Two months before, I hadn’t even known there were prairies in Missouri. But there I was, in early August, swerving all over the place on a dirt and gravel road, on my way to one. I wasn’t swerving because the surface was slippery after the night’s rain, but because large, soot-black butterflies with luminous blue patches on their wings were everywhere on the road, sipping water, perhaps drying their wings, and I didn’t want to hit one.
It makes sense that western Missouri would have prairies. Kansas is next door, and ecosystems don’t come to a screeching halt at our arbitrary borders. But on my few trips through Missouri I was mainly struck by how hilly and green it all was, full of trees and farmland. I had pictures of the Ozarks, not vast open spaces. Both are true. Western Missouri is the transition zone from the great plains to the Ozarks and eastern mountains. There were once fifteen million acres of open prairie. Less than 1% of all that remains, according to the TED talk that introduced me to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s director, Carol Davit, and the twenty prairies under the MPF’s wing.
Guided by the map on the foundation’s website, I found an RV park in southwestern Missouri that seemed to be in easy reach of lots of them and drove there from Kansas. I wrote to Carol, whose office is three hours away in Columbia, and asked if there was anyone who might be tooling around the prairies who would be willing to take me along. She forwarded my email to several people, including Stan Parrish and Wayne Morton. Stan doesn’t pay much attention to email, so it was his wife, Susan, who told him about the letter. He called immediately and proposed that I come to the foundation’s annual dinner in two days. He then called Wayne, who also doesn’t pay much attention to email, and Wayne called a while later to say he was on his way over with maps. Once he arrived he started filling me in on the history of Missouri, the state of the prairies, and his own efforts to rescue some acres of them.
The next day was the day I was trying to avoid hitting butterflies, on my way to the closest preserve, Schwartz Prairie. When I got there I stopped at the gate and saw that there were no paths from there, and decided I needed more tick-proof clothing to wade through chest high grasses and flowers. So I turned around and went back to a stretch of road that had flowers and shade, a very important detail during that sweltering week. While I was dealing with bug spray and changing shoes, a white pickup truck pulled up and a man got out, asking “Are you Betsey Crawford?”
It was Stan, who owns eighty acres that abut the western boundary of Schwarz, bought to expand the prairie there. He’d seen me pull up and away, and figured there couldn’t be a lot of pickups checking out Schwartz. So we went back and drove through his acres to the back of the preserve. A third of the prairie is burned every year, and that was the section burned last winter, and thus has the most flowers this season. These aren’t the many-thousand acre preserves I left behind in Kansas, but small jewels of prairie remnants and restorations. Schwarz is large at 240 acres. The largest, Golden Prairie, is managed cooperatively with a neighboring landowner, bringing the total to 1,100 acres.
There’s an old-fashioned expression I’ve always gotten a kick out of: ‘a round of gaiety.’ And that’s exactly what meeting Stan launched. We went from Schwarz to his home to have a lovely summer lunch with Susan, the first of many lunches and dinners, trips to prairies and a farm, even a couple of yoga classes. The next day I drove to the annual dinner in Columbia with Wayne and Jan, stopping at prairies along the way, so that I would know how to find them later. We even stopped at one on the way back, in the dark. The next week they took me out to see Wayne’s savannahs, areas on his acres where he restores the prairie by selectively removing trees that have grown up to shade the grasses and flowers at their roots.
There were several wonderful results of all this. First, I had a LOT of fun. I got to see prairies with people who know and love them. There was an unending amount of great conversation. I went to a delicious and hilarious dinner at the beautiful property of another friend, Bob. I had lunch in an ancient, much-loved diner with elderly friends, Lowell and Betty, so I could hear the story of Golden Prairie, which Lowell’s family donated to the foundation, as well as the history of the now-dying small town of Golden City. His long and energetic career there included stints as farmer, rancher, mayor, furniture and hardware store owner. He’s still, in his mid-eighties, owner of the funeral parlor and publisher of a surprisingly amusing newsletter for the funeral industry, The Dead Beat.
And while I was having all this fun, I was learning a lot — about the beauty and history of Missouri, about the prairies, and, most moving of all, about people who love prairies. Stan delivered mail for a living, Susan taught high school French, Wayne is a country doctor. These aren’t people who can buy and preserve eighty acres of land without a blink. This is real love. And Wayne keeps buying land — a prairie here, one there. His friends have lost track. Bob, Wayne, and Stan have all been part of the foundation since the beginning in 1966, and all have been both on the board and president of it over the years. They and other dedicated prairie lovers have overseen the slow acquisition and endless tending of the twenty prairies that the foundation so far owns and manages.
When they are together the talk ranges all over the place, but continually comes back to the prairie, the plants, the history of each preserve, and all the care that goes into keeping these precious acres going. Especially the burns, which, in their telling, become mystical experiences. I could hear it when Bob described a December night on Schwartz Prairie. After the day-long burn, he went to his campsite on a rise above the still burning grasses. Throughout the dark night, he could see the periphery of the fire still glowing and flickering. “It was magical,” he said, in a voice that left no doubt.
On my last night, after three wonderful weeks in Missouri, Stan and Susan came up to their acres, where they have a trailer to stay in, bringing Bob with them. We had a picnic, with tomatoes from their garden and unspeakably delicious peaches from a local farm. After dinner we took a long walk on the prairie as the sun dropped below the neighboring treetops, twilight grew, and darkness set in. After weeks of sweltering, muggy heat, it actually got cool, the air clear, the stars more and more vivid against the darkening sky.
We wandered from plant to plant, luminous in the late light, all for our various reasons. Stan, Susan, and Bob talked about them, and, really, to them, as if they were old friends, which they are. Some of the Missouri prairie plants are known to me, too, but many are new friends, as were the three people I was with. That star-spangled night symbolized my whole stay in Missouri, where I found the best of everything: adventure, friendship, nature, the joy of being alive.
There are more pictures in the Missouri Prairie gallery.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.