The small, quick death of a miniature prairie

When I decided to move, I didn’t want to leave without bringing part of the prairie restoration with me. With help from fellow Wild Ones, a group that does more than dream about ousting biologically dead bluegrass lawns in favor of native plantings, we managed to transplant 75 prairie plants from my old lawn to the new.

That day was Nov. 1, a bittersweet window in which careful violations with shovels, plastic bags and cardboard boxes brought substance of a new beginning. The plants were reborn in two sections of the new yard. Each section’s plants were tucked close together and looked dinky compared to where they came from, but with the new smallness came a larger symbolism that claimed the new large yard in the name of life.

Digging in the old yard was sad. Who would get to stay untouched but to die next spring under the blade of a mow, blow and go crew? A few of the plants dug up were dug up as many as 13 years earlier from where they sprouted in the old Rockford College prairie restoration.

Their long roots were cut during removal, and secondary roots sprouted from the cuts to anchor and feed in my old yard. The college veterans brought to the new yard had their secondary roots cut, and this spring tertiary roots will sprout to anchor and feed.

It took hours to carefully extract the plants; most went calmly. Some that weren’t chosen were too big, deep and old to go without dynamite, and we didn’t have the dynamite. With 10 people working the prairie, many plants were stepped on; soon you could see patches of bluegrass shining in the sun. This was grass that cowered timidly under the tall stalks of prairie one hour earlier. Only 10 percent of the plants were taken, yet 50 percent of the restoration appeared different.

In the new yard, the time flew by; it took half the time to plant as it did to remove the plants from the old yard. Our moods were happier as we envisioned a yard made over in native plants. Meanwhile, the old yard looked trampled, and it shimmered in a bluegrass green, a color characteristic of European plants in November in these here United States of America. Still, the restoration looked half there and still looked much better than a biologically dead bluegrass lawn.

The big surprise that came later was what didn’t come later—the wildlife. The native birds disappeared. Sure, a few cardinals show up at the feeder along with night-visiting cottontail rabbits, but that’s about it. It was very spooky; the prairie was violated in the eyes of native wildlife. It really got me thinking on what is an ecosystem entity, no matter how small. My 100-foot-by-40-foot restoration that went a number of years building, growing and flourishing must have had a good aura. Now the aura is gone or very dim. Habitat fragmentation, due mostly to man’s activities, dominates the worldscape. There’s no doubt fragmentation is devastating.

My yard micro ecosystem died quickly because it was complicated on a lesser scale and lacked the many protective chain links a big habitat would have. Still, it startled me to see how easily it died. Is our planet’s natural environment alive only because it’s big? Is the aura around the pale blue dot getting dimmer? Rest in peace, old yard.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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