I took a friend of mine, a professor, to see the tallgrass prairie where I volunteer as a steward. He listened as I enthusiastically chattered about the amazing array of plants, the value of diversity, the use of prescribed fire, and the excitement of preserving and restoring native landscape. As I spoke, he was silent. Finally, I quit talking and waited to hear what he thought.
“Weeds, Cindy. It’s nothing but weeds.”
How do you see prairie?
For Native Americans, the prairie was a grocery store, full of good things to eat. Bastard toadflax seeds were a tasty snack, the young shoots of many prairie plants tasted like asparagus. It was also a pharmacy, with plants that were believed to have potential to heal anything that ailed you, from snakebite to colic. The prairie contained roots used as love charms and fire-starters; leaves to smoke during ceremonies or — if you knew their secrets — plants you could use in concoctions to eliminate your worst enemy.
Early settlers saw the prairie as a place to conquer. The deep, interlocking root system of prairie plants, which evolved to withstand drought, were almost impenetrable to farmers until the invention of the John Deere plow in 1837.
For those who had made the long trek out to Illinois from the woodlands of the east, the Midwestern tallgrass prairie seemed lonely and barren. James Monroe, our fifth president, reported in 1786 on what is now Illinois with these words, “A great part of the territory is miserably poor… .”
Others, like myself, see the prairie through a kaleidoscope lens. It’s a place to preserve for the future through maintaining a vanishing landscape of plants, animals, insects, birds, and amphibians. It’s a place of perspiration — we invest in it through the sweat equity we build when we pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds, and set prescribed burns. It’s a place of inspiration: for poetry, art, photography, and music.
Some people argue the prairie has only the value we assign to it; that it has no intrinsic value of its own. I believe there is inherent value in the prairie, no matter what value we assign to it for ourselves.
But unless we take time to really look at prairie, spend time on prairie, and attempt to understand what makes prairie something different and special, we’ll see the tallgrass as my friend the professor did.
Nothing but weeds.
(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whitetail deer, SP; white prairie clover (Dalea candida), SP; halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), SP; autumn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; summer, SP; autumn, NG; volunteer, SP; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), SP.)