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Lament for the prairies

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.

Brilliant purple wands of Spiked Blazing-star, Liatris spicata, blanket a section of Caledonia Prairie. Botanical cotton candy for butterflies and other insects, blazing-star is but one of many showy and valuable prairie forbs. On the other side of the road is the modern prairie: soybeans. The decline in biodiversity from one side of the country lane to the other is nearly incalculable, and makes for an utterly striking contrast.

A map of Ohio’s pre-European settlement prairie, from Gary Meszaros and my recent book, Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage. I believe that prairie was more extensive in the historic Ohio Country landscape than it is generally given credit for, and probably covered over 5% of the state. Our prairie biomes were incredibly rich in flora and fauna – by far the most diverse habitats to be found in Ohio.

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.

Smith Cemetery State Nature Preserve, a one-acre pioneer cemetery in Union County. This place, and a few other historic graveyards and railroad rights-of-way, are all that is left of the original 385 square mile Darby Plains prairie, which once extended into modern-day Columbus, Ohio.

Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, one of the great prairie grasses, against a stormy Darby Plains sky. This species, along with Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans, formed oceans of grass that grew so luxuriant that a man on horseback could be hidden from view. Settlers’ wagons were dubbed “prairie schooners”, as they were like wheeled ships navigating the seas of prairie grasses.

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”.

Fearsome as these prairie blazes were, they cleansed the prairie, and perhaps ironically, resulted in a tremendous surge of life. Many prairie plants, and by extension animals, are thoroughly co-evolved with fire. The oddity above is Rope Dodder, Cuscuta glomerata, and its thick seed coats apparently require heat scarification to burst them and set the strange parasitic morning-glory relative free to scramble over its host plants. Every site known in Ohio of this threatened species is in prairie that is regularly set aflame by managers. The plant above is growing on Saw-toothed Sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus, in a tiny Logan County prairie remnant.

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus tridecemlineatus, the prairie dog of the east, skulking in a Pickaway Plains prairie remnant south of Columbus. It is one of many animals and plants that reach the eastern limits of its range in the prairies of Ohio. Prairies bumped up against their eastern limits in Ohio, and consequently animals such as the ground squirrel and badger, birds such as the Bell’s Vireo, and scores of plants didn’t get any further east than the Buckeye State.

Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, star of the prairie and one of North America’s showiest wildflowers. No doubt it was common in many of Ohio’s original prairies, but today this beauty is reduced to a handful of plants in just a few sites. So named because the flower calyx is sticky enough to “catch flies”, this species is by far the largest of our seven native Silene catchflies, and a jumbo can be seven feet tall. This plant is a “prairie obligate” – it only grows in prairies in the wild, at least here.

Prairies play, or played, roles far larger than just the limits of their specialized turf. Towering sunflowers provide energy sources for migrant Monarchs that will end up in Mexico. Scads of Bobolinks will gather and fatten on prairie seeds and insects in preparation for one of the world’s greatest songbird migrations. These pied blackbirds will end up in Argentina, some 6,000 miles to the south. Large mammals such as Elk and Bison once roamed far and wide through America’s prairies, including Ohio's, their age-old pathways serving as conduits for many other animals and avenues of dispersal for plants.

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.

Many of our prairie-adapted animals have become imperiled if not eliminated altogether. Above, a Swamp Metalmark feeds on Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa, in a tiny Logan County fen. These lepidopteran gems were thought to have vanished from Ohio until Troy Shively found a small population last year. Historically, the metalmarks probably occupied most of the western Ohio fens – fens being the wettest, most specialized parts of the prairie.

A vigorous stand of corn, Zea mays, in a former prairie in Champaign County. Remember the old saying “knee high by the 4th of July” regarding corn? Advances in chemicals and cultivars have rendered that old saying completely obsolete. This shot was taken around Independence Day and the crop towered over my head. Such a “habitat” is nearly devoid of life, and many farmers take full advantage of the modern arsenal of chemicals to try and eliminate any other life forms than the crop of choice.

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.

Perhaps the best-looking prairie vista remaining in Ohio, at Gallagher Fen State Nature Preserve in Clark County. Had we only had the vision to set aside large chunks of prairie back when Deere inflicted his plow on society, we would be a much richer society today.


Steve Willson said…
Well said. Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen many small prairie openings disappear. In a period of two weeks someone hauls in a trailer and begins trying the mow the prairie into oblivion. The really sad part is when you find the site abandoned several years later and see a few surviving prairie species trying to reclaim their dominance in a landscape now filled with fescue and other exotics. I pass a site like this on my way to work and it disturbs me every time I go by.
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks, Steve. If only there were more people doing what you've done, we'd have a lot more prairie left. Keep up the good work!

Jana said…
Of all the ecosystems in Ohio, I love the prairie remnants best. I knew nothing about them just a few years ago. We must do everything that we can to preserve what is left of them. The best way to go about this is by spreading the word and educating people. Thanks for the enlightening post.

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