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Continued: Prairie therapy

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 3, 2012 - 10:00 AM

When psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Reeve needs to unwind and recharge her mental batteries, she heads to the prairie.

Not the wild prairie, but the one she and her husband have painstakingly restored at their weekend home in southeastern Minnesota.

"It's therapeutic -- an opportunity to get outside and think in a different way," she said.

She loves walking its 5 gently rolling acres and seeing what's blooming and growing. "Yesterday, I found a grass I didn't even know I had -- hairy gama," she said. "I bent to look at something else, and there it was."

The prairie helps Reeve, a physician at HealthPartners, maintain the balance she needs to juggle a very full life. In addition to her practice, which focuses on autism and other developmental disabilities, she recently was named Minnesota's Psychiatrist of the Year by her peers and published a book, a survival guide for kids with autism spectrum disorders and their parents.

It's a subject Reeve knows not just clinically but personally, from raising an autistic son herself. Born during her residency, he's now 24 and lives at home. "Having a disabled adult child changes your perspective -- it changes the whole plan," Reeve said.

In a way, that changed plan helped lead Reeve's family to their prairie. "We were looking for land to build on when we retired," she said. "My son doesn't drive. He has to live in an urban environment because he takes the bus. The long-term plan is he'll have the house [in Minneapolis] and we'll retire down here."

Reeve and her husband, Mark Conway, alpine ski-racing coach for the Minneapolis school district, were driving in the rural area when they saw a "For sale" sign. They liked the 1995-built house with its post-and-beam construction, and the 20 wooded acres surrounding it. The previous owner, who built the house, had already started a prairie restoration on what used to be a cornfield.

Burning it back

Reeve, an avid gardener, and Conway decided to buy the land and continue the restoration. So far, they've done two "burns," torching the landscape to eliminate non-native plants. "The natives have deep roots; they'll come back, but the noxious weeds are superficial," Reeve said. Conway joined Pheasants Forever, whose members have helped with the burns.

"You need a crew, so it doesn't get out of control," Reeve said. "The first year I was absolutely terrified. Afterwards it looked like a lava field."

It was hard to imagine that the scorched earth would ever support life again. But before long, native plants began to reappear, denser and more vigorous than ever.

Last year, the couple did a second burn and Reeve took part, donning a firefighter's suit, laying a "water line" around the perimeter, then using a flamethrower to ignite the landscape.

"You burn into the wind, so if there's a gust, the blowback goes the other way," she said. "It's very scientific; you can't burn when there's high humidity or wind." Even with those precautions, the blaze re-ignited and started burning toward the woods. "I was looking in horror," she recalled. "We all made a mad dash" to extinguish it before it could ignite the trees.

The two prairie burns have transformed their landscape dramatically, Reeve said. They now have 50 to 60 native species, including wildflowers, native grasses and medicinal plants.

"We've worked really hard to expand the diversity," Reeve said. "After the burn, I put in two species we didn't have: blue gentian and prairie smoke -- beautiful classic prairie plants."

She also harvests seeds, drying them and scattering them to produce more native prairie plants.

Reeve is fascinated by the variety of native species now thriving on their land. She points out a compass plant, so-named because it orients its leaves to point north-south, and a purple hyssop. "If you smell the leaves, they smell like licorice," she said. When she finds a new one, she marks it with a little flag. "So in theory, I can find them again," she said.

Battling invasives

Reeve and Conway have become vigilant about keeping invasive species out of the prairie. Conway prowls for buckthorn. "He's crazy about getting rid of it," she said. She has a different Enemy No. 1. "I lose sleep over sumac. I've made a huge, huge effort to get rid of things that aren't supposed to be here."

When Reeve isn't tending the prairie, she's tending their large edible garden, which includes about two dozen different crops. "We don't buy any vegetables," she said. "There's nothing better than out-of-the-garden fried red potatoes for breakfast."

Does she ever, like, relax on weekends? "This is relaxing," she said with a smile.

Being outdoors in the natural world restores balance and well-being for their whole family, she said. Her adult son loves splitting wood. Her younger son, Luke, likes playing "Star Wars" on the prairie and helping reseed the native plants, sometimes both at the same time. "I'll bring a big stick and just whack and spread seeds," he said.

Kids, and in particular, kids with ADHD, benefit from being outside, doing physical things, Reeve said, rather than being inside playing with electronic devices all day. "Research shows that lack of [outdoor activity] decreases people's creativity," she said. "It's not rocket science. People who get out and take a walk feel better than people sitting inside all day."

Spending time in her prairie helped her write her book, she said, and she hopes to write a second. "I want to do a book for high school students and young adults with autism -- helping them live with it," she said.

She has a small garden at her city home, but tending the restored prairie is especially rewarding, she said. "This is perfect gardening -- just not the kind that anybody notices."

Even the drive back to workday reality, on rural roads vs. a crowded rush-hour freeway, is a relaxing transition, she said. "I'm absolutely fresher Monday after being here. It starts the whole week off completely differently."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

  • related content

  • Dr. Elizabeth Reeve and her son Luke in the prairie garden.

  • SURVIVING AND THRIVING WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS

    What: A Q&A session for children (ages 6 and up) with autism and their parents, led by Dr. Elizabeth Reeve and Elizabeth Verdick, co-authors of "The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents), by Free Spirit Publishing. "

    When: 10:30 a.m. Sat.

    Where: Galaxie Meeting Room, Dakota County Library, 14995 Galaxie Av., Apple Valley.

    Admission: Free.

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