[T]he prairie plants yearly repeat their story, in technicolor, from the first pale blooms of pasque in April to the wine-red plumes of bluestem in the fall. All but the blind may read, and gather from the reading new lessons in the meaning of America.
Aldo Leopold author, wildlife biologist and conservationist
They’re not towering, like mountains, or unfathomably deep, like oceans. They’re flat or gently rolling treeless grasslands — the kind of landscape that coastal types like to dismiss as “flyoverland.”
But prairies have their own subtle grandeur.
“To really appreciate a prairie, it’s best to go walk in it and sit down, so that you’re at eye level with the wildflowers,” said Margaret Kuchenreuther, an associate professor of biology and coordinator of the environmental studies program at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “I love how the grass looks like waves in an ocean on a day when it’s windy. It’s quiet, but with the music of the wind, the meadowlark, the clay-colored sparrow, maybe a few katydids, it’s magical.”
Three factors shaped the prairies, Kuchenreuther said: drought, fire and grazing bison. Long droughts invited tough, narrow-leaved plants whose roots extend far underground. Wildfires and bison kept trees away.
To a prairie, trees are invasive species.
So are corn and soybeans, from the prairie’s perspective. But from a farmer’s perspective, deep, rich prairie soil is ideal for crops. “We owe our agricultural lifestyle to the prairie,” Kuchenreuther said.
Early European settlers arrived to 18 million acres of prairie in Minnesota, the grass taller in some places than a man on horseback. Now almost 99 percent of that prairie is gone.
Prairies enrich soil, filter water, grow potentially medicinal plants. Prairie wildlife includes important pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.
“In North America, grassland birds have shown the steepest decline of any group of birds in our nation,” Kuchenreuther said. “When was the last time you heard a bobolink? Those require large expanses of contiguous prairie.”
Can prairie, once plowed or paved, grow back? Not easily. Some farm fields have been set aside for prairie restoration. But trees and other non-native vegetation have closed in. As for those three factors, the dry climate might remain and wildfires could rage again, but “bison? Not so much,” Kuchenreuther said.
A lot of what’s left of the prairie is fragmented, pieces scattered in ditches and alongside railroad tracks.
“And the way that humans typically manage the landscape! Even the prairie in their ditches they’ve got to mow, before the meadowlarks have finished nesting,” Kuchenreuther said. “Drives me crazy.”
Or as Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.”