Time Travel in the Prairie Grass

Update June 2017

Prairies provide fertile habitat for bees, butterflies, and various pollinators. This university welcomes visitors to the prairies—students “engage the space, see the integration of soil, and meet Mother Nature.” 

Nature Deficit Disorder 
Some people have little connection to or experience with nature, and many spend more time with iPads than in parks. Journalist Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon.

Prairie Preservation
This Nebraska family decides to resist the temptation to plow their grasslands under, and they keep their prairie. 

A Spot Where Cellphones Don’t Work and GPS is Dead

I can time travel on the family home place where my folks live and my brother farms. The analog zone is close–a half-mile hike from the house, through the back soybean field–but in reality, it’s more than 150 years away.

Since 1856 when my ancestors first broke sod on the open plains, the five-acre prairie at the back edge of the farm has remained untouched. It’s not the only virgin prairie in central Iowa, and it’s certainly not the largest. As a matter of fact, it’s rather nondescript—but that’s the attraction of it.

There’s beauty there, but you have to look for it–or maybe sense it. The coneflowers, asters, and other prairie flowers bloom intermittently throughout the summer, and if the rains have been plentiful, muskrats make dens and trails in the boggy middle part. The few scrub trees are surrounded by prairie “rip-gut” grass, and butterflies float from milkweeds to black-eyed Susans. Goldfinches and meadowlarks chirp, ants swarm on large mounds, and a field mouse scurries through the undergrowth.

The prairie’s true beauty rises slowly, like a mirage. Native Americans ride through grass that grows nearly horse high, while buffalo herds thunder in the distance; early settlers pulling Conestoga wagons branch off from the stagecoach trail that runs from Marshalltown to Fort Dodge, and on the horizon sod houses form silhouettes against the painted sunsets; prairie chickens and pheasants flee a raging fire that sweeps from the west and drives my ancestors back to Pennsylvania—but they return and start again.
From Great-great grandfather Bernard right down to Aunt Ruth who now owns the deed to that section of the farm, family members have decided to let the prairie live. Ruth’s late husband, my Uncle Pat, once said, “That prairie is valuable—it can teach us plenty. We know how to grow corn, but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” A bit of tile, a heavy-duty plow, and a chemical cocktail of some sort would turn it into a grain producer. For now, it remains a hidden island in a sea of corn and soybeans.
Cousin Dennis farms some of the bordering land, and he thinks the thick grass and established prairie life have resisted drift and invasion from the biotech crops and chemicals in adjacent fields. “Some university experts came from Iowa State once and identified 150 or more species in the five acres,” he said. I hope he’s right. Maybe the deep topsoil with its rich organic matter, numerous earthworms, and ancient microbial mysteries has a type of resistance to the changes around it.
I also hope it remains lost in time. I’d like to think cell phones don’t work there, Google Earth maps haven’t recorded it, and no GPS system will help you find it. It’s a connection to the past, a link to ancestors, and a sign of respect for the land that has been so bountiful for us in the heart of America. by dan gogerty (photo from U.S.fishandwildlifeservices)
Note: For more information regarding prairies, check this video about Carl Kurtz, a prairie expert. It’s also worth searching for his books, photos, and advice on the Internet.

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