ABOUT ROBIN WALL KIMMERER
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of plant ecology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse NY and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
It was a slow night at the Holiday Inn in Emporia Kansas, so the clerk had time for a friendly chat. Looking at my driver’s license she asked in her warm Midwestern drawl with a touch of Texas. “New York? What in the world brings you all the way to Kansas? You comin’ to see family? Last New Yorker I seen was here for a funeral. Folks move away to the big cities, but they always come back at the end.” I almost said yes, come to think of it, I was here for a memorial.
I remember the swish of big blue stem rolling above my head, the shushbrush of Indian grass soft against my arms, the rattle of wild indigo in a dry September wind. Lived experience and ancestral memory blur in the hypnotic sway of grass. The ground rumbles with buffalo. Is this homesickness for what I left behind or for what has left me?
If you stand among in the Tallgrass prairie you can discern the different sounds of the collective swoosh. Stems clack together at the base, the waist-high leaves rub with grasshopper buzz and the seed heads are a soft hiss dissipating above my head. Goldfinches bounce their wavy flight pattern above the waves, the rise and fall of their voices mirror their path and the surge of moving grass. The sound of the prairie is like the inhale and exhale of the land itself. The boom of a prairie chicken, the lilt of a bobolink, the rasp of a Sandhill crane – these are voices you may never hear.
But they linger in our Potawatomi language. You can hear that same sibilance in the word for grass, Mishkos. Feel the grass in the delicious onomatopoeia ofishpashkosiwagaa – the place of high grass. This liquid language rippled through the southern Great Lakes where Potawatomi and other nations made their homes. You won’t hear that either. Unless concealed in the word for what is now called Chicago, chi gagua taking its name from the skunky smell of wild onions that grew in the wet lakeshore prairie.
My grandmother’s name was Shanode, Wind Coming Through. Wind is the dance partner of the prairie. And every grass species has a different move; the whole stem of Little Bluestem shimmies in the wind, Indian Grass arches and falls, while Big bluestem waggles at the top and vibrates at the bottom. Switchgrass pirouettes in the air. Prairie Dropseed leaps like a fountain. A ballet of wind and grass – a dance that you may never see.
Like waves across a verdant ocean the wind rolled through Tallgrass in a nearly uninterrupted wave for 2,000 miles. Prairie covered nearly a third of the continent, with its fringed edge tickling the eastern forests and southern Great Lakes to where its fabric thinned to desert in the arid west, from Manitoba in the north to Kansas in the south.
Conservation biologists have given us a term for what we already knew – that many people are simply oblivious to the natural world, especially plants. Charismatic megafauna like polar bears and pandas get lots of attention, funding and research – while less obvious green beings may slip away with scarcely a nod. They’ve called it plant blindness. We’re blind to so much more.
The grasslands we know best are our lawns, where grasses are tortured to an ideal of shorn uniformity at the price of endless labor, energy and chemicals. This residential grassland bears no resemblance to wild grass. The grassland you may never see.
I was once blind to prairie. When I was a young plant ecologist, a girl from the forest on the way to the American Midwest, I confess that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about prairies. I imagined a big field of unmown grass, one-dimensional and as dull as mid-western people. I was wrong on both counts. The moment I slid into the head-high flow, and inhaled that grass perfume, all my senses recalibrated. I could see, hear and feel what I never could have imagined: grass hung with tiny pink stamens and feathery stigmas clothed in dew, the thrum of a thousand bees, the brush of butterflies, the rising of flowers.
The Tallgrass Prairie ranks among the top ten most biodiverse ecoregions and the most endangered. Once known as the American Midwest’s largest and most productive habitat, it is home to at least 300 species of plants, 1,500 kinds of insects, 250 birds and myriad citizens of the soil, all of whom are inextricably tangled together by the unbreakable knots of prairie sod. Many of the species are in grave jeopardy, hovering at the brink of extinction: Dickcissel, Fringed Prairie Orchid, Powesheik Skipperling.
In those wet Chicago prairies lived one of the first prairie plants to be declared extinct. Under the towering grasses an astute botany graduate student found a plant wholly new to science, which, in 1914 was given the name Thismia americana. She had to be sharp-eyed indeed for its white flowers were as small as a bead and it lived completely without leaves. Five years after it was first discovered, its new name recorded in the annals of science and a thesis duly written – it vanished. Botanists have searched in vain and never seen it again. Today that prairie lies beneath an industrial complex.
Thismia was lost by accident, like a sparkling bead dangling from a thread on an earring that slips loose and drops down the drain. The world is less beautiful for its loss and becomes more vulnerable to further unravelling. But the loss of the Tallgrass prairie was not a single dropped bead – it’s more like pawning all your grandmother’s jewellery, for cash on a Saturday night. The whole shebang, sold off for a questionable price. Once encompassing 170 million acres of a storied cultural landscape, today less than 1% of prairie remains.
As we stand together for Remembrance Day For Lost Species, I want to raise a song for all of those beings knit together by the roots of prairie sod. I refuse to write a eulogy for one alone, because the very notion of separability is at the root of the crisis we have created. The life of one is inseparable from the life of another. Our work is not to eulogize them, but to fuel the fires of renewal.
Ecologists name the many types of grassland as shortgrass, bunchgrass, mixed grass prairies, sand prairies, wet prairies, lime prairies using a gradient based on moisture and soil. Basically, prairies occur where it’s too dry for trees, where the rainfall is only 30-35 inches per year. Grasses are suited to these places; their narrow leaves slow water loss and their vast fibrous roots excel at capturing moisture. The highest form of prairie, pun intended, lives in the upper Midwest where the right mix of soil and water grew the tapestry of the Tall Grass.
Settlers gave historic accounts of an “inland sea of grass” so tall by September that a man on horseback could disappear in the waves. I’ve stood in a sward of Tall Grass in Wisconsin, where all you see is the mesmerizing sway, as it rubs against your body from ankle to forehead. Eye to stem with the grass you see they are not only green in color. There are nodes of purple, amber striped leaves, joints of cherry red. And flowers.
The prairies have been here far longer than people, forming on wind-blown loess, 25,000 years in the making. The most robust prairie stands on the shoulders of soil made in a time of dramatic climate change at the end of the last glaciation, when great winds blew dry silt in dunes that covered the midsection of the continent. About 12,000 years ago the grasses arrived and continued the building.
One of the marvels of the prairie is that the grasses, which grow as high as 6-8 feet, only represents one third of the plant. Most of the plant is underground, with a fibrous network binding the soil to a depth of up to ten feet making a nearly impenetrable sod. Unlike long-lived tree roots, grass roots live and die in rapid succession, their bodies adding compost, building a sponge for water and nutrients.
One of the only beings who could penetrate the tough sod was the prairie dog, an extraordinary digger whose burrows channelled water and nutrients deep underground. Its doorways and diggings aerated the soil and provided unique germination spots for diverse prairie species. This keystone species of prairie life has been eliminated from much of its range.
The range of the prairie corresponds to what people living on the east or west coasts call ‘flyover’ country. But when you fly over, you look down at a monotonous grid of corn and soybeans 1,500 miles wide. Nowhere to be seen is the native grassland that hugs the subtle slopes, the brocade of grass and flowers. We don’t see it – not because we have ‘plant blindness’, but because it’s gone. What we don’t see is one of the rarest ecosystems in North America, which paradoxically was once the most abundant.
Even if you could walk an old prairie trail of the 1700s, it’s likely you’d still be blind to its true nature. You can appreciate the Tallgrass as a snapshot on an August day when the grass is tall and the sunflowers even taller. But to really see it takes time, its fullness revealed in its unfolding, not as a still-life painting but as an exquisite film. The scene begins with a clump of early Pasque flowers in April, pushing up through dead grass. They are followed by a smattering of bird-foot violet, showy flowers on display for the earliest bees. The grass wakes from winter more slowly, emerging after the first blossoms, but then the race is on. The flowers stay just ahead of the grass so that their colors grace the top canopy and are visible to pollinators. The bloom progresses in synchrony with the accelerating height of the grasses, like a rising tide of color engulfed in a wave of grass. Hoary puccoon, Milkweed, wild indigo, lead plant, gay feather, mountain mint, rattlesnake master, each taking their place in the unscrolling order until the film score turns at last to variations on a theme of sunflowers. The prairie becomes yellow yellow yellow, turning their faces to return the gaze of the sun.
At the height of the season, with the tapestry now fully embroidered with bloom and birds and buffalo, when the seeds begin to ripen in clouds of burgundy, caramel and gold between warm black earth and faultless blue sky, I think this place is best called prayery.
Before the first snow, the grass has lodged, the seeds have flown and your feet tangle in the thick thatch of dead brown grass. But the dance is not over; it’s time for the firebird. Prairies are an ecosystem designed to burn. Evolution has produced extraordinary adaptations for fire resistance and resilience in the aftermath. Fire in the dry grass, at the turning of the season, burns off the past year’s thatch and returns it as minerals to the soil. Unlike trees and shrubs with above-ground buds, the growing points of grasses and forbs are below ground, protected from fire. The burn rushes over the ground consuming spent grasses and leaving the underground prairie untouched.
The few savannah oaks that dot the grasslands have thick insulating bark that does not flinch at fire, while the susceptible forest trees are killed back. Prairie depends on fire to keep trees from encroaching and to stimulate grass regrowth by removing the stifling mulch. Fire is not a universal positive since flames can volatilize nitrogen, sending nutrients up in smoke and depleting the soil. So among the fire dependent species are nitrogen-fixers like prairie bush clover and wild indigo who replenish it.
Some ignitions were surely caused by lightning and doused by the ensuing rain. But native prairie dwellers used sophisticated knowledge of plant ecology and fire behavior to ignite fires that were good for people and good for prairie. Burning enabled root digging for food and medicine and stimulated berry growth at woodland edges. Fire was used for village clearing, to create paths, for gardens and for hunting. Newly burned patches sprout tender, nutritious grasses which attract the buffalo and deer like a magnet. The wandering of herds could be directed by the location of burned patches, hence the use of the fire stick to bring them near. Fire enhanced biodiversity and thus created food security. Native people and the prairie were linked in reciprocity by intentional burning. The prairies needed their people.
And the people needed buffalo, who were once the most abundant grazers on the continent. Their numbers in 1871 were estimated at 15 million animals. By 1903, only thirty-four remained. The loss to the prairie was devastating. It has been said that the prairie made the buffalo and the buffalo made the prairie. The creature was a keystone species, fertilizing the soil, regulating plant growth and creating new habitats. Concentrated herds would trample the grass and tear up the soil in their wallows, as they rolled to coat themselves in mud or dust. There are species that live only in old wallows. What becomes of them when the buffalo are gone?
The buffalo did not disappear by accident. They were extirpated from their range as a tool of imperialism. The US Department of War, charged with solving “The Indian Problem”, sought to eliminate the Plains Indians by removing their primary food source. Buffalo were of course so much more than food. The creature was a cultural keystone, a sacred being, a spiritual teacher and a source of identity.
The people of the prairie did not disappear by accident, either. Not far from where Thismia americana was last seen, the United States met in treaty negotiations with the people of the Three Fires Confederacy, the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. Potawatomi leaders resisted the demands for more land stating:
When you first spoke to us for lands …we said we had a little, and agreed to sell you a piece of it; but we told you we could spare no more. Now you ask us again. You are never satisfied! … our land has been wasting away ever since the white people became our neighbors, and we have now hardly enough left to cover the bones of our tribe.
I’ve seen the names of my ancestors on that treaty, the father of Wind Blowing Through. Just twelve years later, after the second Treaty of Chicago in 1833, the people of the Fire were forced to cede all of their remaining homelands. Ancestral land was exchanged for “unspecified lands west of the Mississippi”. With a stroke of that pen, the prairies lost their partners, the people.
It was common in treaty language to signify that the agreement between sovereigns will endure as “long as the grass shall grow”, the truest expectation of perpetuity that the people could imagine, on both sides of the treaty table. And here we are.
Settlers called the prairie “The Great American Desert.” The unyielding sod couldn’t be “plow broke” by the wooden or iron ploughs of the east. For many years it refused to be tamed. Ultimately, though, the prairies were destroyed. The same year that the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their homes, John Deere manufactured the first steel “plow that broke the prairie.” It sure did. It all got “broke” at the same time — the prairie, the treaties and the relationship between people and land.
Between 1800 and 1930, 95% of the world’s Tallgrass prairie was converted to farmland. Fire was suppressed. What took 12,000 years to become rich with thousands of species, took only 120 years to turn into an ecological desert, composed essentially of two species: corn and soybeans.
The sun, sun sun in a faultless blue sky
The sun made the grasses, the grasses made buffalo
The buffalo made wallows, the wallows made flowers and the flowers made butterflies
The buffalo made people and people made fire
Fire made prairie and prairie made fire
The wind made the soil and the soil made the grass
The grass made grasshoppers and the hoppers made larks
The larks brought the seeds and the seed made the voles
The voles made the hawk and the hawk called the warning
We have unmade it all.
The conversion of prairie to industrial agriculture has fed billions of people. However, today, less than 10% of the US corn crop finds its way directly to your plate. More than half is used to produce ethanol and the rest is fed to livestock. We pay the price of unsustainable agriculture in eroded soil, pesticide load, contaminated water and the uncountable loss of the prairie.
The Tallgrass prairie today is classified as “functionally extinct”. It exists in such small fragments as to be barely self-sustaining. Many remnants are found along railroad tracks where fires are often ignited by sparks – and in cemeteries which were spared the plow. Historic records and recent resurveys of these precious fragments show us that year by year they lose species in a downward spiral, each loss taking another one with it. Edge effects and invasive species endanger the ones who are left, including the ground nesting birds who cannot survive in farmers’ fields. Especially vulnerable are the nitrogen fixing plants who fertilize the soil. On such a small scale, the fires cannot burn hot enough to fuel their growth. The remnants are too few and far between for native pollinators, who must traverse land poisoned in pesticide clouds of industrial agriculture.
I’ve seen many remnants of Tallgrass Prairie and cherished every one, but almost always I could hear traffic nearby and see where it ended and where the corn – or the housing development – began. I’d seen it small, but I never had seen it big and wide and free. I heard there was only place left on the planet where you could see unbroken native prairie swooping and swishing and blooming from horizon to horizon like its life depended on it. And so I went. On a pilgrimage of sorts – to the Flint Hills of Kansas.
Prairies on deep rich soils were all lost to corn, so the last big parcels are on soil that was too thin or too steep to plow, like the Flint Hills. After the Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi were marched away at gunpoint – to Kansas. My grandmother Wind Coming Through, who was born in Great Lakes prairie, is buried not far from here. Prairies and their original people have this in common: they exist today on land no one else wanted.
The National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is a collaboration between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. The film in the Visitor’s Centre includes a quote from D.W. Wilder, editor of the Hiawatha World, who as early as 1884 saw the coming of the end:
Whenever you stop on the prairie to lunch or camp, and gaze around,
there is a picture such as poet or painter never succeeded in transferring to book or canvas…
[We] ought to have saved a ….Park in Kansas, ten thousand acres broad – the prairie as it came from the hand of God, not a foot or an inch desecrated by ‘improvements’ or ‘cultivation.’ It is only a memory now.
I spend all day wandering, revelling in all the ways there are to make seeds: silky Indian Grass, sticky crowns of gumweed, milkweed fluff, nodding sunflower heads, burrs hitching a ride on my socks as if I could take them to another place to put down roots. Life wants to continue, to move – but where else will they go?
From a high place, the prairie seems to go on forever, hill after hill of bronzed grasses hugging the curves of the hills like the pelt of the land, cloud shadows running across the hills like a herd of wild buffalo. Mostly I remember the sound:ishpashkosiwagaa. Of dragonfly wings, of bison snuffling, meadowlarks and the wind coming through. The sound I dreamed of.
But the truth is, it seemed thin. You could see the bones of the hills through the grasses, which were only knee high. It’s been dry.
Still dusted with grass seed, I was glad to chat with the hotel clerk.
“I came to see the prairie” I said.
“The what?” she asked with raised eyebrows.
‘The prairie” I repeated.
A pause. “Well, what do they have there?”
I smiled, perplexed. “Well, grass and bison and more butterflies than you can imagine.”
“What?” she said, “Grass? I thought you said you been to a parade.”
Laughing, I enunciated more clearly, “No – a prairie, I came to see the prairie.”
She laughed too and said, “Well I’ve never heard of that and I’ve lived here my whole life.”
“What?” It was my turn to be incredulous… never heard of prairie here in Kansas which was once nothing but prairie. “You know – the grassland, like ‘Little House on the Prairie’, cowboys and Indians and all that?””Well, I thought that was only on TV.”
Plant Blindness. It is said that something is truly dead, not when it departs this world, but when it is forgotten. The final death comes with extinction of memory.
I’m not sure we can survive without this memory, as it holds a reckoning with profound blindness that led us to disconnect from land, from history, from compassion and from justice. It is blindness to the suffering induced by our choices, for bobolinks, for prairie smoke, for people. It is too painful, so we look away. The first step in healing is to see the wound.
Our desperate need is not only for the remembrance of what is lost or hanging by a thread, but an urgent need for its ecological presence at this crucial moment in history when we stand on the cusp of climate catastrophe.
Prairie and prairie soils, managed in the way the buffalo people used to do it have been shown to have enormous capacity to sequester carbon dioxide. While engineers look to invent carbon sequestration technologies, the prairies we destroyed know exactly how to do it. Corn fields emit tons of carbon, while prairies store it away. The inhalation by the prairie is a breath that might save us, while the exhalation of corn fields hurries us down the road to disaster. Carbon farming and conservation agriculture hold great promise for modeling our food production after the lessons of the prairie. If we act in time.
Biodiversity is the imagination of the earth. It is the source of innovation and adaptation and evolution that enables the ongoing flourishing of life. Every species lost is the loss of an entire library of knowledge, it is the loss of ones who could teach us about new medicines or carbon capture. Quite aside from their instrumental value in what they provide for us is what they provide for each other – and their inherent right to be.
The film of history ran in one direction as the prairies were turned to corn fields. The first attempt to run the film backwards, to return corn fields to prairie, was at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. It was a historic reversal, the beginning of the science of ecological restoration. Seeding, sodding, weeding, burning, gathering seeds and roots from the remnants and stitching them back together again. They asked the question, “Can we put it back together again? Can we pull back from the brink of extinction and reweave the tapestry?” And the answer was “yes, we can.”
All over the Midwest, there is a movement spreading like wildfire. At first it was purely local, driven by the “grassroots” efforts of seed savers, who sowed their precious handfuls in schoolyards or back yards. Today there is a wave of prairie restorations large and small, from unmown front yards to National Wildlife Refuges. After decades of decline in acreage, the curve of loss gives us a glimmer of hope for an upward turn.
After having tried to obliterate them, now we find we want prairies back. Storers of carbon, builders of soil, refuge of pollinators. It’s not enough to just remember, we have to re-member, reclaim the lost members of the family of life. Acre by acre the prairies were broke, and acre by acre we will mend them.
This essay was supported by the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol, and previously published on the website of Little Toller books.