Unplowed Tallgrass Prairie: Rarer Than Old-Growth Forest

The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Roadtripping at the End of the World.

I was born and raised in Nebraska, but my curiosity about the native prairies was not piqued until years later. In September 2018, over twenty-five years since the last time I lived in the state, I finally visited a remnant of original, unplowed prairie, located outside the city of Lincoln and entirely surrounded by the farmland that replaced most of it. I was entranced by what I found.

As an ecosystem type, prairies exist in conditions too moist for desert flora and too dry to support forest. Grasses are the most prevalent family of plants, both in number of species and in sheer mass. Forbs—which are non-grass plants without woody stems (so, not trees or shrubs)—are less common but totally essential. Trees are rare except near water.

The prairies of the Great Plains formed two to five thousand years after the last glaciers retreated. Retreating ice left behind mixed sediments that were gradually built into topsoil over many centuries with the addition of wind-borne dust and decayed organic matter.The ecosystem co-evolved with various animals including Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Rabbits, and Prairie Dogs, the last of whom played an important role in aerating the soil and creating channels for water penetration with their extensive tunneling.

At one time, prairies dominated Illinois, southern and western Minnesota, Iowa, northern Missouri, southwestern Manitoba, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas, southern Saskatchewan, southeastern Alberta, Montana, and the eastern parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. At their peak, the North American prairies covered 677,394 square miles, an area nearly a quarter (23%) the size of the lower 48 states. Within this vast zone, Tallgrass prairies grew in the east, where it was wetter at a lower elevation, and Shortgrass prairie in the west, where it was drier and higher, with Mixed Grass prairie taking up a wide band in between.

Grasses might strike most people as boring, but the many species found in Tallgrass Prairies are not the stuff of lawns. Growing three to six feet high, they send down roots five to twelve feet. Though their vegetative portion is the most obvious part to us—and is indeed tall—the majority of the plant’s bulk is underground; in the case of Big Bluestem grass, the volume of the roots is two to four times greater than the foliage. The masses of roots often form thick, perennial rhizomes that both spread horizontally and dig down deeply. How big can they get? According to Paul A. Johnsgard of the School of Biological Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the famous ecologist John Weaver “once calculated that a square foot of big Bluestem sod might contain about 5 5 linear feet, and an acre about 400 miles of densely matted rhizomes, from the surface to a depth of only a few inches.” Johnsgard goes on to say: “The strong roots of big bluestem have individual tensile strengths of 55-64 pounds, making prairie sod one of the strongest of natural organic substances. It is indeed strong enough to construct sod-built houses that have sometimes lasted a century or more in the face of Nebraska’s relatively inhospitable climate.”[1]

All of this plant material, both above and below ground, ends up producing a lot of decomposed organic matter every season: about 3000 pounds per acre on the surface and 2000 per acre underground. The turnover rate—from production to decomposition—is also fast, taking about 15 months above ground and 3-4 years below. This contrasts greatly with ecosystems that feature more trees and shrubs; with such woody plants, turnover rate can be measured in decades.[2]

Fire played a crucial role in maintaining vegetation on the prairie by suppressing trees, returning nutrients to the soil, and clearing away vegetative detritus. Animals loved the fresh green shoots that popped up afterwards. Herds of Buffalo would travel hundreds of miles to graze such spots.[3]

Native Americans called prairie fires the “Red Buffalo” and they set them intentionally as part of their gathering and hunting activities. Given that the prairies are only five to eight thousand years old, and that humans have been living in the Americas for much longer, the role that the Native Americans played was possibly foundational. Some have described their actions as comprising “land management,” but that term is problematic given the contrast between Native American and European relationships to the land, the former being more participatory and the latter more dominating, if not malicious. “Wildtending” is a better word.

The “opening of the West” to colonial settlement had a devastating effect on the prairie ecosystems and their denizens. The invaders who rushed into these lands in the 1800s, especially after the building of the cross-country railroad, plowed under the grasslands and hunted the Buffalo nearly to extinction.

The slaughter of the Buffalo herds by Europeans is an event of such enormous scale that I would characterize it as unimaginable. In 1800, these animals numbered in the range of 30-60 million. Accounts from that time describe herds of animals stretching to the horizon. Try to picture that. I can’t. My eye knows only the colonized landscape: tilled under, chopped down, or raked over.

The commercial hide industry is what lead to the Buffalo’s near extinction. Highly organized hunting parties killed hundreds, if not thousands, of animals every day. Hides were pulled off the carcasses by pounding a spike through the dead animal’s nose and hooking it up to a team of horses. The remainder of the animal was left to rot. Later, impoverished settlers collected the bones which were shipped to factories for making fertilizer.

Profit was not the only motive. It was well known that the Native American tribes of the Great Plains depended on the Buffalo for food and that by wiping out the animals, you would be threatening the humans. Decisions at the federal level in Washington, D.C., supported this policy. When a government intentionally sets out to destroy a group of people based on ethnicity, that’s the definition of “genocide.”

By the 1880’s the Buffalo had been reduced to a few hundred. Some were protected on private ranches by individuals wishing to save them. The last remnant of truly wild Buffalo hid out in a valley in Yellowstone National Park and numbered just 23 at its lowest point.[4]

From tens of millions to mere hundreds in a few decades: what kind of travesty is that? What kind of sickness has overtaken a people when they engage in that kind of behavior? This greed cannot be excused as human nature, since other people cohabitated with the creatures for millennia without acting the same way, and in fact expanded their range with their wildtending practices.

No, there is something special about Western Civilization, and I mean that in the worst way. The outbreak of brutality can be traced to the agricultural revolution, a dramatic shift that led directly to cultures based on hierarchical domination and to lifestyles dependent on widespread environmental degradation.

This new worldview took expression in the Biblical injunction in Genesis 1:28, to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth.” Other translations replace “have dominion over” with “rule,” “reign over,” “be masters over” or “in charge of” and these are all synonyms so the top-down character of this relationship is not in dispute. Contemporary adherents to the Abrahamic religions who wish to recast their faith as environmentally responsible must reckon with this concept, which is at the heart of their traditions, and without which the moral of the story is very different.

Believe it or not, the Yellowstone Buffalo herd is still threatened. Though it grew throughout the 20th Century, and in the past decade its numbers have floated around four to five thousand, its individuals are not protected from being slaughtered. If they go outside the Park boundaries, which they tend to do every winter in search of food and calving grounds, they are at the mercy of the “Interagency Bison Management Plan,” under which the Montana Department of Livestock and National Park Service harass, capture and kill Buffalo. Over 11,500 have been murdered under this program since 1985. The stated pretext is that Buffalo will endanger cattle by infecting them with brucellosis, but there has never been a single documented case of that happening. No matter what spurious excuse is put forward, the true motivation for the annual killing is much deeper and darker, and it is this: Western civilization is just that profoundly sick that it can’t leave this last wild remnant in peace. It must torture it; it’s in the cultural DNA. Witness this account, as posted by the Buffalo Field Campaign, an activist organization that defends the Yellowstone herd:

On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were killed, American Indian tribal leaders from around the country gathered near Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for the buffalo. The ceremony was disrupted by the echo of gunshots. Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle to investigate the shots. Less than two miles away, Department of Livestock agents had killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across a field to pray over the bodies, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal members present there was no question of coincidence: “They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day at that time,” she said.[5]

As the Buffalo were being decimated, the entire floristic web of the Tallgrass Prairie was being plowed under. Unfortunately for the prairie community, the soils it produces are ideal for agriculture. Explains Johnsgard:

The soils of Tallgrass prairie are among the deepest and most productive for grain crops of any on earth. They represent the breakdown products of thousands of generations of annual productivity of grass and other herbaceous organic matter. Because of these organic materials and the clays usually present in prairie soils, such soils have excellent water-holding capabilities. In addition to the humus and related organic matter thus produced, many prairie legumes have nitrogen-fixing root bacteria that enrich and fertilize the soil to a depth of at least 15 feet. Earthworms and various vertebrate animals such as gophers make subterranean burrows that mix and aerate prairie soils, in the case of earthworms to a depth of 13 feet or more.[6]

So for all the species of plants and animals of the Tallgrass Prairie—who number in the thousands if you count the insects—the end was nigh as soon as the Europeans arrived en masse, which didn’t happen until after 1850. Less than a century later, most of this unique ecology was gone. In the present day, the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem is even more rare than old growth forest, with less than 4% of it remaining. Most of that is in the western part of its former range, in Kansas and Oklahoma. In the eastern parts, such as Illinois, less than 1% is left. Like the slaughter of the Buffalo, a loss on this scale is unimaginable.

Agriculture replaces the wild with the domestic and in the Tallgrass Prairie, it did so rapidly, with deranged ruthlessness.

* * *

It was with all of this in the back of my mind—the Buffalo, the Native Americans, the untilled grasslands—that I visited Nine Mile Prairie outside of Lincoln, Nebraska on September 10, 2018. I was astounded, and in some way it was the highlight of the entire cross-country trip I took that summer.

The preserve is owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is located five miles west and four miles north of its downtown campus; hence the name. It is only 230 acres in size, which is barely more than a third of a square mile, but even so it is one of the biggest parcels of “virgin” Tallgrass Prairie in the whole state.

Nine Mile Preserve is not set up as a tourist destination. The parking area only accommodates a handful of vehicles, the entrance is not well marked, and the only signage is well inside. This is all for the best, as the preserve’s primary function is for research, and the fewer disturbances the better.

The first flower that greeted me inside the fence was the poorly named Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata). Yes, it was undoubtedly a mallow, and certainly poppy-shaped, but “purple” was not right at all; it was much closer to “magenta,” “fuchsia” or possibly “cerise” (according to crowd-sourced suggestions I solicited on social media). Regardless of shade, the blossom itself was striking: five rounded petals formed a cup, white at the center, was a dense cluster of light yellow anthers shedding pollen enthusiastically. The foliage was also distinctive: lobed like the familiar Maple, but with deeper indentations and sharper points. The shape could have been the print of some strange web-footed creature. According to Jon Farrar—whose Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains[7] I drew on for many of the IDs and much of the ethnobotany that follows herein—the roots are both edible (raw or cooked) and medicinal. The Teton Dakota Native Americans “inhaled the smoke of burning, dried roots for head colds” and drank a tea of boiled roots “for assorted internal pains.”

But what to call C. involucrata since “Purple Poppy Mallow” won’t do? Other common names include Claret Cup (in reference to the flower’s shape), Buffalo Poppy (a tribute to the prairie’s former inhabitants), Low Poppy Mallow (which describes its growth habit) and Cowboy Rose (a salute to the region’s conquerors). Personally I prefer one of the first two, and would reject the last one out of hand; my heroes were on the other team.

Purple flowers that were actually purple soon appeared as we went further into the refuge: New England Asters (Aster novae-angliae), with their classic, daisy-style flowers; two Gayfeathers: Rough (Liatris aspera)—aka Button Snakeroot and Rattlesnake-Master—and Dotted (L. punctata)—aka Blazing Star and Starwort—with their spike-like inflorescences; and Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia), renowned for their medicinal properties, and unmistakably identifiable by their drooping pinkish-purple ray petals and bristly collection of red-tipped disc florets.

Blue blossoms were displayed by only one plant that I saw: Pitcher’s Sage, whose scientific name, Salvia azurea, nails it; “azure,” the “color of the clear sky.”[8]

White was represented by the low-growing, dainty-flowered Heath Aster (Aster ericoides); the erect, brushy-blossomed Fragrant Cudweed, (Gnaphalium obtusifolium)—aka Sweet Balsam, Rabbit Tobacco or Poverty Weed (this last perhaps referring to its affinity for disturbed settings); and the cotton-topped White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)—aka Deerwort Boneset and White Sanicle—a plant that struck back against the agricultural colonization of its home. To wit (as related by Farrar):

The herbage contains the toxin trematol. Snakeroot flourished, and was apparently more frequently eaten by cattle, when woods were cleared by pioneers and more attractive forage was unavailable. When passed on to humans in cow’s milk, trematol causes milk sickness, the disease from which Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, died.[9]

Yellow was by far the most widespread color. Nebraska’s state flower, the Goldenrod (genus Solidago, many species), was in full summery bloom. I was quite taken by the Showy Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), whose brightly colored flowers climbed its spindly branches between splays of feathery compound leaves and slender green seed pods, still flat in their fresh immaturity. I was delighted to meet Curly Cup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), whose genus I had come to appreciate in the West—from the Smith River Delta to the Olympic Peninsula—for its intense flavor and medicinal potency. Like its relatives out there, this one was also used by Native Americans to treat various conditions: “colic, kidney problems, bronchitis, skin rashes, smallpox, pneumonia, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and saddle galls on horses.” Further, “powdered flower heads were used as asthma cigarettes by early settlers.”[10] Intriguing! Smoking has largely fallen out of favor as a delivery method for medicinal herbs (with the exception of Cannabis) but I presume the mode has declined due to an unfair association with commercial tobacco products rather than a lack of efficacy.

The yellow flowers that attracted me most were the wild sunflowers. My surname, Sonnenblume is the German word for “sunflower” so I consider them siblings. There were many kinds there,but lacking a field guide, I couldn’t identify them. I knew the genus—Helianthus—but what species was I seeing? Grosseserratus (Sawtooth), petiolaris (Plains or Prairie), maximiliani (Maximilian’s), tuberosus (Jerusalem Artichoke, Canada Potato or Sunchoke), or the plain old garden variety annuus? Were there also False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide)? Maybe!

All these flowering plants were mixed in with grasses. Some held their heads above, some filled the spaces between the clumps, and still others found a niche close to the ground. The tallest grasses were over five feet high, and it was a joy to stand in the middle of a patch like that. I tried to imagine what it was like when this was all you could see.

But when I raised my eyes from my immediate surroundings, I saw the fencing around the preserve and beyond that fields, roads, and buildings. In the distance was the state capitol building in downtown Lincoln (about a nine mile drive away).

Unlike most state capitols, which are modeled on the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Nebraska’s is centered around a tower. It was designed in 1920 and the architectural style is deemed to be “classical” but I would describe it as “proto-Deco” due to its sleek lines. Wikipedia notes that the 400 foot structure is sometimes referred to as, the “Tower on the Plains,” and I’m sure that’s true, but the nickname that I heard was “Penis on the Plains.” Not for nothing does that moniker fit. The undeniably phallic tower is capped with a dome that is in turn topped with a statue of—I’m not making this up—a man sowing seed out of a bag. Surely if archaeologists dug up such a structure they would describe it as a temple to fertility worship, wouldn’t they? And the difference here is… what, exactly?

Be that as it may, active processes of fertility and reproduction were going on at Nine Mile Prairie that day. Flowers contain the sex organs of plants and they are delivering an explicit “come hither” message to pollinators with their colors and shapes. That day I saw hundreds of insects: bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and more. Specifically, I identified three butterflies: the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Sulfur (family Pieridae, subfamily Coliadinae) and Pecks Skipper (Polites peckius); a Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus); a Broad-headed Bug (genus Alydus); a male Golden or Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus); and a Crab Spider (family Thomisidae). This is in addition to a multitude of pollinators including Bumble Bees. Where insects fly, web-spinning arachnids set up shop, and I found a big fat garden spider, striped yellow and black, stationed brazenly at the center of her net, which she had marked, running-light style, with zig-zags in stitched bold face.

Some plants were done flowering for the season, but I recognized their fruited or seeded forms: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for its spindle-shaped pods; Wild Rose (genus Rosa) for its red hips; Ground Cherry, aka Tomatillo (Physalis heterophylla) for its husk-covered fruits; and Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), for its round, prickly seed pods. This last plant I had grown back in my farming days, hoping to process it for its dimethyltryptamine content, though I never got around to that.

Another plant I knew from farming whom I had never met in the wild—and which was the most exciting introduction of the day—was Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum). I originally got seed from Richo Cech’s Horizon Herbs (now Strictly Medicinal Seeds), of Williams, Oregon, because it was indicated for lung ailments. Richo has a way with words and describes the plant’s appearance so: “Towering herbaceous perennial with deep delving roots… The large, handsomely and characteristically lobed leaves are very impressive, designed by nature to rise up through and push away prairie grasses. The stems are heavy, thick, hairy and green, glistening with fragrant and bitter gum.” He later adds this advice: “During dormancy, burn off over the crown every few years (they won’t mind, they are stimulated and cleaned by the fire and nourished by the ash).”[11] After years of ordering seeds and plants from his company, I came to know I could count on Richo’s dry wit as well as his botanical expertise.

“Characteristically lobed” as a description of the leaves does understate the case, though. Here, Farrar goes the further mile:

Leaves leathery, clustered at base, up to 15 inches long and half as wide, deeply notched nearly to midrib forming lobes that are likewise notched. Stem leaves alternate, becoming progressively smaller, bases clasping stem. Leaves hairy but not conspicuously so, principally along main leaf veins, rough to the touch.[12]

It was from this foliage that I recognized Compass Plant (who had bloomed earlier in the year). I snapped some photos with my phone and texted them to Clarabelle (my former farming partner), knowing she would be excited too. We had grown the plant in Oregon and I always wondered if he (I thought) felt out of place and alone there. This was a plant integrated deeply into a particular ecological community; with the other plants and the animals to be sure, but also with the humid summers, the frigid winters and the wide open spaces. Over the years, when I reflected on the nearly complete destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies, I often mourned for the Compass Plant. I lovingly tended him in gardens, but when he shot up his towering flower stalk, I could see that he was missing his grass neighbors. I suppose all plants are shaped by their community, but Silphium laciniatum seems especially so to me. All the sadder that his home range is reduced to such ragged fragments.

Early conservationist Aldo Leopold, who witnessed the destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies first-hand in the early 20th century famously wrote, in his book, A Sand County Almanac: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”

I’m asking.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press