Coming Into the Prairie
A biography of Illinois's namesake ecosystem
January 28, 1983
Ah, yes, the prairie. Illinois calls itself the Prairie State (that is the state’s official nickname; the Land of Lincoln is just a marketing tag) but there is hardly any prairie left in it. Count me among the millions of present and past Illinoisans who are ambivalent about the once-dominant ecosystem in the state, an ambivalence I expressed here.
This version is slightly improved from the original, which appeared under the title, "What we lost when we won the battle against the prairie" in the Illinois Times of December 16, 1982 .
Reviewed: Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson. Originally published by Houghton Mifflin, 1983
The tallgrass prairie that once covered three-fifths of Illinois is not much missed. No one alive today saw it in its fullness, and it seems unlikely that any of us, prowling a prairie relict in a country cemetery, can reconstruct it imaginatively any more than most tourists can stare at the stones of the Forum and imagine the grandeur that was Rome.
Language perpetuates a comforting and wholly undeserved untruth about the demise of the tallgrass prairie. We talk about the "vanished" prairie as if it got up and migrated west with the Indians. In fact it was destroyed, deliberately. The vocabulary of Illinois's settlement was martial: One "broke" the prairies, "tamed" the wilderness. We won that battle against the grass, but in doing so we lost too.
That grass, and that battle, is the subject of John Madson's book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie. Every schoolchild in Illinois has probably heard—and promptly forgotten—the story of how the dense prairie sod frustrated the white man's crude plows, how the seemingly fragile "lawns of God" required teams of six oxen at a time to subdue. Oh well. Wars have occupied too many of the history books.
One runs the risk, in lamenting the destruction of the prairie, of romanticizing it. Madson is more useful in recounting not only the wonder and felt by Europeans at their first glimpse of prairie but their terror. The prairie was beautiful and rich, but it was also lonely, wet, disease-ridden, and (when visited by cold, storm, or fire) dangerous. Many of the early arrivals attacked the prairie with a vehemence that had less to do with the necessities of farming than with the necessities of subjugating an environment they found inhospitable. It is useful to be reminded that the earliest accounts of the prairie hereabouts spoke as often of its "oppressive monotony" as of its enchantment.
Oh, the prairie had its seasons, and what a picture it must have been, in its season. Madson's listing of the species that occupied this rarest of American biomes suggests something of the richness that was lost. Among the grasses, the big bluestem, of course, as well as the Indian grass and slough grass. Among the forbs (non-woody non-grass plants) the compass plant, rattlesnake master, blazing star, yellow star grass, black samson, bottle gentian. Wild legumes such as leadplant and wild indigo.
And flowers. Many a good writer has made himself irritating trying to match the prairie (which blooms from snowmelt through autumn) in eloquence. Again, the names suggest something of their diversity—prairie cat's-foot, bird's-foot violets, false dandelion, Indian paintbrush, spiderwort, Turk's-cap lilies, horsemint, wild orchids. Madson lists and describes dozens more that made up the "grandmother's quilt" that was the prairie in bloom.
Still, for all his skill at rhapsody (and Madson can write very prettily about nature, something he has been doing for some years now) the most engrossing pages of his books are those in which he describes the science of that environment, from the structural engineering of grasses to soil chemistry.
In explaining why it was that tallgrass prairie, once established, seemed virtually invulnerable to encroachment by trees, Madson notes that 97 percent of the water that falls on a mature big bluestem prairie never reaches the ground, that a tree seedling foolish enough to sprout in such hostile territory will receive a scant one percent of the sunlight falling on it on a bright day because of the shadowing grasses and that its roots will have to contend with a grass sod that contains as many as 13 miles of rootlets and root hairs in a chunk the size of a washtub.
Often the complexity of the prairie ecosystem was not much appreciated, for it required an eye trained for subtlety rather than the more accessible wonders of the forest or mountainside. Typically, the most wondrous aspect of the system—the soil—seems the most mundane. Madson does us the favor of reminding us how unmundane prairie soil is, or was. "The energies of our other black fuels, coal and oil," he writes, "are rather modest, short-term sources of power when compared to the great black loams of the American midlands." The raw materials of such soils were the minerals delivered by glacial express and plant remnants, but the real magic of creation was biological rather than geologic. Microbes facilitated the cycle of growth and decay left a single gram of prairie loam enriched with as many as 2 million protozoans and another 58 million bacteria.
There is no soil builder better than grasses. Prairie soils were so much richer than forest soils spawned under the same conditions because most of the body of the grasses lay below the surface; what's more, it is crammed into the uppermost soil layers, while the underground parts of trees are dissipated through many feet. Madson reports that a forest soil may include 20 to 50 tons of humus per acre, while a prairie soil next door may have 250 tons.
The fertility of such soils is well known. But those who visit a cornfield and conclude that they are seeing prairie soil minus the grasses are mistaken. Because of its dense subsoil mat of roots and its high percentage of humus (both of which kept it porous) prairie soil was very light. "A man jumping off a hay wagon onto virgin prairie sod may see the tremor of the impact for several feet around," says Madson. Modern farm soil, compacted and stripped of humus by over-cultivation, may weigh as much as twice as much as its ancestor of the same volume.
The soil is the principal inheritance from the prairie. But the prairie left Illinoisans a cultural legacy as well, not so rich. Not a legacy of words or images —in fact it is remarkable how little impact the prairie has made on our literary and metaphorical vocabulary, perhaps because it was destroyed so quickly—but of attitudes. The people who plowed the prairie were often (quoting a contemporary chronicler) "the Anglo-Saxon relapsed into semi-barbarism." "The struggle for survival . . . developed a preoccupation with physical aspects, leaving little time or concern for philosophy, idealism, beauty, or grace," says Madson. The emphasis was on the pragmatic, which "curtailed certain spiritual and cultural development."
Naturally, such a robust plant ecosystem sustained more life than just its own. The grasses were home to hordes of insects (as many as ten million per acre in season), which were the bane of early settlers. Some 300 birds are considered to have been native to tallgrass prairie, along with large mammals like the elk and wolf. Most are gone, from Illinois if not from the planet. "The most spectacular members of the prairie bestiary were shot into oblivion," writes Madson. "The others passed more quietly . . . lingering] in widening croplands, their margin of survival shrinking, until they were buried forever by corn and commerce."
The question that the Europeans asked when they first emerged onto Indiana and Illinois after an infinity of forest has nagged botanists ever since: "Why grass? Why had the land suddenly run out of trees?" The transition, after all, was "shockingly abrupt." In ten strides a person could emerge from a forest that had stretched all the way back to Pennsylvania into "an open world of limitless sky and distance." It was, concludes Madson, "probably the sharpest, clearest boundary between any of the major floristic provinces in the New World."
Madson's account of the contending theologies of grassland formation is lucid and informed. Wildfire was a factor, as was glaciation, rainfall, and wind. The result was—is—a "silent struggle" for dominance that has been going on for 25 million years, during which "the intrusions of glacial epochs and corn farmers are only interludes, and of little consequence."
Although no one factor explains the prairie, Madson opts for climate as the single most important. The mid-continent has been "a meeting ground of North American weathers" for millions of years, undergoing cycles of cooling and warming, wetting and drying that also made it the battleground for those contending floristic groups, the trees and the grasses.
The present prairie, however, has made only the briefest of sojourns. It is customary to refer to the recurrent glaciations of the "Ice Age" in this hemisphere as events of unimaginable, if measurable, antiquity. The fact is that we are still in the ice age, or rather in the midst of one of more than a dozen interglacial warming periods. The current one (according to a recent article by James King, head of the Illinois State Museum's scientific sections) began about 18,000 years ago and hit a peak about 10,000 years later that lasted for 4,000 years. It has been getting cooler in Illinois ever since. But it was during this period that the eastern prairie peninsula of which Illinois tallgrass formed a part took root. Warmer temperatures, less rain, more wind—all rendered the habitat marginal for trees. Man has disrupted that cycle, both locally (former prairie, once plowed, is quickly taken over by trees, which is why abandoned farm fields do not revert to prairie) and globally (the burdening of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide from the heedless burning of fossil fuels may yet abort the next glaciation).
The same climatological factors that helped produce the prairies give them their distinctive weather. The blizzards, the freezes, the extremes of temperature, most of all the tornadoes ("air gone mad") so common in the Midwest are deplored and celebrated in roughly equal measure. Other climates are just as severe, but few are severe in so many ways at once. Those who detest the weather leave; many of those who stay brag about it.
It is easy to see why. In a region whose speech, architecture, and topography are so apparently featureless, storms are our mountains, August our desert. But although Madson writes entertainingly of our "great weathers" he is too good a reporter not to admit, "The special quality of fine prairie weather isn't necessarily one of intrinsic merit, but of contrast with what has gone just before." Spring in Illinois (as I've tried to explain to friends as they motor off toward the Sun Belt) is "a refreshing novelty after a long run of dull."
The weather remains but the prairie is nearly gone. Today, scarcely one percent of Illinois's prairies survive, and much of that remains under constant threat. The plows are stronger now, and the ethic of exploitation hasn't changed. "The old currents of pragmatism and cupidity run strong and deep," Madson laments, "and I often feel that the average prairie farmer could have a grove of sequoias growing on his back forty and show no interest in them at all—unless they could be sold at the local elevator."
Madson devotes a chapter to various attempts to restore prairie, to recreate what he calls "people pastures." Some of them are happening in Illinois, and all should be encouraged. Madson notes that our national park system has holes in it, that we do not have preserved quality examples of all the native American landscapes. (There is only one tallgrass remnant left large enough, the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, and cattle grazing has left even that no longer prairie but prairie pasture.) But none in Illinois is ever likely to be able to "look the way such a place ought to look." Ultimately Madson offers us only this hope: "Man may exhaust the prairie soils and send them to the sea, but the age-long geologic processes will renew them. The only tragedy is not a lasting destruction of the land, but the destruction of our capacity to use and enjoy it." ●