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Fierce Green Fire: Thinking like a prairie

September 15, 2010

An American goldfinch at the Nygren Wetland Preserve, which features a large prairie restoration area. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

On a trip out West last winter, a Utah bar offered their pizza in two styles of crust: prairie or mountain. Much like a grassland, the “prairie crust” was thin and flat, while the “mountain crust” was thick like the peaks of the western U.S. Without much thought, I chose the mountain crust, though it had more to do with an affinity for bread than anything.

Only later did I recognize the symbolism in my absent-minded decision. To the waiter, I likely came across as another flatlander looking to escape my landmark-less home habitat. If the question were taken outside of the confines of pizza and taverns, and people were asked if they preferred prairies or mountains, I suspect most would select the latter. Mountains are grand. They have provided a venue for nature conquerors the world over, and have been the fodder for poets and authors for centuries. Romantic notions aside, though, the mountains are obvious. They rise up behind ever-growing cities. They are scenic tapestries that most who reside there will never see as anything but dramatic backdrops.

Prairies are more subtle. They require inspection. They require attention to detail and a keen eye. It’s easy to see a snow-capped mountain… it’s much more difficult to pick out the detail of a prairie. Indeed, if mountains are tapestries, prairies are mosaics. Mountain color is stark and contrasting. Prairie color is sporadic, shifting and undulating. Like a flag of greens, yellows and purples, it shifts in the wind, mesmerizing those who are fortunate enough to gaze upon it. From a distance, you cannot pick out individual bergamots and compass plants, but they are there dancing harmoniously as they have for centuries.

Of course, prairies are no longer the common sight they once were. Most exist now in small parcels, often the result of individuals or groups with the foresight to preserve their beauty and value. At the same time, they are a testament to the resiliency of the plants themselves, in many cases once regarded even by state scientists as “weeds.”

Many “mountain states” exist, but there is only one “Prairie State”—and we are fortunate enough to reside in it. It would be foolhardy not to spend at least a few of our remaining summer days celebrating this fact by taking a hike through one of our many local grasslands. The Natural Land Institute, Rockford Park District, Winnebago County Forest Preserve District and Boone County Conservation District all offer exceptional opportunities to explore Illinois’ namesake. Visit their websites for details and locations.

Plenty of species were still blooming in August, and exploring the tallgrass ecosystem is always a process that yields exciting results. Even if you never learn the names of the individual plants, that is OK. Just remember, you travel to the mountains, but you come home to the prairie.

From the Sept. 15-21, 2010 issue

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