Ken Lassman: My interview with the prairie (Column)

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It has been just more than one year since the old growth prairie that grows next to the Prairie Park Nature Center was sprayed, and after pondering different ways to gauge how it is recovering, I decided: why not go to the source and interview the prairie itself?

The resulting interview has been shortened and clarified for human consumption, as the prairie talks in cycles and repetitions that, while more familiar in many cultures and traditions, has been made more linear for brevity.

KL: Hello! I guess I’m wondering if you have a name — something more pithy and catchy besides “the prairie next to the Prairie Park Nature Center” that I can use to address you?

PNPPNC: Well, I am large. I contain multitudes, to quote one of your own species, Walt Whitman, well before he visited Lawrence a short time ago, in 1879. You know you humans don’t live long, and when he came to Lawrence that September, he was infirmed a few years earlier by a stroke, requiring him to use a cane. We recall he was also affected by the heat and declined to read a poem at the Bismark Grove gathering they had along the Kaw, partly in his honor. After all, that year was pretty dry, with dust clouds coming in from the west in the spring and summer. Human crops did not fare well that year, but we prairie inhabitants just shifted gears and produced a nice crop of sweet coneflowers, stiff goldenrod and a smattering of that pretty blue Pitcher’s sage, which caught Mr. Whitman’s eye as his hosts drove him around town that evening after the heat started to fade. He asked them to stop a moment to admire the splash of color we provided in contrast to the parched corn fields around us, and we sent him a little breeze to refresh him, complimenting him on his poetry book’s title.

KL: Which book are you talking about?

PNPPNC: “Leaves of Grass,” of course! We don’t know if he heard this, but he must have been impressed by our sensuous, soft Indiangrass seedheads that were wafting in the warm summer breeze. We even called over a flock of pelicans to fly in formation to the south for him to enjoy. What we like about Walt is, like us, he continued to play with his creations, changing his poems over the years, like we do, adjusting it to match the needs and interests of the moment. 

KL: So to bring you back around to the question at hand, how to address you — can I call you the Walt, short for the Walt Whitman Prairie, in honor of that poet who was inspired by grasses?

Walt Whitman Prairie: Sure, why not? We speak many, many languages and if your human language needs a noun to pop our existence more clearly into your consciousness, then Walt it is. You give names to valleys, rivers, mountains, and forests; why not name a piece of us too?

KL: Can you expand a bit about why you said “a piece of us?”

WWP: I wish I could do more than just talk. You see, we not only contain multitudes: hundreds of plant species, all manner of insects, mammals, birds, fungi, bacterial communities and so much more passing above and through my soils all year long, every year since the last ice age. We are also just a small fragment of what used to be. These 3 acres used to connect up with the 85% of Douglas County that used to be prairie at the time of the first settlers — some 280,000 acres of tallgrass prairie and wetlands. Of course this is not the only remnant left, but we are down to less than one half of 1% of the total acreage in Douglas County, and shrinking every year.

KL: So what I’m hearing is that connecting with other fragments of yourself is an important piece of the answer to the question: how are you doing?

WWP: By all means. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that the prairie, being a multitude, are most accurately referred to as a “we.” And if you are talking about us to others, it is also most accurate to refer to us as “they, them and their” since “it” doesn’t acknowledge our plural nature or recognize our kinship with you as a fellow living being on this planet. 

KL: Got it. But to get back to your need for connection in order to maintain your health and resilience, can you speak more about this?

WWP: We live through our connections. Just as you need food, water and air to survive, we also need safe, reliable connections to other habitats so that our animals and plants stay healthy. Would you be able to survive if you and your house were cut off from external supplies of water, food and a way to make a living? We’re no different. We need as many connections as possible to the creeks, wetlands and green corridors that connect us to the Wakarusa valley and wetlands to the south, to the Kaw River and floodplain forests to the north, as well as other native habitats such as the ones that are being nurtured in restoration efforts in the greater Prairie Park area and elsewhere around the city and county.

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KL: But aren’t you incredibly resilient already? Hasn’t your community of plants and animals been continuously living on that patch of land since the last ice age, some 6,000-8,000 years ago? 

WWP: Yes, of course, and no, of course. 

Yes: we have survived droughts, floods, tornadoes, fires, plagues, dust storms, and more, including the wholesale plowing up of most of the tallgrass prairie that defined this area for so long. In fact, our resilience to all except the last thing is what has shaped us in ways that your species could learn much from in order to adapt to the changes that are happening today and into the future, with increasingly extreme weather events becoming the norm. 

But the answer is also no, of course. Many of our former residents who called these slopes home are now absent. We fondly remember the brilliant flashes of color that lit up our trees and skies from the now extinct Carolina Parakeet, and the mind-boggling huge flocks of the Passenger pigeon that helped keep our soils fertile. We mourn the absence of the Prairie wolf, who helped keep our herds of deer, elk and rodent populations healthy. Bison and black bears tread on our slopes as well, and it’s in our memory that the wooly mammoth walked the Wakarusa and Kaw Valleys as the last ice age thawed and my grasses replaced the retreating boreal forests who now live in the north. 

Your chroniclers Lewis and Clark, who passed through this ecoregion in late June to early July 1804, gave descriptions of such an abundance of wildlife in this area that it sounds like it was a veritable garden of Eden. And when they passed back through on Sept. 15, some 73 years before Whitman was passing through, they ate papaws and hunted down an elk. While elk was no longer a common sight at the time of Whitman, Lewis and Clark must have been greeted by the same colors of the goldenrods, sunflowers, asters and Pitcher’s sage as Whitman.

KL: Can you say more about the connections in time that the seasons provide? 

WWP: Sure. We provide a seasonal sequence that may shift some from year to year depending on how wet, dry, cold or hot it is, as well as shift over time as the climate warms, but the sequence and the players are largely the same. If you come visit us on Sept. 15 this year, or next year or in 50 years, you will see the same dynamic constellation of blooming wildflowers, seeding grasses, insect activities and animal migrations as Walt Whitman witnessed, as Lewis and Clark witnessed, that the Osage and Lakota tribes saw and knew, and that the pre-horse woodland-prairie cultures saw for thousands of years before that. We have so many stories we can and will tell you about who we are and who you could be if you listen to how to live here with us. We invite you to come visit us any time of day or season and we will share with you those always unfolding stories to make them a part of your own.

KL: So once again, I come around to how you are doing. You have survived so much, and yet your survival depends on being connected to a part of something larger, like all of us. How are you doing since you were carpet sprayed with a broadleaf herbicide a year ago?

WWP: We do appreciate the fact that those who were responsible for the spraying admitted that they made a mistake, and that they have stepped back this past growing season to try and learn from the resilience of the prairie. We appreciate how they brought in the Kansas Biological Survey to take a detailed look at that healing process by doing three surveys over the past growing season and made that information publicly available and will be doing another one next month, after which they will be presenting the results of their monitoring and make recommendations for recovery. Suffice it to say that some species suffered greatly, while others took it in stride, and we will leave the details of the varied impacts to the KBS report when it comes out.

As with all communities, good communication and connections make for a healthy, resilient future. Parks and Recreation has taken initial steps to revise their Integrated Pest Management policies to add native plants and their needs into the management policy and to consider more targeted training and resources for their staff to avoid damaging events in the future. It has started to communicate with other communities, such as Johnson County to learn about how they have made managing native grasslands and woodlands central to their land management policies through their Natural Resources Plan: A Conservation Tool for a Sustainable Future. We are encouraged by these corrective and proactive measures and are encouraged by the results of the recent Parks and Recreation community survey that identified “passive natural areas” and “nature programs/environmental education” in the top three amenities and programming to pursue. 

KL: So you are recovering, you are healing, the community values you, and wants Parks and Recreation to make a concerted effort for you to be a part of our community’s future and be a model for us into the future? And that there’s more to do?

WWP: You took the words right out of our mouths. 

KL: Thanks, Walt, for taking the time to do this, and while anyone in the community can visit and observe the Walt Whitman Prairie (if I can suggest this for a name) anytime, there are monthly walks at the Prairie every third Saturday of the month, with the next one scheduled for 2 p.m. May 18. Prairie walks from June through September will be held at 9 a.m. to avoid the hottest parts of the days.

WWP: See you then! We’re always around.

— Ken Lassman is the author of Seasons and Cycles: Rhythms of Life in the Kansas River Basin in 1985, Wild Douglas County in 2007and curator of the Kaw Valley Almanac.

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