The Old Stuff

In the days of the old prairie, its perennial members reveled in dormancy and cast their seeds with a starry eye and a mind full of hope toward the next vernal season.

Returning each growing season only from seed, those with a monocarpic life cycle, such as the obligate annuals, have no rooted memory of their hard work; only genetic memory contained in the germ left behind. The perennials however, are deeply rooted with a semi-permanence of interred vegetative memory and are much longer lived; some individual clonal species may be several decades or even centuries old.  Some perennials may flower many times and produce an abundance of seed throughout their life. Others may flower and set seed just once, even after living for many decades. These polycarpic plants are the most experienced at building soil organic matter and carbon stores with their complex root systems, forming the wonderful prairie sod that once bound to the earth the land of the Great Plains.  The old perennials rejoice in being renewed by fire, the ancient and highly experienced steward of all landscapes.  Some years, the perennials appear harshly set back by inevitable periods of drought, and then replenished during the wetter times, resulting in showy, floral expressions that are never quite captured with any sense of justice by paint or by lens.

Now though, the old prairie has been around long enough to know that its future is questionable, and in many places imminently ill-starred.  Even then, the prairie does not sugarcoat its complex truths or imminent dooms, even as it becomes rapidly lost in the Anthropocene.

Many of the prairie’s vital fires are put out with a fearful vengeance by man, and the once abundant precipitation is now mired – increasingly so along an east to west gradient – in swiftly changing climatic patterns that are absent of any historical precedence.  However, the prairie has the good fortune, with its knowledge measured in aeons, of having witnessed the rise and fall of many kingdoms of man and beast.  It knows man replaces nearly all of the old and complex things with his simple, self-proclaimed artifacts of progress.  How progressive those artifacts are remains harshly debatable along the sharply contrasted rural-urban divide, yet highly doubtful are their long-term virtues if one pays attention to the plethora of landscape dysfunction indicators.  Such signs are prevalent within and between every plant community worldwide (especially the much abused grasslands) and no excuse can attempt to cover the denial that any terrestrial impairment does not exist.

The old prairie’s members have been shunned by common garden plant elitists in favor of high-maintenance plants with no North American evolutionary identity.  Vast herbaceous communities that once ebbed and flowed a great grassland symphony in concert with the ever-present and unbroken winds are now oppressed by developers of all labels, rendering communication to other disjunct, fragmented and broken associations intermittent, faltering, and incomplete at best.

A prairie is destroyed initially by fragmentation, then slowly but surely by the invasion of exotics brought in by the construction of roads and their definite edge created by their use and maintenance.  Man’s equipment and clothing and automobiles bring forth propagules, many of exotic origin and noxious propensity, acting as a silent yet common seed dispersal vector.  A great many biological invasions begin with the cutting of earth to make a new road, and any prairie, man-made or remnant, is generally the first to receive the negative news.

But even against the rushing onslaught of the modern world’s challenges, launched through its myopic lenses and hollow political glad-handing, the prairie flies the flags of its true self right to the end, never deviating from a millennium-old fortitude of character and charm, nor departing from the beauty that still remains unmatched anywhere else on the globe.  Such pulchritude at a vast landscape scale is unfathomable to us, and therein lies the major draw to this herbaceous landscape community. And to those who have paid attention, the resulting loss of terrestrial greatness sensed upon fully realizing what once was is no longer with us, is akin to a fist in the gut.  Even deeper is the loss, and unknowingly so, by those who give not the slightest care to the removal of the old and replacement with artificial; words and photographs seem not to move them away from their seemingly willful state of apathy.  For a person to not know a prairie, especially one born and raised in a prairie state, is to disown the very reason why modern man is here at all: Without the soils that the prairies built, there would be no breadbasket to feed us. And despite all our modern ingenuity, soil is the one thing we humans cannot manufacture.

After all, the old prairie was once a part of the greatest and largest contiguous grassland biome the planet had ever seen. Never again will man, beast, or climate see the prairie’s expansive assiduous empire where the sky began, or even its most recognizable and characteristic flora and fauna, many of which are at the precipice of becoming gone with the winds.  Such an instance is exemplified by the severe decline and dramatic loss of little bluestem in every aspect of its range and habitats across the tall and mixed grass prairies throughout the Southern Great Plains.  Centuries ago, little bluestem dominated much of the area, especially within the Lone Star State’s dynamic landscape, and sadly, that no longer holds true.  What once was once near-solid stands of steely blue in summer’s early fields, and a rusty red empire swaying to and fro in every blustery autumn, is now a broken and squared off landscape.  The old prairie is replaced with a stiff and lifeless fabric; a land of tawny, tame, blandly homogenous, and solely anthropocentric visuals.  A land now of little function and service to wildlife and absent of any native aesthetics.

Perhaps in hindsight, but largely without such realization by those of the 62nd legislature, this is why Sideoats Grama was ordained as the state grass of Texas: as little bluestem declines in prosperity and abundance from the long-practiced and damaging deed of overgrazing — a cultural practice of increasing regularity since the southern bluestem range was first overstocked in the late 1780s — sideoats grama naturally becomes its successional replacement on a majority of sites.  But even today sideoats grama is slipping away, exiting stage left and heading to the far horizon of never-again, joining Texas cupgrass and Texas bluegrass, among untold others, in the land before time.  Practically all of the old prairie’s diverse floral homeland has been lost to the plow, disrupted and overtaken by exotics, religiously overgrazed, occupied by modern infrastructure, or converted to so-called “improved” grasses.  The remnants of the “old original”, as John Madson called them, are far, far better and always will be.

And for some prairie players, only their stories remain in obscure biological references under a coat of shelf-dust and in the memories of the swift and sweeping prairie winds; those whispered stories carried by clouds that only the jet stream and the eagles know.

“The Great Plains have been plowed, irrigated, overgrazed, planted with trees, depopulated of native wildlife, and built upon with cities and sprawling development. Though native plants survive in places, no natural prairie, functioning as it evolved to function, still exists.” – Mary Taylor Young

Though their days are surely numbered, there are some fine bluestem ranges remaining in Texas. This one is passed and ignored by thousands daily, the majority of them oblivious to such obvious beauty as they race down the highway. But just off the highway, one can travel along this old gravel road and marvel at the sights of Big and Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Indiangrass, and ancient Post Oaks. Along the margins of the road at various intervals, King Ranch (KR) Bluestem (a native of Eurasia and of poor range value) is attempting to invade the prairie. At this site, KR is simply a roadside weed and is unable to penetrate the dense, true sod formed by the big veteran grasses. Here, and scattered widely among other places, the old prairie’s tall, waving graminoids make their last stand as a part of the old stuff.

Author: J. Crumpler

Grasslands ecologist. Native seedsman.

2 thoughts on “The Old Stuff”

  1. Glad to see your enthusiasm for preservation/restoration of our natural environment. Seems those of us committed to this process are as few as the remaining intact relics.
    After a good deal of outreach to various preservation minded entities, it appears that many of the academics would rather talk and write about this decline instead of getting their hands dirty with actual field work.
    My solution is to actively engage in stewardship of my own little Cross Timbers/Grand Prairie/riparian remnant – a worn out family farm in Wise County, TX.
    Still a little early to tell, but after ten years of targeted restoration, cattle deferrment, and benign neglect, I am seeing hopeful signs of rejuvenation. In particular, Little Bluestem is making a comeback amid all the invasives like coastal bermuda, johnson grass and the damned KR bluestem. Post oaks are sprouting along fence rows and non-mow areas, along with other hardwoods.
    I figure in about a hundred years the place might bear some resemblance to what existed over one hundred years ago when my family clear cut most of the land for cotton and corn.

    1. Hi Bob, Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the kind words.

      The academic people are important to have around, even the ones who never touch a gram of soil. Their research is what backs up the theories and findings of the restoration practitioners on the ground.

      Shoot me an email some time using the form on the “Contact Me!” page. I pass through your area a few times a year and would be glad to stop by and look things over with you, if you want.

      And since you’re in the Cross Timbers, a lengthy and exhaustive read of the area can be found in E.J. Dyksterhuis’s monograph “The Vegetation of the Western Cross Timbers”. I plant to have it on the blog early next week.

All civil comments welcome.

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