“What the Prairie Teaches Us”
by Paul Gruchow
The prairie, although plain, inspires awe. It teaches us that grandeur can be wide as well as tall.
Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.
Diversity makes the prairie resilient. One hundred acres of prairie may support three thousand species of insects alone, each of them poised to exploit – often beneficially – certain plants, microclimates, soils, weather conditions, and seasons. This exuberance equips the prairie to make the most of every opportunity, to meet every natural contingency. The prairie teaches us to see our own living arrangements as stingy and to understand that this miserliness is why they so frequently fall short of our expectations.
The prairie is a community. It is not just a landscape or the name of an area on a map, but a dynamic alliance of living plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, and microorganisms, all depending upon each other. When too few of them remain, their community loses vitality and they perish together. The prairie teaches us that our strength is in our neighbors. The way to destroy a prairie is to cut it up into tiny pieces, spaced so that they have no communication.
The prairie is patient. When drought sets in, as it inevitably does, prairie grasses bide their time. They do not flower without the nourishment to make good seed. Instead, they save their resources for another year when the rains have fallen, the seeds promise to be fat, and the earth is moist and ready to receive them. The prairie teaches us to save our energies for the opportune moment.
The prairie grows richer as it ages. Our own horticultural practices eventually deplete the soils. The topsoil washes or blows away; without additives, fertility dwindles. But the soils beneath the protective cover of prairie sod deepen over time; their tilth improves as burrowing animals and insects plow organic matter into them; fires recycle nutrients; deep roots bring up trace elements from the substrate; abundant legumes and microorganisms help to keep it fertile. The prairie was so effective at this work, that more than a century after it was broken, it remains the richest agricultural region in the world. The prairie teaches us how to be competitive without also being destructive.
The prairie is tolerant. There are thousands of species of living things on the prairie, but few of them are natives. The prairie has welcomed strangers of every kind and has borrowed ideas from all of its neighboring communities. In doing so, it has discovered how to flourish in a harsh place. The prairie teaches us to see the virtue of ideas not our own and the possibilities that newcomers bring.
The prairie turns adversity into advantage. Fires were frequent on the unplowed prairies. The prairie so completely adapted to this fact that it now requires fire for its health. Regular burning discourages weedy competitors, releases nutrients captured in leaves and stems, reduces thatch that would otherwise become a stifling mulch, stimulates cloning in grasses, and encourages the growth of legumes, which capture nitrogen from the air and make it available to the whole prairie community. The prairie teaches us to consider the uses that may be made of our setbacks.
The prairie is cosmopolitan. On the wings of winds and of birds, in the migrations of animals and insects, down the waters of streams and rivers come the messages, mainly contained in genetic codes, that sustain the prairie. Its storms swoop out of the Arctic or sweep up from the Gulf; many of its songbirds are familiar with the tropical rainforests; its monarch butterflies winter in the highlands of Mexico; its ducks vacation on seacoasts and in desert oases; its parasites hitchhike upon all of them. We think we have discovered the global village, but the prairie knew of it millennia ago.
The prairie is bountifully utilitarian. But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them. This is what, over all else, the prairie teaches us: there need be no contradiction between utility and beauty.
Paul Gruchow was an author and conservationist, as well as a student of poet John Berryman. Gruchow died in 2004 in Duluth, Minnesota.