The Preacher of the Prairie

3,882 total words    

16 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Roan Mountain, Tennessee

On this mid-April day, shining bluestar, prairie phlox, and Alabama snow wreath are in bloom, and the air smells faintly candied, as if a fair were being held just out of sight with vendors glazing apples in cinnamon and syrup. A hummingbird drinks from a coral flute of honeysuckle. A gust of wind bewilders a clump of switchgrass, and a bee fly buzzes toward a bouquet of wild red columbine, disguising its two missing wings until it lands.

Roan Mountain, Tennessee

“There are 330 plant species here, all native to the region,” says Dr. Dwayne Estes, the botany professor who planted this garden. This hidden oasis is nestled on the campus of Austin Peay State University between the president’s house and the science complex. Something flowers, fruits, or seeds here almost year-round, attracting red-winged blackbirds, zebra swallowtails, sphinx moths, golden tortoise beetles, and other wildlife that flew, crawled, or were carried here when Estes sowed the first bed.

Tennessee was experiencing a severe drought in 2007, the summer he joined the faculty. By the end of June, regional rainfall was ten inches below normal. River reservoirs dropped so low that hydroelectric power had to be cut in half. Then, August brought a heatwave that pushed daily temperatures past one hundred degrees. Defeated, farmers lost millions of dollars’ worth of crops. The governor requested emergency disaster relief for all ninety-five counties in the state.

After watching five Japanese flowering cherry trees outside his biology classroom die, he secured permission to convert the ornamental landscaping into a plot of native species. He also repurposed nearby mulch beds to create a three-thousand-square-foot outdoor classroom where he could take students on impromptu field trips and discuss the importance of urban pollinators. Here he delivers some of the impassioned lectures that inspired his colleagues to liken him to a member of the clergy. For these homilies, Estes needs no pulpit, because his six-feet-three-inch frame commands attention enough. His voice carries over the wind, traffic, and bird chitter, as he points out rare species that can be found in no other garden in the world. He pinches a leaf of bee balm that grows in only three counties in Kentucky and holds it out to me like a communion wafer. It smells like sweet basil with a hint of lemongrass. Raw bee balm is edible, but I do not eat it. The itinerant orator is already testifying over another plant, and I scramble to follow him.

Each species in the garden has a label noting its scientific name. Pointing to a small plant in the parsley family, which he refers to as Kentucky meadow parsnip, Estes says this species’ scientific name is not yet official. After identifying such a plant’s differentiating characteristics, it takes years to go through the peer review process to ensure its potential name complies with the International Association for Plant Taxonomy. The commitment to see each individual through to publication is a lesson in patience, for those who have ears to hear it.

Dwayne Estes, the Preacher of the Prairie in the APSU Botanical Garden

Estes is one of the preeminent botanists of the Southeast, well versed in over four thousand plant species particular to the region as well as their range, varieties, history, and unidentified brethren living in remote gorges. He squats on haunches thick as a linebacker’s, developed from holding similar postures for hours in the field studying plants. Last week in Pine Mountain, Georgia, he spotted another yet unnamed species. He has formally named six botanical species and has twenty more in progress. He rises agilely but bows again in a few steps to minister to a flattened band of beardtongue edging the sidewalk. “Somebody ran over my garden!” he fumes. The challenges of an urban gardener differ from a rural one. Rather than deer and other browsers, he and his volunteer gardeners must contend with tire tread, careless feet, litter, and human foragers. I am grateful that I didn’t commit this offense.

It would have surprised the experts of old to learn where species new to science are being found, says Mason Brock, one of Estes’s former students and the Austin Peay Herbarium database manager. When Estes started collecting in the late 1990s, there was a general sense among taxonomists that all but the rarest species had been described, and any unsung flora could only be waiting, like maidens, in the most pristine places. “Like on that poster,” Mason says, pointing to a picturesque photo hung on one wall of the herbarium office that depicts dawn in the Smoky Mountains. Instead, what modern field botany has brought to light, in part through Estes’s work, is that the richest territories for uncelebrated specialists are often the rights of way of old railroads, the margins of highways, and otherwise inglorious strips of land that for various reasons have been left untilled and free of concrete or asphalt.

What might appear to the layperson as wasteland can be hotspots of biodiversity. While reduced to less than 1 percent of the current land area in North America, remnant native southern prairies host more varieties of plants and animals than the Great Plains and the Midwestern Tallgrass Prairie combined. Of the four hundred plant species that have been described in the Southeast since 1960, 65 percent of them were found not in its legendary Southern forests and fertile estuaries, but in its less renowned grasslands.

Estes’s own origins may have kept him from being put off by humble-seeming sites or from being told not to bother by his superiors. He grew up in Bunker Hill, Tennessee, a town with about two hundred and fifty inhabitants on the Alabama border. It had, he remembers, twenty or so houses, a church, an antique store, a horse trough, and a gas station whose pumps never seemed to work. Fifteen miles away was the county seat of Pulaski, where more than one hundred years earlier, poverty, desperation, and grudging gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan. His single mother supported their family of two by juggling several jobs at a time, including driving a bus, working in sewing and automobile factories, sitting with the elderly, and waiting tables. They were members of the working poor, a class that is itself often overlooked, but he didn’t feel poor, growing up in an old farmhouse surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling countryside.

At least in the beginning, his passion for plants was practical, since he learned that harvesting ginseng could supplement his mom’s income. He learned what the natural world can provide, not from a local elder or a family member but from library books. The first was William C. Grimm’s Indian Harvests, which contains illustrated descriptions of forty food plants used by Native Americans, including fern fiddleheads, wild carrot (and its poisonous lookalikes), and pine bark that could be ground into flour for bread. The second was Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany, a more technical handbook of flowering plants. In Estes’s personal version of the book of Genesis, the word of man divided light from darkness, weed from herb, his life before from after. A comparison of the makings of a taxonomist with the Old Testament may seem far-fetched, but it is not. The Book of Genesis opens with God distinguishing night from day, earth from sky, and land from sea by naming each of them, creating order through identification. Not incidentally, the word “taxonomy” originates from the Greek word for order, taxis, and nomia, method. To call night “night,” or foxtail “Alopecurus,” is to begin to know each one, and where in the vast reaches of space the namer is. For this young scientist-to-be, botany bespoke the power of plants, and it was good.

From his time outdoors, Estes recognized several of the plants Grimm listed. He knew acorns from the deer he hunted, and hackberry because it threatened to overtake their yard. He hadn’t known that the pea-sized drupes are rich in protein and could be nibbled straight from the tree when ripe, but he soon came to value wild species and Native peoples’ knowledge of their worth.

Cherokee Prairie Natural Area

When ancestral Native Americans raised mounds at Cahokia, Etowah, Nacoochee, and other sites, circa 1050–1350 CE, they moved tons of soil in baskets woven of sweetgrass and rivercane gathered from the southeastern prairies, glades, and meadows. They sat on grass mats on packed earth floors and slept on braided reed cots. When white colonists arrived centuries later, they grasped the usefulness of nearby oaks and other hardwoods but did not realize the function of barrens. They could not see their purpose under the heavens. The very term connotes infertility, but barrens became some of the richest agricultural territory in the Southeast, supporting dark-fired tobacco, cabbage, and many other crops.

In time, Estes came to value the natural world beyond human purposes. Beauty overwhelmed a merely utilitarian perspective and instilled reverence. It follows that as an adult he would undertake to protect a realm he deems sacred, but the timeframe for doing so is daunting.

The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), an organization that Estes co-founded with Arkansas botanist Theo Witsell, is a group of biodiversity researchers and philanthropists attempting to rescue the remaining fragments of Southern grasslands before they disappear. “Twenty-five years will be too late,” he says, since 95 percent of them have already been destroyed. SGI works to educate the public about the most imperiled terrestrial ecosystem in eastern North America and to prioritize research on this complex biome. The SGI’s priority is to preserve and study native remnants, banking seeds and rescuing plants that have evolved over millions of years and threaten to vanish in a few decades. With no area to reproduce, wildflowers such as Tennessee featherbells, snowy orchids, and other as-yet-unidentified species will go extinct.

On the SGI website is a photograph of Kentucky’s last known bunch of Royal Catchfly clinging to a fencerow in Hart County. Its blossoms are a red squirt of sriracha by the roadside, at risk of being wiped away by a single herbicide-armed road crew. Below this tenacious perennial is a caption that explains its presence as a lonely reminder that prairie covered this region, long before cameras were invented. These landscapes were gone before the Southeast found its great oil painter to imprint their sublimity on our collective memory. No journals comparable to Lewis and Clark’s expeditions recorded the wealth of species before colonists stopped the regular wildfires that kept trees from overtaking the land. But sometimes, Estes says, beneath the shrouds of these canopies, native grasslands are still waiting to be released.

Grasses are even easier than flowers to overlook, yet the ancestors of every domesticated cereal crop, including corn, rice, wheat, barley, millet, and others, evolved in grasslands. Their surviving wild cousins insure diverse genetic material can be used to enrich cultivated species or even save one of these crops when a disease or pest threatens to decimate it. Wild grasses’ relationship to agriculture is significant, yet agriculture and other forms of human development have claimed their habitat so thoroughly that we no longer even remember the loss correctly.

“We often talk about endangered old-growth forests,” Estes says, “but we rarely hear about the loss of old-growth grasslands.” There is a story he tells to illustrate this tragedy, burned into his memory by his sixth-grade Tennessee history teacher, who inspired his students to imagine an early America covered by a forest so dense and lush that a squirrel could leap branches from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. That historic vision of the preindustrial world is striking, but it is not the whole picture, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. Estes corrects it, saying, “Recent ecological studies have shown that what we imagined as unending forest was actually a complicated and diverse mosaic of forests, woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands.”

Atlantic Coastal Plain Hydric Savanna

The tragedy of this mistaken memory, Estes says, is that it alludes to a widespread amnesia. Many imagine that meadows, glades, and savannas were once forests, or should be, and that marshes should be drained and planted, ignoring their inherent value. Bias against barrens have allowed southeastern grasslands to be destroyed at a terrifying rate, mostly unnoticed. Clear-cut forests scar a mountainside visibly, sometimes for hundreds of miles, but when an ancient prairie is plowed, the only apparent wound is absence. If no one bears witness to its missing sedges, wildflowers, shrubs, grasses, birds, and mammals, passersby see no more than the blind man in the New Testament parable before Jesus opened his eyes.

“The grasslands of the South, and in particular the Southeast, encompass a diversity of open habitats that beggar the more familiar iconic grasslands of the Great Plains,” E.O. Wilson writes in his foreword to Forgotten Grasslands of the South, an ecological guide by Reed Noss, the SGI’s Chief Science Advisor. Wilson goes on to call remaining grasslands “probably the richest terrestrial biome in all of North America” because it is not unusual to find over two hundred species of herbaceous plants growing in a single acre of its ground flora. But biodiversity is not the only contribution of this ecosystem. Grasslands also reduce erosion, control flooding, filter water, support pollinators, and store carbon.

The devastation of soil erosion during the 1930s Dust Bowl made farmers aware of the underestimated value of grasses’ complex root systems, which to some extent infiltrated public consciousness.Yet we have since encountered equally dramatic images of flooding in the Southeast, but the connection between storm damage and lost prairies is not as widely understood.

It is no wonder that many liken Estes to the faithful, since he must help others to see what can no longer be seen. Unlike those who rely on belief alone, however, he envisions an earthly landscape that once was visible. If we could only see those ancient savannas, glades, and meadows today, with our current ecological understanding, Estes thinks their importance would be clear.

He takes down a volume of The Third Atlas from the herbarium library and flips through its pages until he finds mention of “a stake in the barrens” on a 3,840-acre property owned by Captain Samuel Budd in the 1790s. Budd was among the early settlers who gave Anglo names to the rivers and terrain of the Southeast. Though “barrens” is an ecological term still in use today, the name reveals a misconception held by Budd and his contemporaries that later settlers inherited. Unaware of the barrens’ fecundity and importance, they devalued regions that couldn’t be logged.

To return these fertile barrens to plain sight, Estes has plugged Budd’s hand-drawn maps into GIS models. “Imagine having a feature you could select on Google Maps when you’re in street-view that could go back in time,” he says: “You could slide a bar back to view the landscape in the 1600s, the 1790s, the 1820s, the 1900s.” He points to buffalo trails on Budd’s map, black and white photos of meadows, and oil paintings by Philip Juras, a Georgia artist dedicated to recreating lost landscapes like the Black Belt Prairie circa 1775, and I do picture it.

Philip Juras, Oak Savanna, Sprewell Bluff Natural Area, Georgia, 2009

The good book that defines his doctrine is Gray’s Manual of Botany, and he stole it. “I really should return it,” he says. “I’m going to,” he adds, which makes me laugh, because I don’t know when he could find time now to do so. I pull the fat green hardback from its shelf in the herbarium library.

It has been over twenty years since the Giles County High School librarian asked if he knew anything about the missing text that left a gaping hole on the reference shelf. Knowing something about that book was exactly what he was trying to do. He knew that it could take his amateur studies to the next level, and even in high school he sensed his charge. The librarian must have recognized it, too, because the boy had already checked out every available plant book in the library. I imagine the reason his brain is a database of botanical information is, in part, because he had to return the other guides that supplied his early education. At home, there were no bookshelves or allowances for books to consult at his leisure, so he had to memorize each loaner’s contents if he wanted that information to be readily available.

Whether he eventually does return the manual or not, he has since magnified its reach many times over. He became a walking, booming version of its contents and, later, co-authored a regional offspring in its image, the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee. Both books contain near-Biblical records of botanical ancestors, compiling the stories of flora whose seed begat seeds that multiplied, specialized, and covered the Earth. Few books have the honor of such an ardent spokesperson, but the ones that do tend to rally a congregation.

Estes’s concern for rare plant breeds bespeaks his humanity, as well as his recognition of the need for help along the way. “Plant collections are subject to their own vulnerabilities,” Mason explains, giving the example of two herbaria in Kentucky that have closed recently due to lack of institutional support. Plant libraries are as easy for the average person to undervalue as a purple pitcher plant. Yet in the face of this trend, thanks largely to grants and other support that Estes has received, the Austin Peay Herbarium is growing. The second largest collection in the state after the University of Tennessee, it hosts over 120,000 vascular plant specimens, as well as several hundred bryophyte and lichen specimens, which it loans out to researchers internationally.

Every herbarium suggests a vast cooperative, because plant families connect globally. Soon Mason will be traveling to Japan to study temperate-region trees and flora that he says are more familiar to a Tennessee taxonomist than those of Florida due to the way the continents were joined. Even localized botanical knowledge is never provincial. If you look closely and with the right guide, every plant reveals an interlocking web of relationships. Yet the right guides, like the diverse habitats that support these relationships, are becoming increasingly rare.

Reed Noss reports in Forgotten Grasslands of the Southeast that the numbers of trained taxonomists and all-round naturalists are plummeting, in part because many schools, universities, and even conservationist organizations are training specialists in “ecosystem services” rather than ecological relationships, slicing the web of connections down to the single strands that serve human society. Such training exacerbates imbalance so extreme it can only be communicated in parable, for how can a lifetime of seventy to eighty years see far enough to know the consequences of such choices? There are only those who might explain that the trade involves a pearl of great price worth more than all of your belongings.

Faculty at APSU recognized this shift coming in the 1980s. They foresaw ecological training degrading as universities nationwide opted not to replace retiring professors. To protect a space where traditional techniques would continue to be taught, they created the Center of Excellence for Field Biology, which is dedicated to field-based training and research. This institutional affinity with SGI’s mission, Estes says, makes the campus an ideal setting for their mutual effort to preserve biodiversity.

Estes illustrates the importance of spending time in the field with the example of May Prairie, a thirteen-acre, virgin old-growth Tennessee grassland, which has been recognized as a national natural landmark. At first glance, he says, this gem may appear no different than a common pasture, but closer inspection reveals a profound network of hundreds of diversely adapted species. That some of these plants distinguish it as a prairie, rather than a meadow, glade, or fen, reminds me that to identify something is to begin to know it, and those who do know it speak in a tongue that few can translate.

Fewer still are the speakers who inspire future translators. After years of encountering naturalists primarily through written texts, to meet one as exuberant as Dwayne Estes is akin to spotting an unusual aster, as he did on a field trip in 2008, and recognizing that it is one of a kind. “We turn into a litter of puppies the second Dwayne steps into the herbarium,” says current graduate student Claire Ciafre: “Everyone pools around him when he’s on campus to ask questions about our latest finds.”

Claire is the one graduate student Estes regularly addresses by name. She came to APSU from a Missouri non-profit that gave her practice in managing wildland fires. It also acquainted her well with working in a field that, like botany, is predominantly male. “Hey, brothers!” is Estes’s standard greeting, which he apologized for when Claire arrived last fall, but she told him that she doesn’t mind being lumped in with the guys. She says, “He stills stops when he notices I’m there, though, to add ‘Hey brothers—and hey Claire.’”

Since prescribed burns are instrumental for restoring grasslands, Estes’s fiery sermons have grown literal since he brought Claire onto the SGI team. In addition to seed banking and reclamation, future restoration efforts will include controlled burns. Most recently, though, Claire has been identifying remnant grasslands limning natural ponds. This work involves picking through the margins of shallow sinkhole ponds encircled by trees looking for stalwart species that testify to their former habitat.

Prescribed fire, Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness, White County, Tennessee

Although less dangerous than the burns themselves, this work provokes another challenge for ecologists—to secure permission to study old-growth remnants located on private land. Sometimes, landowners refuse out of fear that Claire will report her findings if she locates an endangered species, and the government will take their property from them using eminent domain. She has no power to do so, but their fear makes clear that not everyone shares her professor’s devotion.

“Unprotected areas are currently at the highest risk,” Mason says. “Maybe we have twenty years for grasslands with no governmental agency or land grant institution to protect them, maybe ten, maybe less.” He tells me that while conducting research for his thesis he found a community of carnivorous plants living in a grassy acidic seep in the Caney Fork River Gorge. “But, oh, it’s so fragile,” he says, his blue eyes gripping mine. “All it takes is one four-wheeler doing a doughnut on it, and it’s gone.”

Marshallia grandifloraIt is as if Estes has lit a torch inside all his disciples, each in a different stage of spreading the word. They have taken up the cross he bears in knowing the obstacles facing the remaining native prairies and how short the timeframe is to save them. But one senses the rewards of having such a teacher, for he has taught them to speak in the tongues of grasses that stroke the air like the tails of foxes. He has shown them things hidden to most people, including meadows idling beneath the feet of forests. He has shown them how to press a blazing star to a sheet of paper. He has given them to understand the function of a garden that is not an orchard or a farm but a reserve of outliers whose ingenuity is a marvel at times comparable to miracle. They have walked beside him sowing seeds that, in time, will come to bear one hundred grains. They have seen tendrils split rock and others mire in tar, and they have grasped the harrowing odds.

Image credits:

Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Photo credit: Malcolm MacGregor

Dwayne Estes, the Preacher of the Prairie in the APSU Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Mark Fraley

Cherokee Prairie Natural Area. Photo credit: William Dark

Atlantic Coastal Plain Hydric Savanna. Photo credit: Alan Cressler

Philip Juras, Oak Savanna, Sprewell Bluff Natural Area, Georgia, 2009

Prescribed fire, Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness. Photo credit: Dr. Craig Harper

Marshallia grandiflora. Photo credit: Chris Tracey

  • Amy Wright

    Amy Wright, PhD is the author of two poetry books, one poetry collaboration, and six chapbooks, including the nonfiction collection, Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm (Iris Press, 2019).
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