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Nature 101: Restoring Bottomland Prairie

By Margy Stewart
Analysis | December 8, 2013

The Creek Field is alive with strange powers!

Our Creek Field is 30 acres of cropground, bordered on three sides by McDowell Creek. In March, we seeded it back to native, a first step on the long journey of restoring bottomland prairie.

The first prairie restorationists were martyrs: they spent weeks on their hands and knees weeding their precious plots. But through experience they learned that "succession" would do much of the work for them. Succession is a natural progression from annuals to perennials, nature's way of healing the "wound" of open ground. Annuals germinate quickly, blossom, and set seed, holding the soil while perennials inconspicuously build up their roots. It can take years, but annuals are the warm-up act: they will make their bows and exit when the perennials take the stage.

I was therefore not worried when in late spring the first tiny seedlings to emerge were annual weeds--beggars' tick, prickly lettuce, hedge parsley, ragweed, horseweed, foxtail. I knew these raggedy, prickly plants had a role to play. But built into my preconception of succession was the idea that the beginning was inferior to the end. I thought I had to endure an unattractive first stage in order to get to some place better. Little did I know that while the land was healing itself, I would be healing my own lack of understanding!

In native prairie, the sod is so thick that annuals find little purchase. They grow only in ones or twos, in nooks or crannies, where some disturbance has exposed the soil. A crop field, in contrast, is nothing but disturbance--the whole field is open to seeds. In our planting mix was an annual wildflower--Plains Coreopsis.

Coreopsis tinctoria caught me by surprise. I had not even noticed the seedlings before the breezy June morning when I walked into the field and there they were, already up and blooming, little butter-yellow blossoms with wine-red centers, nodding in the wind. They weren't in ones and twos, either, but in the thousands, the tens of thousands. They covered the field! I sat down among them, reveling in the beauty that had suddenly bubbled up from the earth. The wind was pouring through the blossoms, drawing designs on the field, turning the flowers into a marching band that scurried here and there, forming s's and z's and j's. The wind lent mobility to the flowers, while the flowers gave visibility to the wind. The result was rooted plants that ran all over the field and gusty breezes that wore bright clothes! The moment was beyond wondrous--and yet (it was humbling to realize) it was possible only because sod had not yet formed and we were at the beginning of restoration.

That Sea of Coreopsis lapped the edges of the field for several weeks--and then subsided as the horseweed crew grew taller and then obscured the little flowers. I stoically accepted the weeds covering up the Coreopsis; but I was not prepared for what those weeds would soon reveal.

One midsummer evening, as my husband and I walked a trail that encircled the field, we looked at the weeds--now taller than we were--silhouetted against the setting sun. We were startled to see the air above the plants alive with motion. Zooming back and forth were dragonflies, so numerous we were amazed they didn't collide. They were feeding on minute insects that hovered above the weeds. At the same time, we heard far overhead the calls of nighthawks and saw those insect-eating birds also zigzagging back and forth, also feeding on the wing. Their darting flight mimicked the dragonflies'--just on a larger scale. Perhaps the tinier insects were flying in that pattern, too, just in miniature! All that motion gave the plants an aura: the zone of leaves merged with the zone of wings, one airy niche building upon another until the weeds seemed possessed of a ghostly wand that tapped the sky. We could almost feel the sun's energy crackling through the connections in the food chain laid bare before us--from photosynthesizing weeds to insects to larger insects to birds.

We contemplated the weeds, those homely giants, with new respect. Like magicians pulling a rabbit out of a hat, they had made Life appear before our very eyes--and in our spirits, too. It was invigorating just to be in such a lively place!

It was also instructive. Somehow my sense of succession as linear and chronological had missed an important dimension--the part that was vertical, timeless, transcendent. Our restoration might be just beginning; it might be incomplete. But Creation was present now, and it was in full force!

Next year will be different. More perennials will emerge; new connections will form; different forces will be unleashed.

Will those powers seem "strange?"

If so, will it be because we moderns are estranged from the earth, so that nature's ways surprise us?

Or because we humans are never really ready for what the Magician has up his sleeve?


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This page contains just one story published on December 8, 2013. The one written previous to this is titled "Cheryl Sullenger--A Danger to Women" and the story published right after this one is "Deep-Pocketed, Right-Wing Republican Advocates Increase in Minimum Wage"

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