Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Road Home

This is the road home. It is the view as I drive south off the interstate, heading for my own little corner in the Flint Hills. The red vegetation is big blue stem grass. Late in the season it turns orange and remains until it is burned in the spring. If it rains or snows in the winter, the color deepens to a glowing red. The big blue makes the prairie seem alive all winter.

I planted native prairie grasses and plants back to about 22 acres of my land that had been previously farmed in an effort to restore the property. It took about five years before the big blue stem appeared. Last year, because my two horses did not graze it down and because I did not mow, the big blue grew to its natural height of about ten feet, and some bunches even taller. It was amazing to witness how tall those prairie plants can grow in one season if allowed, and I was delighted with the results. Neighboring pastures are all grazed by cattle herds and have no chance to grow to their natural height. It was plain the early settler accounts of grass taller than a man on horseback were true.

Big blue stem grass is the most perfectly suited plant for the prairie weather. Wind, ice or snow can not knock it down. If ice bows the stems down, once it melts, the grass stands tall again, even in the dead of winter. It converts sunlight into the best grazing available for bison and cattle. It is beautiful at any season of the year. In the spring, the ranchers burn their pastures to control encroachment by undesirable plants and to produce tender new growth for their herds. The prairie evolved with fire in its natural balance and life cycle.

In my fledgling pasture, there was enough grass to burn two seasons ago, and in the thick stands of the big blue, the flames towered and roared as the dead plants were consumed. I tried to imagine fire on the long ago prairies, where there had been hundreds of miles of unfettered grass to burn. What must it have looked like to those who lived in those times? Unimaginable.

What is left of the prairie is under constant attack from development, farming, overgrazing, herbicides, mining and the encroachment of invasive species. It is one of the deepest regrets in my life that I am alive to see the final days of the great tall grass prairies in Kansas. There is no turning back the clock. The vast oceans of this magnificent grass were rubbed out along with the buffalo. Only a few wild acres are left fenced in here and there in the Flint Hills, like a few head of buffalo seen around Kansas - mostly for nostalgic reasons - mere shadows of what was once a magnificence beyond description. Nature's perfect handiwork forged in the long natural silence on the vast prairies has been destroyed in less than two hundred years by the descendants of European settlers, my own ancestors. I passionately wish the prairie's fate had been different.

Early on the Kansa Indians were displaced from their Kansas prairies. The buffalo were destroyed next, and now the tall grasses themselves. The destruction we leave as our legacy upon these lands is not equitable by any reckoning under the sun.

My horses, Ginger and Annie, coming through the tall grass of my pasture. (They have fly masks on.)

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