that restored tallgrass prairie vegetation has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil. In other words, prairieland can assist in alleviating global warming.
But as members of our group follow Mike Adolph’s lead in crumbling the dried flower heads of the purple prairie clover to release its marvelous smell, the fascination radiating upon the faces of my fellow hikers leads to thoughts about the more elusive, the nearly intangible effects of natural habitat upon humankind.
Proponents of biophilia say that the natural world is an information-rich environment, and in its midst we can rouse our imagination, participate in new encounters, face new challenges, and push the edge of our creativity. The Nachusa volunteers, who spend tedious hours at work on the preserve, often on hands and knees, uncannily echo these theories. “It is one of the most exciting places to visit in the Midwest,” enthuses one volunteer while another claims that “the work is hard, but it is rewarding.” Yet another asserts that the planting process continues to “delight, educate, and challenge.” So, are we really dependent upon such natural areas for a true sense of well-being? Again, E.O. Wilson answers: “Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.”
We now search for the bottle gentian, a plant that in full bloom looks as if it is just about to unfurl its petals. Ahhh, here they are. After marveling over petals having the intense purple hue of royal garb, I take out my prairie wildflower book to note our find and in turn discover an interesting fact. “The bumblebee is one of the few insects strong enough to open this flower by pushing its front half into the ‘bottle’ and holding the entrance behind open with its abdomen and rear legs,” it states. As I picture an upside-down bumblebee with legs bestraddled, Wilson’s wisdom echoes:
“ . . . knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.”
Jeanne Handy is a writer in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.