A luxuriant stand of Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, shoots skyward in Marion County’s Caledonia Prairie. These massive sunflowers can reach ten feet in height, or more.
The accidental savior of this prairie remnant can be seen in the background. When railroad tracks were laid through the prairie, their rights-of way often protected the prairie vegetation. Caledonia Prairie, which is perhaps a mile long and 50-60 feet wide, is one of few surviving pieces of the great Sandusky Plains, a prairie complex that once sprawled over some 200,000 acres.
Prairies were considered wastelands by many of the newly arrived pioneers; places to be avoided. Because trees did not grow in vast sections of the prairie, it was thought that the prairie soils were poor and probably couldn’t produce crops.
How wrong they were. With the introduction of John Deere’s chisel plow in 1837, people finally had the tool to tame the prairie. Once the thick prairie turf was laid bare, the black soil proved to be among the world’s most fertile crop-growing substrate. In little more than a century, nearly our entire prairie was converted to the Big Three: corn, soybeans, and wheat. Probably over 99% of Ohio’s original prairie is now gone.
Native prairie grasses are volatile, and were the primary incendiary agents driving prairie fires. When lit, the prairie could literally explode into enormous, intimidating conflagrations that would strike terror into those who witnessed them. Dr. Jeremiah Converse, one of the first pioneers on the Darby Plains, wrote this: “The blaze of the burning grass seemed to reach the very clouds… [flames] would leap forty or fifty feet in advance of the base of the fire. Then add to all this a line of the devouring element three miles in length, mounting upward and leaping madly forward with lapping tongue, as if it were trying to devour the very earth, and you have a faint idea of some of the scenes that were witnessed by the early settlers of this country”.
Like vegetative icebergs, most of the biomass of prairie plants is hidden from view. Underneath the soil are thick tangled masses of root systems that might extend down ten feet or more. Not only are these root systems incredibly effective soil binders, virtually eliminating erosion, they are unrivaled filters, thoroughly cleansing waters that will ultimately flow into watercourses. Not surprisingly, original prairie streams were crystalline and full of fish and other aquatic life.
Homo sapiens may be the only animal on Planet Earth without a master plan. We simply don’t seem to have a collective governor to rein us in. Everyone wants more, and nearly all progress is measured by growth – growth in earnings, growth in population, growth in production, growth in jobs, growth in GDP, growth ad nauseum. And just where is that mentality going to take us, ultimately? At our current rate of population expansion, we are surely going to be the most short-lived species in earth’s history and the end of days will probably not be fun.
Such a mentality has been death on our natural resources; the very resources that sustain us. The fate of our prairies is stark testimony to our divide and conquer mentality.