Rediscovering the prairie

September 6, 2009

Tallgrass Prairie stone fenceI read William Least Heat-Moon’s “PrairyErth” nearly 20 years ago, when I first arrived in Kansas. I still often think of the passage where he says to look down to see the prairie’s beauty — not up or out like you would with mountains or the ocean. I was reminded why the prairie is so beautiful when we explored the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

The Preserve is more than 10,000 acres of what was once the hunting grounds of the Kansa and Osage Indians and later part of a large cattle ranch. The Preserve is just a sliver of the 140 million acres of prairie that once covered North America.

Tallgrass is bursting with a delicate, but formidable ecosystem — more than 450 species of plants, 150 kinds of birds, 39 types of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals. The park ranger talked about the prairie’s strength gained from its diversity. We stood as a family, an ecosystem in our own right, in the middle of it all. We followed Heat-Moon’s recommendation and looked down, but also out toward the rolling Flint Hills.

We can’t wait to head back this fall to hike the Southwind Nature Trail with the kids. The 1 3/4-mile trail passes by the limestone Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse.  V. and I hope to get away next spring and hike the six-mile Red House Trail.

In the meantime, we’ve been  inspired to investigate our own backyard prairie, which rests along Sand Creek. Last weekend, with pocket guide in pocket, we were amazed to find ironweed, silky aster, flat-topped aster, prairie mimosa, tall goldenrod, saw-tooth sunflower, little bluestem, prairie dropseed, porcupine grass and slough grass. 

I do miss the landscape of my native Wisconsin. I’m thankful, though, to have discovered, and rediscovered, the Kansas prairie.

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