In the composite image printed here are combined views of the layers of dense prairie growth at my feet, which I photographed during a light rain in northern Indiana on January 11, 2018. This is a bit of the story contained by a plot of less than two acres of prairie.
My friend Jack White, an ecologist, recently explained to me how he came to have a better understanding of the structure of a prairie. Jack already thoroughly and deeply understood prairies from reading more than a thousand articles and from all his years of field studies. How could he not understand prairies after looking intensively at prairies for fifty-two years? (He claims that he still has only a “rather rudimentary and narrow understanding of the prairie,” but maybe he means it in the sense that one can never really know another person no matter how long and intimate the relationship?)
Jack was working on approximately a third of an acre of a privately owned and cared for ancient prairie in central Illinois at the corner of two township roads near a railroad track. His work process is formidable. He knelt on a low platform above the ground so he could look down instead of across the ground. He laid out a plot of one square foot and made a map of that plot, which was the same size as the plot itself. He then mapped the location of every plant in the plot: one hundred twenty-five stems of thirty-seven different species. He then measured and described every shoot and sketched examples of each plant species found within this plot. That initial work on one square foot took three days.
Next, he expanded the plot to a square meter and identified every plant in it. Then he laid out another square meter next to the first one, and he clipped and bagged all 1,799 plants in the plot. He used a different bag for each species, and he sorted them by seedlings, by plants that were in flower or had already flowered, and then the remaining plants. He took all these plants back to his office to be dried and weighed.
During a hot July week, Jack was covered from head to toe in boots, gaiters, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, a sun hat with a skirt that hung to his shoulders, insect repellant and sunscreen. To shade the blazing sun, he worked under a large umbrella, which helped him photograph the plants in even light. He made a kind of slider on rails for his camera, put the camera on the slider about six inches above the ground and pointed the camera straight ahead, setting up a view that captured the ground and sky as well. Each frame spanned ten inches with eight to sixteen species in each frame.
There are a lot more details about Jack’s research that I’m leaving out, but you get my point: that Jack is a rigorous scientist. He explains that he was “trying to understand the demographics of the prairie.” He also shared with me that finally, after scrutinizing those two square meters of prairie for over 114 hours during a ten-day period, “I can see the structure like a map in 3D in my mind’s eye. It was a transformative experience.” As I begin to understand Jack’s demographic studies, I see that his work is an expression of love. This reminds me of Navajo writer Barney Mitchell, who wrote, “The greatest sacred thing is knowing the order and structure of things.”
At the edge of Kempton, Illinois, Don Gardner, eighty-six years old, has been thinking about and reconstructing a prairie for about forty years on his farmland, where he grew up. He knows that a reconstructed prairie is not nearly the same as an original ancient prairie, but it is still something that matters, to bring attention to and care for farmed land in order to replicate its previous identity. What Don is doing is far different than buying a bag of mixed prairie seeds and scattering them around the front yard, as some of us might do when our interest in the prairie is piqued.
When he was a young boy, he used to walk along the old nearby railroad tracks, where he saw various plants he was unfamiliar with. His father explained to him that these plants were native prairie plants and that prairies had covered the whole region once. At age ten, Don would herd his father’s dairy cows. He says, “Sometimes I would sit on a rail and look across this narrow strip of prairie, and I would close my eyes so I couldn’t see clearly, but make it sort of hazy out there, and I would try to project this prairie onto the horizon.” Rebuilding the prairie was more challenging than envisioning it, as Don found when he started out with seven acres of pasture land in 1974.
He continued to develop prairie plots across the field until 1990. In 2001 he acquired an adjacent field. Using seed from his core field, he planted the adjacent one that had been previously tilled for row crops. He gathered seeds from various Illinois prairies within 120 miles of his site, being sure to stay in ecological range of his land. He now burns his prairie every year after careful preparation by mowing paths around the prairie to contain the fire. When I look at Don’s reconstructed prairie, I somehow know that I’m not looking at an ancient original prairie, but I also know intuitively that I am seeing the results of a long relationship of nurturing and listening to the land. A staggering amount of time and learning have gone into raising this prairie, not dissimilar to raising a child.
These days I feel hopeful for our human relationship to the Earth when I’m with Jack White or Don Gardner. But simultaneously, I grieve President Trump’s recent devastating reduction, by 75 percent, of the 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. We can begin to imagine that this national monument will soon be opened up to mining and riddled with roads to accommodate drilling. This is such a tragedy, a huge loss of protected public land. Back here in the Midwest, we mined and farmed almost all of our native prairie ecosystems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With a few exceptions, only tiny fragments—scattered acreage—remain of the great prairies that once covered our region before European settlement.
I recently photographed two ancient intact prairie remnants in northern Indiana, both owned and managed by Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Both prairies are gloriously thick with grasses and forbs. Prairie dock, wild indigo, rattlesnake master, compass plant, leadplant, prairie dropseed grass, big bluestem, and many other species live in those prairie remnants. They contain great wisdom of how this region used to be, but one can only visit them with special permission from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). This is maddening and disappointing, but undoubtedly essential. Tom Post of the IDNR manages those two prairies by burning them in parts every year to regenerate the soil and by pulling out, by hand, the invasive clover and Russian thistle. He is the guardian of these two places of beauty. Without human guardians, the remaining prairie fragments would quickly be invaded by trees and shrubs and non-native species from nearby landscapes.
Prairie fragments are our only reference points for the Earth’s soil and plants that grew in the great swath of prairie that once stretched from Canada to Texas and from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains. These prairies are important sources of information for agricultural research, as we see in Wes Jackson’s work at the Land Institute, where they develop perennial grain and seed crops and research polycultures that mimic prairie ecosystems. Intact ancient prairies have also something less definable that has to do with a prairie being itself, in its original identity. It has to do with beauty. It has to do with how a prairie looks at the ground level and being able to see what’s right in front of you in a two-square-meter plot for ten hours a day for ten days.
When I first discovered the prairie ecosystem in 1978 near Salina, Kansas, where I lived, I thought that I might begin to understand the structure of the prairie by photographing it with rigor. I spent about a year and a half walking through and photographing, several times a week, an eighty-acre prairie that had never been plowed or grazed, owned by Nick and Joyce Fent. I thought that if I photographed as objectively as possible, I might not only understand the structure of the prairie, but also the structure of the universe. I spent about seven years exploring that prairie and others in Kansas and Nebraska.
I’m only now returning to look again directly at the prairie ecosystem that has guided all my work since then. I have witnessed changes over the past forty years and photographed these changes as the great prairies have become drilled and fracked, industrialization that has harmed both the land and the people who live there. I have realized that I need to study the wisdom of the healthy prairie remnants that remain.
I am indebted to both Jack White and Don Gardner for their time in conversation, email exchanges, and site visits. Although I did not visit the site where Jack worked while he was working, I did visit it later. Visit here more information about Don Gardner’s work; and here for more about Jack White. Thanks to Michael Swierz for introducing me to Don Gardner’s prairie and to Don himself.
Photo Credits: Terry Evans, An Indiana Prairie, July 17, 2017; One Indiana Prairie, January 11, 2018; and Don Gardner’s Restored Prairie in Front of his House, January 31, 2018. Used by permission of the artist.