In Praise Of Prairies

Each summer, I take a break from a structured life and roam in Nature throughout the United States. I have a special fondness for visiting tall-grass prairies where vast expanses of grasslands speak to me in the soft voice of moving grasses, gentle winds, and the sounds of birds. It is here that I experience a profound solitude and a deep connection with Nature. The prairie is also where I experience what has been lost and what is being lost.

Prairies-9393This blog is a meditation on what tall-grass prairies once were. It is also a lament on what prairies are today. Tall-grass prairies hold for us an important story of man’s interconnections with Nature both good and bad. It is a story where man’s reverence toward Nature contrasts with man’s senseless ignorance about his environment. 

The word “prairie” comes from the French language and means “meadow”. The US National Park Service has done a nice job of describing tall-grass prairies  ,parts of which are paraphrased here:

“…tall-grass prairies are an extremely complicated web of life. They began appearing in the mid-continent of the United States from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago and have developed into one of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world, surpassed only by the rainforest of Brazil. Prairie plants have evolved on a landscape that can be difficult to survive on. Climates on the prairie range from extreme heat and drought in August to bitter cold winters locked in ice and frigid winds.

At first sight, one sees a vast landscape dominated by grasses — some 40 to 60 different species. The other 20% of the primary vegetation is made up of over 300 species of forbs or flowers. The prairie also has over 100 species of lichens and liverworts as well as numerous species of woody trees and shrubs along creeks and protected areas. Prairie landscapes vary in soil types and depth, moisture, and slope. This creates many different situations and niches for specific plant communities to fit into.

The secret to the survival of the prairie plants is that 75-80% of the plant material is underground. The visible plants seen on the landscape are merely the photosynthetic leaves gathering sunlight for a much larger community underground. Just beneath the surface lies the main stems or rhizomes, running horizontally. Here they lie protected from drying, grazing, trampling, fire, and frost. Tough fibrous roots descend from these rhizomes deep into the ground. Roots of some plants have been reported to go 10 to 15 feet deep. On these roots, are microscopic “rootlets” numbering in the billions and utilized by the plant. Even smaller than rootlets are mycorrhizae that support plant growth by drawing in nutrients too little for even rootlets to obtain. The roots of plants are so numerous, that were one plant’s roots placed end to end they would stretch for miles. The competition for nutrients and resources is fierce, so thickly interwoven are plant roots that early settlers were able to cut bricks out of the sod to build homes and schools.”

My wonderful solitude while I connect with Nature in these prairies starkly contrasts with the sometimes destructive hand of mankind. While prairies are a living demonstration of highly interconnected, biodiverse, and resilient ecosystems,  mankind has succeeded in altering or destroying much of what Nature has taken millenia to develop. Man’s impact has resulted in the fencing of these vast stretches of land so as to fragment the habitat of many creatures. This has resulted in animal migration corridors being destroyed. With the introduction of domestic species such as cattle, largePrairies-5749 areas of plant biomass have been altered due to the specialized and destructive grazing habits of the cattle species. The image to the right portrays land that has been grazed by cattle ( left side of the fence). The protected area to the right side of the fence prohibits grazing.

The plowing of prairie land has damaged or destroyed the topsoil resulting in events such as the historic “dust bowl” removal of  topsoil by the winds. It is estimated that tall-grass prairies once covered about 40% of the United States. Only about 1% of these North American tall-grass prairies still exist.

Prairies-2755The story of the American Bison’s connection with Nature is also the story of America’s Midwestern Great Plains tall-grass tall-grass prairies.  The American Bison was a keystone species that was inextricably interconnected to these complex tall-grass ecosystems . These connections to the prairie ecosystems produced a unique ecology that has deep effects on mixed-prairie ecosystems. If you knew the bison, you knew the prairie.

It is estimated that over 30 million bison once inhabited the North American from Alaska to Mexico. Human slaughter of these creatures reduced the population to a few thousand. Because of subsequent conservation efforts, the bison population has rebounded to a revitalized North American population of about 500,000. Most of these animals are constrained by fences in mixed-grass prairie preserves and private ranches. Those bison that are part of conservation herds and considered to be truly wild, number only 20,000.

Research has shown the American Bison to play a keystone role in the health of the remaining tall-grass prairies. Unlike cattle, bison selectively graze in patches, leaving broad-leaved herbs (called forbs) and woody plants untouched. The resulting patchiness promotes plant species diversity by allowing the forbs to grow unharmed.

Spatial and seasonal bison grazing with the ongoing presence of forbs enhances density and plant cover above ground as well as gas exchange below ground. With parts of the prairie grazed, photosynthesis rates are enhanced because more light is made available.

In addition, bison grazing increases animal diversity. Prairies-9303Herds of grazing bison shape grasslands and create habitat. Prairie Dog foraging capabilities are enhanced. In turn, these Prairie Dogs are prey for ferrets, foxes, hawks, and eagles. Prairie Dog tunnels are homes for the Burrowing Owl, small mammals, and reptiles.

Bison cause nutrient recycling in prairie ecosystems. By consuming plants, the bison return nitrogen to the soils in the form of urine. This form of nitrogen is far more effective than that formed from plant litter. There is less plant litter because of bison grazing.

Fire is a natural and healthy phenomenon in prairie ecosystems. Bison grazing limits the loss of nitrogen through fire by reducing the amount of plant litter. Through grazing in patches, the bison helps produce patchiness in fire.

During my summer meditations while camping in prairies, I was deeply saddened by what has happened over the years. Highly complex, resilient, and biodiverse ecosystems have given way to the perceived needs of one species — human beings.

Some of you may remember Kevin Costner’s highly symbolic film, “Dances With Wolves”. Here, a lone union solder sought solace in the prairie where he met up with peaceful and conservation-minded Indians who had a deep reverence for Nature. He befriended a wolf named “Two Socks”. He witnessed the greed of the white man MexWolfOrg_1as he viewed a herd of slaughtered bison stripped of their fur but with their meat left to rot. In the end, the union soldiers symbolized an ignorance and a lack of passion for Nature as they shot “Two Socks”, and tried to kill off a culture of conservation-minded people. I confess that this movie caused tears to roll out of my eyes when Two Socks was shot. Then a fierce anger grew in my heart for the greed and ignorance of those who were wantonly killing off the prairie and other great ecosystems.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped. The grim statistics about the destruction of prairies teach this to us. And those like me who want to give Nature the opportunity to restore herself are stopped by those who refuse to remove their fences and want to continue the killing. I can only hope that my legacy, the youth who will follow, can somehow pick up the torch and carry on to restore and protect the prairies and the forests and all of the other good things Nature once was able to offer to caring people.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

7 Responses to “In Praise Of Prairies”

  1. Good stuff Bill. Thanks. Just down your way last week on an Antelope fence-mending project. Might be back next week.

  2. https://soundcloud.com/lindastonestreet/07-bringer-of-the-light-1

    This song speaks to much of what you evoke in this article. Thank you for illuminating this story.

  3. Very nice. My brain, as it connects to sensory imagery, is desiring…natural sound recording… to hear some of what you have the good fortune to see and beautifully write about.

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