You sow what you reap

(A version of this article appeared in the Sep. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

The eastern tallgrass prairie was a grass-based and fire-driven community extending from northwest Indiana hundreds of miles to the west. Essentially all of it – millions of acres – was destroyed by the plow. If this tapestry were a 1,000 piece puzzle, European settlers removed 999 pieces during westward expansion.

Volunteers harvesting seeds from Joe Pye Weed, a native wildflower that is a favorite of many pollinators.

During the middle of the 20th century, a few lone voices wondered if it weren’t possible to stitch together the remaining fragments again. The prairie restoration movement was born. But where to start?

There were no commercial nurseries with these kinds of plants. prairie enthusiasts turned towards forgotten corners of cemeteries and narrow strips along railroads. Here a few Native grasses and Wildflowers hung on with the strength of perennial roots running up to 10 feet below ground. Their above ground greenery grew back every summer and tolerates (to varying degrees) the occasional mowing or hungry cow. Their seeds formed the hope of the landscape artists.

Bags of native prairie seeds ready for mixing.

It is a comforting myth to hope that if humans just “let it go back to nature,” lost ecosystems of immense complexity would spring forth fully formed. But the prairie remnants are now too few and scattered, and the newly-arrived Asian and European weeds too prolific. The science seems to indicate that restoration for biodiversity requires careful and intentional work by humans.

Every week as I drive and bike through Marshall County, I am amazed to find new remnant prairie species in bloom that called this continent home for thousands of years. Pink and white pasture thistles, 10 foot tall yellow Prairie Dock, even prickly pear cactus in a sandy ditch! I am mapping each of these plants with my phone so that I can return later to harvest seed. From these stores, we can turn weedy fields and bare ground into a diverse network of these treasures, reminiscent of the landscape just a couple centuries ago.

Seeds from Bloodroot, a native spring wildflower that usually indicates high-quality woodlands, though I found some plants still hanging on in a rural roadside without tree cover.

 

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matt 9:37). We are already starting to collect, dry, and clean seed for plantings next year. Please reach out to me if you’d like to join the prairie party!

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