Tag Archives: prairie

The most powerful family on earth

Prairie grass in the Konza Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey CrawfordUntil man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. 
~Thomas Edison~ 

Such a tiny word — poa, Greek for grass — to encompass one of the great life forces on earth. The Poaceae are the fifth most species-rich plant family with over 11,000 plants. They populate a quarter of the planet’s land and half the United States. Along with forests, they are among the most important stabilizers of both soil and climate. One of the most adaptive plant families, they live on every continent. They’re the top source of nutrition worldwide.  They’re the basis of human civilization. Every one of us is alive thanks to grass. 

We may even have evolved into humans because of grass. There are grass pollen fossils dating from 70 million years ago, but it wasn’t until 5 to 8 million years ago that the vast grasslands we inherit formed. It was a period of cooler, drier climate and water-thirsty forests began to diminish, opening space for the adaptable grasses. The open landscape helped foster bipedalism among primates, which ultimately helped stimulate the development of our large brains.

Anatomy of grass artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society

Artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society. Thanks to both for permission to use this lovely piece.

Our hunter-gatherer forebears would have eaten the seeds of grasses along with other seeds, fruits, and tubers. Twelve thousand years ago, they began to plant them. Though we can’t know what seeds the first farmers started with, we do know that all the early civilizations grew with grass. Wheat, barley, and rye in the Mideast. Rice, millet, sorghum  in China. Corn in Mesoamerica. Rice and sugarcane in India and Southeast Asia. Sorghum, millet, and tef in Africa. Over the millennia grasses have fed humans and the animals we depend on. They have built, roofed, fenced, heated, and furnished our houses. Cleaned our air and waters. Formed our soil. Made baskets, boats, and paper. They have cured diseases and powered our cars. 

All this inspires the anthropocentric idea that humans have harnessed grasses to meet their needs and desires. But I like the counter take of some botanists: it’s grass that has bent the human. What better way to ensure your survival than to hook this clever species with the handy thumb and ability to plan for the future? Provide enough nutrients to maneuver them into planting you everywhere they can, every single year for 12 thousand years. Induce their browsing animals to open up more land for you to grow, all the while fertilizing your roots. Convince them to plant 40 million acres of you around their houses. And then spend hours every week lovingly feeding and watering you while fending off pests. That’s power! I toyed with calling this essay ‘Our overlords.’

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

But that has negative connotations, and grass is a miracle. You don’t cover a quarter of a very varied planet without being a highly adaptable genius. In the US we are most familiar with the prairie ecosystem that extends through the midwest from the Gulf of Mexico north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. South America has similar systems in the pampas and llanos. Trees and grass combine to form the savannas of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Cerrado in South America. The vast expanse of the Eurasian steppes extends from Eastern Europe well into China. 

In the eons before they formed these priceless expanses, grasses evolved several traits that would secure their eventual success. They are wind-pollinated, tossing their pollen to the air. The wind spreads it far and wide, creating a lot of opportunity for pollination over a large area. They form deep roots, up to five times the height of the plant. This vast ecosystem supplies their needs for water, nutrients, and stabilization. And not just for themselves, but for the soil they, and the rest of us, depend on. 

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute.

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Note the meager extent of lawn grass roots on the far left. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute

Crucially, they developed a key variant in the photosynthetic pathway. C4 photosynthesis allows for more efficient use of sunlight and water in the creation of carbohydrates. This process allows grasses to use less water, grow in nutrient-poor soils, and allocate more of their biomass to roots. C4 plants are very efficient at pulling in carbon dioxide and sequestering it in their miles of roots. This gives grassland preservation a pivotal role in climate stabilization.

They are also imperative for preserving biodiversity. Grasslands are not only grass. They form a matrix for many other plants that grow with them. The Missouri Prairie Foundation reported that in one of its restored prairies a record of 46 separate native plant species was found in a 20 by 20 inch plot. They provide food and habitat for countless birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, microbes, fungi, and other beings that are part of the web of life on earth. They have co-evolved with some of the most majestic life forms on the planet: buffalo, gazelle, zebra, giraffe, elephant. 

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado

Grasses both depend on these and domestic grazers to keep land open for them and also have ways to protect themselves from overgrazing. Various toxic phenols and alkaloids, including cyanide, increase as grazing pressure rises. Phytoliths, minute shards of silica, wear grazer teeth down. On the other hand, grasses need grazers, and so keep their budding crowns just under the soil so that they aren’t damaged by nibbling muzzles. As the grazers clean off the upper stalks, new shoots have ample air and light to grow. In the meantime, grazers deposit fertilizer and move on, allowing grasses time to recover.

Some of the most diverse places on the planet are in grasslands. But our tendency has been to treat them as wasted space waiting for us to make them productive. Thus 99% of the American prairie has been plowed, planted, developed. The South American Cerrado is headed in the same direction. Using large, open areas for agriculture certainly makes sense. But the current state of monoculture farming — growing single species annuals with shallow roots, using yearly tilling and high nitrogen fertilizers along with artificial pesticides and herbicides — means that standard agriculture ruins the most important gifts of grasslands. Soil erosion is high, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are low to nonexistent.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the filament are ready to receive pollen. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the white filaments are ready to receive pollen.

I love the subtle beauty of grasses with their feathery flowers and am deeply moved by grasslands. I’m not sure where this came from, since I grew up in suburban New York. But one of the most moving experiences of my life was standing in a grassland in South Dakota. I was driving back roads north along the Missouri River, and a stretch took me into the short grass prairie of that dry area. I was up to my knees in sun-filled grasses, flowing like golden water with the wind. It was so hot the air itself was an intense presence. Despite the wind, there was utter quiet. Everything else fell away to nothingness. At that moment, swept into the warm, moving air, I was grass.

As we all are. We share up to half of our genes with grass, a legacy from common ancestors. Sixty percent of human caloric consumption worldwide is grass-based. We are literally grass. We are formed by them and we are inextricably bound into a miraculous matrix of interdependence. To see this clearly is to plant ourselves into the very roots of life. It means we live on earth not as user but as participant, surrounded by equally important partners. We can then hear their message. The skill grass chose us for — our ability to plan for the future — is being called forth to help all of us prosper on our mutual planet.

Pawnee National Grasslands in Fort Collins, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

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An Easter of memory and anticipation

Celebrating Laudate si: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

I was planning to write about transformation for Easter. I’ve been working on a series of essays exploring cosmologist Brian Swimme’s eleven powers of the universe, and what we can learn from these great cosmic energies. So far, I’ve done radiance, centration, and transmutation. Easter and this very welcome spring seemed like the perfect time to explore the power of transformation. However, before I could write a word, she came knocking at my door.

As a result, for the first time in almost eight years, I’m moving from the RV that has carried me to so many wonderful adventures to an apartment. It’s a very nice apartment, full of light, a balcony for flower pots, lots of green out the window, great hiking trails right off the property. It’s even in a town named after a wildflower — Larkspur. And it’s time. My partner, George, has been too frail for the roving life, so we’ve been settled in Marin, just north of San Francisco, for a couple of years. Though I love my compact little space, the trailer is 10 years old and needs work it doesn’t make sense for me to do at this point.

I’m both looking forward to the move and filled with poignance at the end of a wondrous chapter in my life. So for Easter, I thought I would collect a celebratory bouquet of flowers from our adventures and share some memories. I’ve included a few from the trails near my new home, since happy anticipation is always worth celebrating.

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada

I still marvel at the chutzpah it took to get behind the wheel of a big pickup truck and haul a 33′ trailer to the end of my driveway, turn left, and head out into the unknown. By the time we got to the gorgeous Canadian Maritimes I was beginning to adjust. The Canadians are so nice they didn’t honk at my careful pace. We meant to spend three weeks. It was so stunning we spent six, always camped within sight of the sea. I didn’t start this website until 2015, but this gorgeous sunflower, one in a sunlit field of them, was featured in One big happy family: the Asteraceae, and is included, along with many other happy relatives, in the gallery Asteraceae.

Because my son, Luke, lives there, I’ve spent lots of time in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This photo of fairy bells is from the spring of 2012, when there was a northern super bloom of wildflowers. I was in heaven, and had one of those blessed epiphanies when everything you love comes together. I wrote about it in Life, tilted on another visit in 2015. Last year was another super bloom, and I updated the Idaho wildflowers gallery.

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) taken at Cougar Bay, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) Cougar Bay, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

I have lots of pictures of the beauty we found along the roads we traveled. I included landscapes in Wayside beauty, but this lily reminds me of the hidden magic along the road. I was heading to the Waterton Wildflower Festival in Alberta in 2015, driving through a forest. I pulled into a roadside stop and while walking my dog, Splash, found a hidden glade filled to glowing with orange lilies.

Columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia

Speaking of heaven, when I wrote about Waterton Lakes National Park in Latitude 49º 6′ 33.63″, Longitude -113º 50′ 58.92″ I announced that I had discovered its exact location. There are even gates, looking remarkably like Canadian national park entry kiosks. There were so many beautiful flowers, but this one has a slight edge as my favorite. It reminds me of poet Robert Haas’s line ‘The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised.” The Waterton Lakes gallery is full of other favorites.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

The greatest adventure of all was Alaska, where we drove through endless sublime landscapes and watched grizzlies (from the truck!) twenty feet away. Since this is a bouquet, I’m sticking to flowers, like this monkshood from the Wynn Nature Center in Homer.  In love in Homer, Alaska described my love-at-first-sight relationship with that town. But just driving across the state line seemed to alter things, especially all sense of time.  I had one of the profound experiences of my life listening to the earth’s heartbeat in The Place Where You Go To Listen at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. And another drifting through Denali. Bears and caribou and landscapes can be found in the Alaskan landscapes gallery, and lots more flowers in Alaska wildflowers.

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

At the southern end of the country, we spent a fair amount of time in one desert or another. A favorite place was the Anza Borrego Desert, and I finally did a gallery of flowers from that magical place after a visit last year. This vivid scarlet cholla was found in Arizona and has lots of company in the Cactus flowers gallery.

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Southern Utah is one of my favorite places on earth. As many who have spent time in the desert have found, it fills me with both awe and introspection. That led to Moses in Utah, my most personal essay. And while I had Moses on my mind, I wrote A land of stone tablets, an early essay on what the earth teaches us about living on and with her. Those awe-inspiring vistas found their way into a Utah landscapes gallery. 

We met wonderful people everywhere we went. This glowing yellow cactus was blooming along a trail to Corona Arch, outside of Moab, Utah. I started at the same time as a family: a man, his mother, wife, and daughter, and sister-in-law and niece. I walked faster than they did but kept stopping to take pictures, so we stayed relatively together though without much talk. At the end, getting to the arch requires climbing a rock wall that has holes drilled in it for your feet and rope ‘rails’. Then you have to climb a ladder embedded into another rock wall, but which doesn’t quite meet the top. So you stand at the top of the ladder, past the handholds, and scramble over the ledge.

Desert prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha) Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Desert prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha) Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah

Once I’d done all that I found the family spread out on the rocks, recuperating. “I’m going back with you guys,” I said, only partially joking. From that point they took me under their wing, letting me know when they were leaving, helping me down some slippery rock, and down those treacherous ladders. They started pointing out wildflowers they thought I’d like, and we had a great time. They were from Long Island, New York, as I am, celebrating the young women’s graduations from college. Oddly enough, at least a fourth, if not a third, of the people I’ve met on the road started life on Long Island.

In 2016 I drove to the prairies. I found them where I expected them: in Kansas at Smoky Valley Ranch in the west and the tall grass prairie in the center of the state. And I found them where I didn’t expect them: the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeast Colorado and spread out all over southern Missouri. Missouri was a particularly joyful time because of the people I met there. I even met an adventurous baby bird. I was so ecstatic at what I found I made galleries for each place.

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

In California, we spent several early stretches on the coast in Malibu. We have family in Los Angeles, and George had health problems we dealt with in Santa Monica. So I got to spend time in the Santa Monica Mountains. There are many wonderful flowers there, which I used in an essay on a weekend spent with Joanna Macy. I’ll do a gallery one day. In the meantime, this Dr. Seuss-like character, covered with pink fuzz, particularly enchanted me.

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Which brings me back to Marin County and my new apartment. Southern Marin is presided over by Mount Tamalpais. A woman from Australia told me that she had heard there that everyone who lives in this area has been called here by the queen herself. A lovely, mysterious idea. If true, she has now called me even closer, to live on her wooded flank. There are great wonders there, like the fritillaria at the top of the page, blooming on one of my favorite trails. And this tender trillium, in full bloom in early February. Wildflowers start blooming here before New Years, which makes me very happy.

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California

There are tiny orchids on Mount Tam, and stately iris, a plant I particularly love. Neither of these is rare, but Marin is what’s called a rarity hotspot, partly due to the difficult chemicals in a lot of its rocks. There is so much life here, it inspired Wild abandon: the mystery and glory of plant diversity.

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

So I have been and will remain surrounded by beautiful beings on all sides. Among them are many people actively working on saving our magnificent planet. My journey is now with them all: the flowers, the forest, the sea, the people. I’ll keep reporting on whatever it is that Mount Tam has in mind.

Mount Tamalpais, Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

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Laudate si, repictured

A Rocky Mountain peak south of Lake Louise, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

Laudate si — Praise be! — are the opening words of each of the verses in Saint Francis’s beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and is also the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical defining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the care of the earth. Last year I discovered that September 1 had been chosen as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. Since I’m always ready to celebrate the earth, I read the revolutionary encyclical, and chose excerpts which I am presenting again this year, with a new selection of pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world. 

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter covers many topics, all relating to the care of ecosystems, and the belief that all livings things have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity. The encyclical ranges from the devastation of war and the insidious consequences of political corruption, to the dignity and necessity of meaningful work, to the need for orderly and inviting living conditions. Francis issues a call for new models of development, starting with the cooperative efforts of small villages and extending to complex global treaties involving all the countries of the world.

He calls for the easing of consumerism, and even takes the time to urge his readers to return to the small celebration of saying grace before meals. He talks about the importance of appreciating beauty, so that we will want to preserve it. That, naturally, is where I come in, combining Pope Francis’ words and photos of our gorgeous earth.

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Mushroom after a rainy winter in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family.

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that…dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

We take these ecosystems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York

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One big, happy family: the Asteraceae

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordI took the picture above six years ago this month, standing in a field of sunflowers on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada. It was the first place we went when we started the journey that has taken us to so many wonderful places. I’ve never forgotten the joy of standing in that field, completely surrounded by the happiest of flowers, growing with wild abandon toward the August sun.

With almost 24,00o species, the Asteraceae family is vast and exuberant. It’s literally everywhere you go, except Antarctica. The accompanying photos range from Alaska to the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California. They reflect one of the family’s strengths: the ability to thrive in many different environments, whether hot or cold, dry grassland or wet marsh, in alpine meadows or among desert cactus. Some are important commercially: sunflower, safflower and canola oils. Camomile and echinacea tea. Artichokes, lettuce, tarragon, radicchio, endive. One shrub even produces a form of latex. The horticultural market depends on many of them.

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) taken along Chimney Rock trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The most familiar asteraceae configuration is the sunflower and its relatives: a central circle of disk florets, surrounded by a crown of ray florets that look like and act like petals, attracting insects to pollinate themselves as well as the less showy disk flowers. The family name comes from these composite forms: aster derives from the Latin word for star. But there are a variety of other structures. Some, like the thistle and the arnica below, are discoid, with disk but no ray flowers. Others, like the dandelion, are ligulate, with no disk flowers and ‘petals’ of strappy ligules. 

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

As a group, they tend to develop a fluffy seed head, a pappus of filaments that originally surround the base of the ovary, and grow longer as the flower goes to seed. With their feathery attachments, seeds are easily dispersed by wind, which helps account for the ubiquity of yarrow, fleabanes, dandelions, asters and other family members. Some seeds have hooks on them and spread out by attaching themselves to animal fur or clothing. 

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska

What looks like an individual flower is an inflorescence, a bowl-, vase- or cone-shaped capitulum, holding its lovely arrangement of hundreds of ray and disk florets. The capitulum is held by green bracts, or phyllaries, sometimes many layers of them, constituting an involucre. When you eat the bud of an artichoke flower, you peel off, dip in melted butter, and then eat one phyllary after another, until you get to the heart, which is the capitulum containing the disk flowers. The phyllaries can be plain or beautifully sculptural. Their differences, in number, shape and position, are often a key to identifying close species. 

Analysis of fossil pollen found in Antarctica dates the Asteraceae to 80 million years ago, when the continent was still part of Gondwana, before it floated south to the icy pole. Species were lost during the K-T extinction, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. But those that survived thrived and multiplied during the great flowering of the warm Late Paleocene and Early Eocene epochs, as did every other plant family. The asteraceae in turn benefitted their pollinating insects, and were especially important to the evolution of bee species.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with two butterflies Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) and friends, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

They are a pollinator’s dream: one landing, up to 1,000 flowers. The sunflower, our biggest and most dramatic North American native asteraceae, dedicates a most intriguing and charming trait to bees and other pollinators. It starts with buds and young flower heads, still covered with their green, photosynthesizing bracts, following the sun over the course of the day. At night, they work their way back toward sunrise, moving faster near the solstice, and more slowly as the nights grow longer.

 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

This cirdadian heliotropism is driven by growth hormones that spur growth on the east side of the stem during the day, lengthening that side, and tilting the flower head toward the west. At night, another hormone spurs growth on the west side, moving the flower to face east by morning. In experiments that interfere with this sun tracking, plants quickly lose mass and leaf surface, cutting down on photosynthesis and thus vitality and size.

Their sungazing stops at maturity. The ‘clock genes’ turn off, leaving entire fields of sunflower heads facing east. That way they are warmed early in the day, making them five times more likely to be visited by pollinators than experimental plants arranged to face west.  And there are lots of pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, wind, and, in South America, birds. With their warm, open faces offering almost unlimited opportunity for fertilizing, reproduction becomes very efficient, which explains the diversity and worldwide habitat of the family.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Standing in a field of sunflowers, or prairies of thistles, coneflowers and goldenrods,  I am not only surrounded by the sheer exuberance of vividly colored, beautifully shaped flowers, with their attendant bees and butterflies. I am surrounded by a long history of carefully ‘chosen’ evolutionary changes that remain mysterious despite all the genetic information we can now gather about plants. Why so many yellows? And why pink, or white? Why feathery leaves on one family member, big chunky leaves on another? Why is this one so tiny, and this one gigantic? Why a cone on one, a bowl on another? This heavenly exuberance of form and color is a delightful mystery.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

In that sunlit field I’m also surrounded by a form of life — the flowering angiosperms with their nutritious fruits — that may well be responsible for me, a member of a much later species, being able to stand there at all. That nourishment helped my forebears to develop the eyes and consciousness to celebrate the wonder around me. That may even be the point of evolving me at all: a way for the universe to contemplate its glories.

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Relishing the sunny warmth of a summer day, drinking in the beauty and vitality of the flowers around me, grateful for our shared history and destiny — these are moments of transcendence that make life rich and fulfilling. Our beautiful world makes them so available, but we too often rush by. Even when we stop, we feel we must quickly return to the practical tasks that make life possible. But our world is always there, waiting to be treasured. Waiting for the eyes and ears it has gifted us with to turn toward these great and beautiful mysteries. “Life is this simple,’ theologian Thomas Merton wrote. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through all the time.”

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

More pictures of this exuberant family can be found in the Asteraceae Gallery.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

As a landscape designer, I specialized in native plants. When I first started my business in the 1980s, the workers at a local wholesale nursery called me ‘the weed lady.’ I was always asking for plants that everyone else was pulling out. Even clients attracted by my natural landscaping approach would propose that first ‘we get rid of all these weeds.’ I would gently point out that those were the plants that made the landscape natural. I gave lots of lectures about native plants, back in slide-show days, with pictures of the glories all around us. Why, I would ask, live in a house in an area of distinct beauty, and then make it look like everywhere else? By the time I retired, attitudes had shifted enough that local nurseries were competing with each other for the largest stock of indigenous plants, and several were growing them from local seed. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) orange native plants, El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

With a few exceptions, I didn’t use natives exclusively. In southern New York, at the far eastern end of Long Island, there were too few native perennials to create lush, all-summer-bloom gardens. And the browsing hordes of deer meant that unfenced gardens needed deer-resistant plants, which were not necessarily native. My own property bordered on a preserve, so I had my fill of the beauties of native Long Island: switchgrass, little bluestem, bayberry, blueberry, shad, cedar, wild roses. Before the deer decided to include them on their menu, the early summer meadow was dotted with butterfly weed, and the fall meadow would be filled with goldenrod and asters.

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) yellow flowered native plants in San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

But near the house, where I wanted a summer full of scent and color, I stayed with the aromatic Mediterranean plants that deer don’t like: sages, lavender, catmint. I mixed these with grasses and deer resistant shrubs. This was an approach that worked with any open, sunny, deer-prone property. But even without deer, people understandably want to be able to enjoy the beauty of a blooming summer. On Long Island that meant non-natives in garden beds. So I looked for plants that behaved like natives: didn’t need lots of water during the heat waves, could cope with wet feet in the winter, and didn’t need to be sprayed for bugs. Most importantly, for the sake of the nitrate-susceptible waters surrounding us and the aquifer below, plants that weren’t dependent on fertilizer. 

California wild rose (Rosa California) pink flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

It’s in the larger plants that Long Island natives excel, and I planted a lot of native shrubs. Loathing the ubiquitous walls of privet hedge that close off the landscape, I loved to create thickets of native trees and shrubs that would bloom in spring, produce bird-enticing berries all summer, and beautiful leaf color in the fall. Planted thickly enough, this approach produces plenty of privacy. Even better, whether on the property or passing by it, you were looking at Long Island, and not any prosperous suburb anywhere in the country.

During my wonderful weekend with Joanna Macy in early April, I was one of several people in the landscaping business. Susan Friedman, a landscape architect, told me that four of her native plant gardens were on a garden tour on May 7. So, off I went to see the California approach, on that tour and another the following week.

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), purple flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

California has far more native perennials and grasses than New York, so it’s easier to create entirely native gardens. The biggest issue, once the winter rains are finished, is water. Natives are ideally suited for the dry months, since that’s exactly what they evolved to cope with. None of Susan’s clients wanted thirsty lawns, so stonework became an important part of the design: paths, a patio area around a pool, striking boulders set among the plants. Dry stream beds thread through the gardens. They are not only natural design elements — the California coastal hills are very rocky — but act as catch basins, absorbing runoff from winter downpours. This keeps water in the ground longer, protects the soil, and prevents downhill streams from erosive flooding. Among the rocks were the glorious, thriving plants, echoing the hills beyond.

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus 'Butter Yellow') yellow-flowering native plants, in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus “Butter Yellow’) in Novato, California

Why plant natives? In a neighborhood stripped of its natural vegetation and already filled with the artificial environment of buildings and roads, does it really matter what we put in our gardens? As long as we forgo plants that require poisons or scarce water to survive, and choose among the vast array that can be grown organically, what harm are we doing by enjoying plants that are native to Japan, or the Mediterranean, or Eurasia? In many cases, there is no harm, if that’s our criteria. I loved my blue-flowered, fragrant Mediterranean plants, which made bees very happy and were perfectly content to prosper with little water and a yearly dose of compost. I welcome daffodils and tulips in the spring. I’m delighted to catch the scent of luscious peonies in flowery cottage gardens, behind fences covered with hardy roses.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea), pink-flowering native plants in El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

But there is a serious danger, and it’s often too late once the harm is discovered. Purple loosestrife was a popular garden plant, a Eurasian import introduced in the 1800s. It took generations before it was obvious that it was a rampant pest, choking lakes and river banks, and destroying marshes in so many places that it’s banned in over thirty states. Tall, handsome pampas grass from South America seemed an ideal addition to dry California landscapes; now it’s spreading onto coastal hillsides and taking over wetlands. Privet, from China, seemed to be such an ideal hedge you can find it boxing off properties from coast to coast, but it’s filling forest understories in every southeastern state. Autumn olive, an Asian import planted widely for erosion control, was prized for its quick growth and soft, silvery foliage. Now, among many other places, it’s infesting the great river canyons in Utah. 

There’s a long list of noxious garden escapees that are crowding out indigenous species. Nearly half of our at-risk natives and 20% of the endangered ones are threatened by non-native invaders. So, if we prize our natural landscapes, exotics of any kind are a potential threat. In a world full of flower lovers, served by a nursery trade dependent on offering new, tempting varieties each year, this is a complicated problem. We are bucking evolution when we move plants from one part of the world to another, whether for gardening or agriculture. The factors that control invasive behavior in one place — birds, bugs, soil chemistry, climate — may not be there in another. Interactions are unpredictable, even when all seems well for many years.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) purple flowered native plants, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

Using native plants in gardens is one solution to this multi-layered problem, but it isn’t the only reason to plant for the place we’re in. Reducing our use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water is another compelling reason. As gardeners and homeowners, our vast numbers put us in the forefront of efforts to keep our groundwater, air, and soil healthy. Offering birds, butterflies, and bees the plants they have evolved with protects their habitat and numbers. One gardener on the tour hosts 46 species of birds, 12 species of butterflies, and more than 200 species of insects. If all the homes in a neighborhood created native plant landscapes, it would form a greenbelt of food and nesting sources. Add on more neighborhoods taking the same approach, and you’re knitting together significant territory for wildlife, who leave areas that get too chopped up.  

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata 'Mt. Garland'), magenta-flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata ‘Mt. Garland’) Novato, California.

These are wonderful reasons for planting natives. And there’s more. For me, preserving the natural landscape is as much a spiritual question as a practical one. Native plants are the soul of their place. The hills surrounding me right now, with their coast oaks, manzanitas, sages, buckwheats, mariposa lilies, sweeps of goldfields, purple needle grass, and hosts of other drought-tolerant, hardy, beautiful plants, speak to me of the spirit of the northern coast of California. Their language is very distinct from the oak/hickory forests, full of mountain laurel, sweet pepperbush and swamp azaleas, or the rolling dunes white with blooming beach plum that I knew on coastal Long Island. And both are utterly unlike the blowing grasses, coneflowers, rudbeckias, and sand lilies of the open prairies. Those plants, in turn, speak a different dialect than those in the deserts of the southwest, or the canyons of Utah, or the mountains of Alberta.

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) white flowered native plants, El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

When we replace these varied and specific languages with another, often generic one, we detach ourselves from the spirit of the land we are part of. I was blessed to live for many years in a place of great and wild beauty. Traveling for the past few years has brought me through one paradise after another. The way we have arranged our towns and cities has created far too many dead landscapes, cutting us off from feeling an intimate bond with the unbounded beauty and energy of the earth that created us. This is a great loss because loving the place we find ourselves gives us the courage and vitality to preserve it. Connecting to the plants that are the life of native landscapes literally roots us in the ground of our being.

Orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with purple blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium vellum) native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) Novato, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Songlines 2016: landscapes of love and prairies

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

When I first described my love for the Aboriginal concept of songlines, the paths taken by the First Beings as they sang the world into existence, I said that one of the ideas I love best is that we are tasked with continuing the work in our own lives. As we walk through our days, we renew and replenish the songs of those beings, enriching our landscapes, continuing to bring life to life.

My songlines this year first had me crisscrossing Marin County, just north of San Francisco, both in the living of my life, and in the search for flowers. I spent lots of time in my ‘backyard,’ Ring Mountain, and treasured the rare flowers found there. I discovered that Marin County is a rarity hotspot, with an unusual number of rare flowers, due in part to the beautiful but deadly serpentine rock underlying much of the coast. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) which appears on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California and nowhere else on earth.

At the beginning of June I left on farther flung adventures. Because my reports on my travels featured many flowers, I thought for this final post of the year I’d celebrate the landscapes I moved through along the way. As a photographer, I focus more on wildflowers, but I am equally passionate about the land around them. The experiences are both different and the same. Being with a flower is an intimate visitation, inches away, often on the ground with them. Being in landscapes is a passage I make while walking or driving through, eyes raised, surrounded by wonder. Both are a meeting of souls, a constant coming home to my connection to the earth. 

Red rock and blue sky, one of many incomparable landscapes in the Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Red rock and blue sky in the incomparable Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah

1. The first landscape is from a favorite area — southeastern Utah — which I visited with a favorite person — my son, Luke. We first drove through here 19 years ago, when he was ten, and we both feel the powerful pull of the magic and mystery of this land. I reposted an essay about the wisdom this ancient landscape teaches us in A Land of Stone Tablets.

Ancestral Pueblo ruins create amazing landscapes at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

The Cliff Palace, Ancestral Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado

2. On this trip we were drawn to the centuries-old ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The remains of their stone buildings, often tucked into cliffs, are a common feature of southwestern landscapes. We happened on several ruins as we explored, and hiked around a wonderful preserved village at Hovenweep National Monument. I’ve always loved the history of ordinary people, and from single structures built into rock overhangs to entire villages, these are intensely moving, a direct connection to the lives of the people who carefully built and lived in them. Mesa Verde National Park protects several spectacular sites, including this one, called the Cliff Palace.

Red rock canyon walls create stunning landscapes along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Red rock canyon walls along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado

3. Luke flew home from Grand Junction, Colorado, so we got to see the spectacular canyonlands between Naturita, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and Gateway, north of which the lighter limestone formations so distinctive of the Grand Junction area slowly take over. Driving through this whole area is one endless lesson in the history of our planet, and here I was particularly caught by the thin white line. It occurs in the Chinle formation, which formed in the Triassic era, 201 to 252 million years ago. It’s possible the white layer is volcanic ash, though ash layers tend to be shades of gray. It could be limestone, though it’s very white for that, too. It could be gypsum left by a shallow, and fleeting — in geological terms — sea.

Or it could be something else. What we can see at a glance is that it was the result of a relatively brief phenomena, that didn’t repeat itself in this spot for the rest of the Triassic, or into the Jurassic, which is when the upper cliffs were laid down. Like a dinosaur footprint, or the conifer fossils common in the Chinle, it brings us to a moment in time. It could be a moment that lasted 100,000 years, but in our planet’s history, that is still a moment. I find this very helpful for putting the headlines of the day in perspective.

Old-fashioned windmills dot the landscapes of the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado by Betsey Crawford

A windmill in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado

4. I left the southwest for very different landscapes. I was on a quest for prairies, and started with the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado, about an hour and a half north of Denver. The goal of the Grasslands, which form a patchwork with privately owned land, is to restore this very arid land to grazing, which also helps restore the prairie. The landscape is dotted with these windmills, which provide the power to bring well water to the surface to fill drinking tubs for the cattle. In our high tech world I took comfort in their prosaic task and simple talents, but also found them rather haunting, alone out on the prairie, particularly when paired with a wild sky.

Clouds and farm fields dominate the landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Along Route 40 in western Kansas

5. The landscapes above and below are a pair. My second prairie was in western Kansas, which I described, along with the area’s fascinating and complicated prairie dog wars,  in Smoky Valley Ranch. One evening on my way back from the ranch I drove west on Route 40 to see what I would see, and found myself among vast farm fields. The sky — often more turquoise than I am used to elsewhere — is as important an element of prairie landscape as the land, and on this trip I had the joy of a storm coming in. In the first picture, you can see, at the top, the dark clouds beginning to move over the sun-drenched wheat. In the second, you can see the change in the sky when I drove through on my way back. I escaped the rain this time, but I’ve never been in wilder thunderstorms than Kansas had to offer.

The wild thunderstorms of Kansas create their own landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Storm coming in along Route 40 in western Kansas

An old schoolhouse, one of many striking landscapes in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

An old schoolhouse in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas

6. Next stop was Chapman, Kansas, my gateway to the prairies of the Flint Hills, the Konza Preserve in Manhattan and the Tallgrass National Preserve an hour south. I’m not often drawn to buildings as subjects for photos. But I loved this old one-room schoolhouse, built out of the region’s mellow sandstone, alone on top of a hill, among the stormy clouds. In Saved by Stone, I described the sad limits of the remaining tall grass prairie, and how the rock in the Flint Hills helped preserve what remains. And, of course, how beautiful it all is.

One of the vivid landscapes seen in Wah Kon Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri

7. My posts from Missouri — Surprised by Delight and Walking in Beauty —  celebrated the beauty and the unexpected amount of fun I had in Missouri, thanks to meeting some wonderful prairie people as well as an adventurous baby bird. One evening I took a walk in the Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, and, once again, the sky and land came together in splendor.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

8. This was a year of family, thus the love in the post’s title. I spent time with Luke, with my sister Ann outside of Denver, with my brother and sister who live in Milwaukee, and the whole family gathered there for a reunion on Labor Day weekend. In Love, Grief, Wildflowers, I wrote about a trip with my brother, who is very ill, to Curtis Prairie in Madison, the oldest prairie restoration in the world. I only had eyes for him and for flowers that trip. I chose this one because thistles were so omnipresent in the prairies that they became symbolic. I grew up in an area where they are invasive pests, but they are so handsome and sculptural — in leaf, bud and flower — that I was delighted to be in places where they are welcome natives.

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota create vivid landscapes by Betsey Crawford

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

9. After leaving Wisconsin, I stopped south of Minneapolis to have breakfast with a friend, and then drove along the northern tier. On an earlier trip through North Dakota I’d been surprised to find that there are badlands there, too. These landscapes are not as spectacular as the ones in the South Dakota badlands, but they are wonderful, and another vivid reminder of the slow, patient work of our planet. This time I planned a stop so I could walk among them.

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, one of many beautiful landscapes in the Rocky Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho

10. After the badlands, I kept going toward Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I think of northern Idaho as a wonderful place to be because Luke lives there. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful, nestled in the mountains, with lots of lakes, unusual for the Rockies. There are some exceptionally deep glacial lakes, and many streams, like this one in an area that used to be farmed. Now the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, what little farming still happens here is designed to provide seed for migrating birds.

After a month in Idaho I drove south to Marin once more, along the Pacific coast landscapes of water, shore, and redwoods, continuing to sing my life into existence. The First Beings, who formed themselves out of primordial mud to take on the task, never said this singing would be easy. Between my brother’s illness, the state of the world, and the myriad challenges that come our way, day after day, it wasn’t. But I had wonderful times traveling my songlines this year.

I’ve come to understand that joy, like love, is a state of being, not a reaction. Fear, grief, anger are reactions. They all have their place, they’re all inevitable, since vulnerability is also a state of being, and one we can never escape. I would love to get to the place where joy is a state I can’t escape, either, but until then, it’s good to know where I can find it: on the ground among the flowers, meeting new friends in unexpected places, being with loved ones in ancient canyons and open prairies, walking toward a sun setting in flashes of rainbow and streams of glory. As the light returns and a new year dawns, I wish everyone an enduring state of joy.

The sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California create beautiful sky and landscapes by Betsey Crawford

Sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Happy Halloween: slightly ominous, very orange

Orange flowers-Globe flower (Trollies species) taken in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordWhen I first saw the picture of the trollius above, taken at a lovely garden in Manito Park in Spokane, Washington in 2012, I was struck by how ferocious it looked, though the trollius itself didn’t inspire that thought when I took it. It was the only time I’d ever associated the word ‘ominous’ with a flower. I was reminded of it this fall, as I took pictures of fading flowers and my beloved seedheads. I realized that some, in their withered and darkened states, were slightly spooky. Others were ghost-like. One even had a seed pod like a withered claw.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Spooky petals and fierce spikes: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

So I decided to do a Halloween post celebrating the slightly ominous in flowers. As I went through my collection, I was amazed at how many I found to fit this theme, whether it was a shape, or the play of the light, or the possession of spines, or the dark lure of fading petals, or simply Halloween’s emblematic color. I have photos to celebrate Halloween for years. For this one, something fairly typical of me happened — I was attracted to all the orange flowers.

Asked to choose my favorite color I would find something on the lavender/purple spectrum.  I keep my environments relatively neutral. I like the soft browns and greens of earth tones. Neither pure red nor pure yellow is at all becoming to me. But I’m drawn to orange, both in flowers and clothes. One of my most vivid childhood color memories is of a bright orange dress, pleated from the shoulders to the hem, that I wore in second grade. Another is of a coat, the color of the cactus below, that my mother bought me for Easter one year.

Orange flowers-Gander's cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) taken in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California by Betsey Crawford

Sharp spines and scary buds: Gander’s cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

It’s not a common color for flowers, particularly in the wild. On Mike Haddock’s wonderful Kansas wildflowers site, he includes 10 orange flowers in a section with pink and red flowers. Yellow flowers get their own section to accommodate 192 different flowers. Blues and purples are a close second at 186. Whites dwarf them all at 312. They are even more rare in the desert. There is a wider variety of orange flowers for gardeners and florists, because growers and propagators aren’t depending on native plants alone. They find plants all over the globe, and encourage the colors they want by creating cultivars of likely prospects.

Our color readers are cone shaped neurons embedded in our retina, six million in each eye. Almost two-thirds of them preferentially read the longer wavelengths of the warm colors — red, orange, yellow — and are able to distinguish more color variation in those tones than in blue or purple ones, which are transmitted by only 2% of our cones. The remaining third are dedicated to green wavelengths. From those ranges come all the color variations we are sensitive to.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken in Sandpoint, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Skeletal petals: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Sandpoint, Idaho. The bright colors in the background are orange leaves on the ground.

The carotenes in orange flowers — the same chemicals that make orange fruits and vegetables so good for us — selectively absorb and reflect light waves of specific lengths. The reflected ones enter our pupils, excite the cones that are receptive to that length, and our brain tells us that we are looking at orange. Like the proverbial tree falling alone in the forest, creating sound waves no one hears, without brains to interpret the messages brought by these wavelengths, there would be no color. The flower would still have carotenes, the light from the sun would still both be absorbed and bounce off it, cones would even get stimulated. But they only telegraph their excitement. The brain — ours, a hummingbird’s, a butterfly’s — translates the result.

Orange flowers-Orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) taken at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Lit from within: orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah. Malviflora sounds a bit ominous, but it only means it has mallow-like flowers.

Human enjoyment of its color isn’t a flower’s first priority. Their gorgeous hues are designed to lure pollinators, and did so for eons before we showed up. Hummingbirds see in the near-ultraviolet spectrum, which makes reds, oranges and bright pinks pop out for them. Our biblical heritage, where the earth was presented to us to use and enjoy, makes it hard to accept that these beautiful colors aren’t designed for our pleasure. Where does our delight fit in? The joy of the little girl twirling in her bright orange pleats, the joy of the woman sitting among cups of orange light? It’s hard to think of ourselves as bystanders of all this splendor, able to enjoy it, but having no reciprocity. Do flowers know they’re loved? Have they, in fact, enslaved us by their beauty, ensuring millions of us will spend hours each day growing more and more flowers? What a great plan!

Orange flowers-Monkey flower (Limulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

A light in the dark: monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California

The idea that beauty nurtures us in order for us to nurture beauty reminds me of my discussion of Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that our ability to feel awe has been chosen by evolution to more deeply connect us to the earth we inhabit. To make what can be a very difficult life worth living. And the even larger idea, first introduced to me by Thomas Berry, that our consciousness has evolved to allow the cosmos to reflect on its own luminous creations. I love the thought of the creative energies patiently working, on a time frame we can’t begin to fathom, to insure that there will one day be enough hyper-sensitive cone-shaped neurons nestled in the retina, and a powerful enough optic nerve traveling to a large enough brain. All so that the universe can contemplate its own beauty, reflected in vivid orange flowers.

Orange flowers-Columbia lily (Lilium columbarium) taken at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Just for beauty: Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Love, grief, wildflowers

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

After my happy sojourn in Missouri, I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a family reunion. My brother and one of my sisters live there, and both have large families, so when we gather, that’s the sensible place to do it. Nineteen years ago, after another reunion, I’d gone to Madison to see the oldest restored prairie in the world, and vividly remember standing among grasses and flowers so tall I was staring up at their tops. Naturally, to go along with my prairie summer, I wanted to see it again.

The work on Curtis Prairie, part of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, started when the university bought the land in 1933. Aldo Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists of the twentieth century, was part of the team that launched the project. A third of the land was too wet to plow, so it was remnant wet prairie. The remaining two-thirds had been plowed and cultivated for a century. For years the team experimented with everything they could think of to bring back the prairie: plowing and seeding, seeding and then discing, burning and then seeding, transplanting, growing plants in sods and transplanting those. The goal was to foster the natives, figure out how to get rid of plants that didn’t belong there, and how to keep more from invading.

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

This work is never finished. Invisible among the full-grown grasses and flower stems are 1,000 metal stakes, marking out grids that are studied to this day, looking for diversity, abundance, invaders, and the results of practices meant to affect all these. From these constant efforts have grown the protocols that restore and maintain prairies today. It was at Curtis that fire was discovered to be the most powerful tool for creating and maintaining the ecology of a restored prairie.

Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

I made the ninety mile trip from Milwaukee to Madison twice. The second time I was able to get out into the prairie itself, walking its paths, squelching through its boggy — and mosquito-y — spots, eyes level with flowers and the feathery heads of grasses. It was late in the season for the full glory of prairie flowers, but late members of the asteraceae family, pictured here, were luminous and beautiful. The grasses, growing into their russet fall color, were gorgeous, the day full of golden, early autumn light.

On my first trip, I took my brother, Perry, but we weren’t able to walk those grassy paths. One of the most vital men I have ever known, he is now struggling with a rare degenerative neurological disease. The body that once climbed trees for a living is slowly failing. The grass trails were too unstable for him, so we chose instead the paved paths of the prairie demonstration gardens, behind the visitors center, where we found not only grasses and flowers but also the trees he has devoted his life to.

thanksgiving-1952We were the first two of five children. He was here, sixteen months old, when I arrived sixty-five years ago. We were babies together, and cohorts through a challenging childhood. We have always been close, though we’ve never voted for the same person, and our ideas about religion rarely mesh. We seldom talk about our deepest feelings. But there have been many times over the years, sometimes to my surprise, sometimes even in a passing comment, when I realized I was seen and understood by someone who has been lovingly watching me from birth. I hope I have given him that same comfort.

We both had landscaping businesses, legacies, perhaps, of our early childhood, spent in a wild and beautiful place. We started fifteen years and a thousand miles apart, and have never figured out why it happened that way. But there we were, wandering the graceful curves of the garden. I talked about flowers, he talked about trees, our usual division of landscaping chat.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

When I turned fifty, an older friend said that the difference between our fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays is that from the latter vantage point you can see the end on the horizon. It may still be a long way off, but it’s visible. And then, and often suddenly, it’s very visible. Watching my beloved brother walk — with as much courage and grace as anyone can muster — into the valley of death, knowing he will have a hard time on that journey, breaks my heart afresh every day. I knew, as we wandered those paths, that he would tire quickly, and need to get back to the truck, that he would sleep on the way home. I knew that this might be the last time we made such a trip.

Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

God is love, many say, and though that is not my language, I am drawn to the idea that there is an overarching energy that our private loves tap into, that gets channeled through us. Here is a woman who has loved flowers since she picked violets in the cracks of suburban sidewalks as a child. Here is a man who fell in love with the idea of working in trees while watching a crew prune them at our childhood home. Here are two people who love each other because they have shared life together, since the beginning. Our various manifestations of love are mysterious and beautiful. They make life worth living, and hard to leave.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

And yet, despite the anticipation of sadness to come, we were happy, surrounded by the plants we love, talking about their intricate beauties, being with each other. Relishing those moments among the rustling grasses, which surrounded us with the proof of earthly immortality: plants producing seeds in boundless profusion. Neither of us will be here to see the current crop of acorns become spreading oaks, but we are part of that process, the endless renewal of life on earth. Our personalities will fade, but the energies we embody on our passage through life are ever here. There are times, as we face heartbreak and loss, when that is small comfort. And other times, when the bonds of love and the voices of trees connect us to the deepest mysteries, when it’s all that matters.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Surprised by delight in Missouri

Rose gentian (Sabatia angularis) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rose gentian (Sabatia angularis) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

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.

Woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) on Wayne Morton's savannah, Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) on Wayne Morton’s savannah, Osceola, Missouri

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.

Poppy mallow (Callirhoe digitata) taken at Linden's Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Poppy mallow (Callirhoe digitata) Linden’s Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri

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.

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) taken at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

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.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) taken in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) on Wayne Morton’s savannah,
Osceola, Missouri

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.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) taken at Schwarz Prairie, Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) Schwarz Prairie, Osceola, Missouri. I love the fringe-y buds.

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.

Royal catch fly (Silene regia) taken at Linden's Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Royal catchfly (Silene regia) Linden’s Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri

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.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

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.

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado Springs, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

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.

Saved by stone: the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills

Black Sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills prairie in central Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Black Sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

In the middle of the 19th century, the tallgrass prairie covered 170 million square miles. It stretched from Canada to Texas, and from the middle of Nebraska to an outpost in northern Ohio. The vast ocean of gigantic grasses was the first thing people coming west saw, as the mountains and forests of the east receded. Early explorers spoke of grasses so tall and dense you couldn’t see a man on a horse once he was among them. A marvelous ecosystem of hundreds of native plant species, with roots extending up to 15’ into the ground, it supported hundreds of species of wildlife, from the vast buffalo and elk herds to the burrowing voles and coyotes, to the birds eating seeds from the tops of grasses and flowers, to the fungi, insects and unicellular bacteria helping the grasses break down nutrients in the soil.

Snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas

One hundred and fifty years later, only 4% of all that teeming, vibrant life survives, and most of that lies in the middle of Kansas, in the Flint Hills, saved from destruction by the rocks which made it too difficult to plow. A soil layer that can be as thin as 6” sits on layers of limestone and harder shale, remnants of an ancient inland sea. Without plowing, the soil remained structurally intact, so the deep roots, finding their patient way through the shelf of porous limestone — with all their attendant microbes, fungi, worms, and centipedes — could find water and anchor the prairie in place.

Instead of farming, the Flint Hills settlers chose to graze their animals on the nutritious grasses. They thus mimicked the long evolution of the prairie, which became what it was because of grazers, going all the way back to the wooly mammoth 1.8 million years ago. The animals evolved to survive by constantly clipping the nutritious grass, moving onto the next good patch as one was shorn. The grass evolved to tuck its growth points just under the soil, below the grazers’ teeth, allowing it to continually send up new shoots and thrive.

Western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, where there were fields of them

The prairie also evolved with fire. At first the random but persistent fires caused by lightning, and then the intentional fires used by the Native American grassland tribes to renew the prairie, create open spaces to live, and lure animals to the hunt with new, easy-to-eat and highly nutritious grass. Fire removes the woody growth that would become shrubs and trees, as well as the layer of decaying plant matter on top of the soil. Air and light can then easily reach the crowns of the living plants. The tribes were flexible and adaptive over their long history on the plains, leaving an area during drought, returning with increasing rains, never exhausting one place.

The settlers came to stay, and their very staying changed the nature of the prairie. Where they could plow, the prairie was altered irrevocably. Houses, barns, crops, and eventually towns had to be protected from fire, so trees and shrubs got a foothold and grew. Some of the richest soil in the world, undergirding a complex and vital ecosystem, formed over tens of thousands of years, was plowed for crops, which flourished in the wetter years. Dry years drove waves of emigration farther west, leaving soils to wash or blow away, the lean remainder prey to invasive seeds. The Native Americans, first banished to Kansas, soon were forced further west, into limited, less desirable spaces.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

It’s a complex history in every dimension — botanical, geological, human — some fascinating, some heartbreaking. Today there are two main preserves in the Flint Hills. The 8,600 acre Konza Prairie Biological Station lies just south of Manhattan, owned and operated jointly by the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. The 11,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is an hour further south, and is part of the National Park Service, also in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Both are studying how to conserve and manage the prairie, and both are working with private landowners to help manage the prairies they own in the Flint Hills.

Konza Biological Preserve experimental designThe Nature Conservancy has been very active in this, even working to obtain liability insurance for prescribed burns, so that homeowners will be more confident about trying them. Both preserves are working on best practices for an array of desired results. What’s good for the sloping soil next to a stream, which provides enough water for trees, is different from the approach that benefits grassy areas on the top of dry, windy bluffs. Above is an experimental design for burning and grazing rotations, for both cattle and bison at the Konza Preserve. Below is the actual burn plan for 2016.

Konza Biological Station burn plan for 2016Not burning for as much as 20 years will allow trees to grow, and then clearing and fire will remove shrubby growth to create an open savannah. Burning as frequently as every year will create a lot of blooming flowers, but makes it hard for ground nesting birds. So areas are divided and burned in rotation. Neither burning nor grazing is a clean sweep of the prairie, and the remaining patchiness makes for varied areas of mixed diversity. Increased plant diversity leads to increased animal diversity.

Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

It’s a beautiful cycle, but it’s not endless. The only thing that keeps tallgrass prairie going at this point are the actions of groups like The Nature Conservancy, the Park Service, state conservation departments, and a multitude of smaller, local organizations. Plus the willingness of prairie-loving owners to keep the forces of evolution alive on their property. There are many people like me, who mourn the loss of a vast grassland that could swallow up a horse and rider, even though we have never been privileged to see such a thing. Those billions of stalks fell to a philosophy that rules much of our world at this point — that the earth is here to serve us, and everything is for our use. The tallgrass prairie is now corn, milo, sorghum, soybean and wheat fields stretching to the horizon. It’s feedlots and silos, Main Streets and huge box stores in a barren desert of asphalt, skyscrapers and four-lane highways.

I shop in stores and drive on highways, and enjoy many things towns and cities have to offer. I eat the abundance farms provide and depend on the power grid to write this essay. I find beauty in red barns, grazing cows, and rolling farm fields, emerald green one season, gold another. I’m not against  things that sustain and enrich human life. I’m against taking everything down to create something else entirely, something infinitely less diverse, less layered, less alive. Less wild.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

There are solutions to our environmental challenges, and people are working on them with fierce urgency, Despite my mourning for lost wildness, it’s my nature to be optimistic. I have hope that we’ll find more sustainable ways of operating on this planet, and that we’ll continue to save what we can. But more sustainable cities, box stores powered with solar, a parking lot full of energy efficient cars, though much better answers than the ones we’ve given so far, still leave us with an impoverished landscape.

For now, my answer for this sense of loss is to find the remaining prairies, go out among the grasses and flowers, the grasshoppers and butterflies, listen to the rustling of the wind and the dry rasp of cicadas, and report back on what I find there.

Whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and grasshopper taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills prairie in central Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

There are more pictures in the Flint Hills Tallgrass 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.