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BY JOHN PEARSON
Sheeder Prairie Prequel
Numb with a day of dull driving on Interstate 80, I fumble with the Iowa road map. A graduate student at Southern Illinois University, I left Carbondale this morning—May 30, 1977—and have driven through a seemingly endless succession of cropfields in Illinois and Iowa, with the discouraging breadth of Nebraska yet to come. I am on my way to Wyoming for a summer job as a backcountry ranger in the Absaroka Wilderness bordering Yellowstone Park. Now I am somewhere west of Des Moines and need to find a place to camp, hopefully not far from the highway. I would especially like to find a park with some natural habitat to explore before dark, but jaded from the lack of natural places in this relentlessly agricultural landscape, I have begun to doubt that I will find one. Glancing at the road map one last time during a moment stolen from the bug-specked windshield, my eyes are suddenly arrested by a blue dot hovering in white space only an inch from the thick green line of the interstate. Its pastel label quietly displays a promising name: Sheeder Prairie.
Prairie! I know prairie, but only recently. Growing up in the Midwest, my exposure to natural areas has been almost entirely of forest, because it is the only natural vegetation of significant extent left after more than a century of farming and urbanization. In my home state of Michigan, on the outskirts of Detroit, my childhood adventures centered on a patch of woods bordered by suburban backyards and the county landfill (a mysteriously treeless place). Trees filled the pictures I took of natural places that caught my fancy for a 4-H photography project. Becoming a naturalist at a local nature center, I learned the names of trees and forest wildflowers: oaks, maples, Solomon's-seal, sweet William. Now in college, I study forest ecology in the hills of southern Illinois, measuring forests with diameter tapes wrapped around the trunks of trees.
Then I discovered prairie. Not in midwestern remnants missed by plows and cows in cemeteries, railroad rights-of-way, and tiny postage-stamp preserves, not even in the lectures of my biology professors as they described the demise of prairie under the utilitarian press of agriculture, first by pioneer homesteaders and later by modern industrial farms. My prairie awakening came thousands of miles from home, on the far side of the Great Plains, where I had gone searching for western forest. As a student in a Montana field ecology class last year, I sampled my way through a glorious gradient of desert grasslands, foothill prairies, conifer forests, and alpine meadows. Early in that sequence, prairie arrested my attention: so colorful, diverse, and wonderfully big. Its wild aspect was an intoxicating contrast to the tame suburban habitats of my midwestern homeland. Prairie at last appeared in my increasingly conscious quest for wild and natural places.
So now I am in western Iowa, hunting for Exit 76. Finding it, I follow a zigzagging route of rural roads through sparsely populated farmland to Sheeder Prairie State Preserve. In the final mile of my approach, the day-long whine of smooth pavement under my tires is replaced by the clatter of gravel on an unpaved road rising to a hilltop. The sun is low in the sky when I finally climb stiffly out of the car and step through a gate into the prairie. It has been recently burned: short, green grass studded with colorful, blooming forbs abounds where fire passed a month ago, while tall brown clumps of big bluestem and Indiangrass stand somberly in an unburned patch beyond. In the fading light, I find porcupine grass, prairie phlox, and white sagewort ... plus many more I do not recognize from my experience in the Rocky Mountains. It takes only five minutes to cross the tiny remnant and encounter the fence separating it from freshly tilled cropland. I end my short hike on a quiet hilltop and watch evening slip into night. The sun is setting, the moon is rising; redwings are coming in, fireflies are coming out. Lightning flashes silently from a distant thunderhead, illuminating a trio of deer standing like ghosts against the black soil of the neighboring field, watching me. A breeze brushes the dark landscape. Gazing at the quiet scene, I churn with ambivalence for this prairie: love of its ambiance mixed with sadness for its loss.
"To be prairie, really good prairie, it must embrace the horizons," John Madson wrote in "The Running Country," one of many essays expressing his love for the prairie world. As a postage-stamp preserve of only twenty-five acres, Sheeder Prairie cannot measure up to that horizon-sweeping standard, but not saving it because it is too small to be "good prairie" seems all wrong, too. Despite its tiny size, I sense traces of its original diversity and wildness, a mystique that transcends size. That's the contradiction I've been mulling: this prairie is small, but it still has magic. I know Madson would agree.
As I drift back to the gate, I recall someone telling me that Iowa employed an ecologist whose job it was to look after prairie remnants and the other bits of natural land that remained in this highly altered state, "like trying to save the world after it was destroyed," he had lamented. Habitat loss and fragmentation—ecological culprits plaguing natural areas throughout the country—have been especially rampant in Iowa, whose abundance of gentle, fertile soil has facilitated widespread conversion of natural land to agriculture. "Sounds like an impossible task," I murmur as I start my car and resume driving to Wyoming, "I can't imagine who would be up to it."
As we drive over the last hill, it comes into view. There it is! A bright green mound of vegetation gleams softly amid the black soil of the cropfield like an emerald dropped in the dirt. Our excitement spikes even though we have learned to check our expectations, the result of many disappointments with previous visits to seemingly promising places. Time and again, we have visited sites whose dark, irregularly shaped images on aerial photographs normally filled with the rectangular white blanks of cultivated land had tantalizingly indicated that something was still there ... only to find degraded patches overrun with common weeds: ragweed, nettles, parsnip, foxtail. We are hunting for something more significant: lady's slippers, gentians, cotton-grass, sage willow, grass of Parnassus, and other denizens of the boggy, peaty wetlands known as fens.
Quickly gathering our notebooks, maps, soil probe, and pH meter, we prepare to hike away from the car toward what we hope will be a high-quality fen. On this August morning in 1988, botanist Mark Leoschke and I are in the first day of our fen foray into Fayette County, one of several counties included in our third year of a statewide inventory of fen wetlands in Iowa. Our inventory is driven by a desire to protect these special wetlands and is facilitated by county soil maps depicting the locations of Palms muck, an organic soil of highly decomposed peat and a reliable predictor of fens. Several winters ago, we painstakingly scanned county soil maps, recording over a thousand locations of this indicative soil series. Over seven hundred of them were eliminated from further investigation when our inspection of aerial photographs revealed that they had been drained and plowed. We are now in the process of checking the remaining three hundred sites with field visits. As we draw closer to this one, we discern sedges and cattails filling a gentle slope, harbingers of a hanging bog—a fen perched on a hillside. Our pace quickens.
Entering the wetland, we experience the oddity of stepping up onto a suddenly wet, soft, sloping surface. We find ourselves in a landscape of knee-high tussock sedges and head-high cattails, but it is the lesser vegetation that immediately attracts our attention. A galaxy of grass of Parnassus flowers seems to float above the ground, which now quakes and shudders beneath our feet as we walk, star-struck at the cast of plant species we are encountering. In all directions, there are tall green spikes of valerian, yellow arches of Riddell's goldenrod, and hoary splays of sage willow. At the far end of the site, near a spring, Mark finds cotton-grass, its fluffy springtime fruits now reduced to wispy tatters. Collectively, these water-loving, calcium-loving, organic soil-loving species fairly shout "FEN!" A quick probe of the soil confirms its saturated, organic nature, and the pH meter's reading of 6.7 verifies its nutrient-rich status. We have found a fen, a very good one.
While Mark carefully collects voucher specimens of the rarest plant species, I wander through the fen to compile a more comprehensive list, coming up with a total of seventy-five species today. (Additions from future inventories by other botanists will eventually double this figure.) During the survey, I enjoy a diversity of architecture: the coarse, arching fronds of sensitive fern and the finely dissected, erect ones of marsh fern; the tall, narrow, vertical leaves of blue-flag iris and the short, rotund, horizontal ones of marsh marigold; the open, frilled flowers of fringed gentian, open to all species of flies and bees, and the closed, unfringed ones of bottle gentian, its tightly pinched opening passable only by powerful bumblebees. Even as I examine a bottle gentian flower, it begins to wobble as if possessed, its walls deforming and rebounding as an unseen bumblebee, sated with nectar, struggles to turn its bulky body around inside the narrow throat, a hymenopteran bull in a stamen-studded pollen shop. A moment later, the overlapping tips of the flower rotate apart as the bumblebee pushes through the aperture and flies away, its hairy legs flecked with gentian pollen.
Meandering up the gentle slope of the fen, I reach a subtle crest. Looking back to where Mark still crouches, I see I am on the highest point of the fen, the summit of a mound of wet, quaking peat about ten acres in size. Casting my view in all directions, I perceive that the fen is the highest point in nearly the entire landscape; only a subtle rise to the south, in a neighboring cornfield, appears to be slightly higher. Unlike "normal" wetlands—potholes, sloughs, swamps, and streams—that occupy the lowest parts of the landscape where runoff flows, fens arise from groundwater seepage high on the lay of the land. I know this intellectually, but the sight still seems surreal. In addition to being marvelous, my view is also troubling: except for a sliver of untilled ground in a nearby drainageway, the fen is everywhere bordered with cropland and far isolated from the next nearest fen ... an ark of nature awash and alone in a flood of rowcrop agriculture. Recognizing that its surroundings will never again be unending prairie, buffering this small, special place with benign land use, and someday reconnecting it to other remnants are our best hopes for ensuring its survival in this hard-working landscape.
Finishing our surveys, Mark and I excitedly exchange accounts of our discoveries. It is obviously one of the best fens we have encountered during our inventory. Like the vast majority of the fens we have found, its fate rests in the decisions of the farmer who manages this private land. We want to alert him to the ecological significance of the fen and the importance of saving it, so we decide to drive to the nearby farmstead and meet with him. "What's his name again?" Mark asks as we climb into the car. We make a practice of contacting all landowners to secure advance permission for our visits, so I page through our notes to find the answer: "Kauten ... Bill Kauten. He mentioned having a young daughter who might be interested in this sort of thing. I think he said her name was Becky." Driving away from the field, I catch one last glimpse of the fen before it disappears behind a wall of tall green corn. As we pull into the driveway, it dawns on me that our short trip from the fen to the farmstead symbolizes the long-term progression of our efforts from finding fens to protecting them. Their conservation future will not be assured until we recruit the willing support of farmers and landowners. Where willingness exists, our job will be easy, but where willingness is lacking, our charge will be to educate, convince, and respectfully persuade ... to cultivate willingness. We have worked hard to find the fens, but our biggest mission of all has just begun.
Emerging from bur oak woods, I step into yet another prairie opening, the biggest one so far. Big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem, lead plant, and wild rose gently brush my legs as I amble toward a high point where I will try to get my bearings. Walking through a bewildering mosaic of oak forest and tallgrass prairie spread across a dissected landscape of steep hillsides and steeper ravines, distracted by head-high compass plants and interrupted by cedar trees that compel me to duck and weave, I have lost track of how many openings I have traversed since I started hiking this morning. Keeping one eye on my pathway, I continue jotting colorful plant names into my notebook as I walk: purple prairie-clover, redroot, blue-eyed grass, green-flowered milkweed. This is my twenty-fifth prairie list since starting the Waterman Creek Prairie Inventory three days ago and the last one needed to complete my sweep of the valley. I have found so many prairie remnants in this complex of rugged glacial valleys along the Little Sioux River in O'Brien County that my note taking has progressed from a dutiful compilation of species to a roll call of familiar friends. Arriving at the high point, I cap the page-filling list with a brief description of the habitat: "a series of small cedar savannas with a large prairie at its south end." I squeeze the generalization into the narrow line between the species list and today's date: June 5, 1989.
Resuming my inventory, I move slowly across the big prairie opening toward another wooded ravine. But instead of passing through a thickening band of prairie-killing cedars like those rimming the previous openings, I find myself walking through a scattering of stunted bur oaks, their lightly shaded bases lapped with prairie vegetation. As I begin to close my notebook and stow my pen to prepare for another tree-grabbing descent into the upcoming ravine, a small gleam of white in my peripheral vision causes me to freeze. Pricked by a distant memory, my mind has already flashed an image of what I think I saw, but I reject the thought. No, that can't be, it doesn't grow here. But when I turn my head and focus on the plant, it contradicts me. Small white lady's slipper! I stare in amazement at the orchid, half-expecting it to resolve into something more ordinary. When it remains unchanged, I kneel for a closer look, lightly lifting its shining white flower with my forefinger. Its thumb-size "slipper," suspended gondola-like by an arching stem over a bouquet of pleated leaves, is undeniably that of Cypripedium candidum. Memorized from frequent readings, the conservation profile for the lady's slipper plays spontaneously in my mind: originally occurring in all ninety-nine counties of Iowa, recently confirmed in only fourteen, now confined to tiny, isolated remnants of wet prairie. A fresh swirl of contradictions furrows my brow: O'Brien County is not one of the fourteen and this Waterman Creek prairie is not tiny, isolated, or wet.
I notice that the flower in my grasp is not alone. Another white moccasin dangles from a neighboring stem in the same leafy clump. Looking up, I spot another clump, and another, and another. Standing up to scan more broadly, I see nearly a dozen clumps, all bursting with flowers, on the hillside below me. I count the number of stems and flowers, finding an especially prolific clump containing 60 stems and 45 flowers. When I tally the whole population of 10 clumps, there are 200 stems supporting a total of 119 flowers. Two-thirds of the flowers are still fresh, but the others have begun to wither. Had I arrived a week earlier, I might well have seen fresh flowers on all 200 stems.
As I count, I also note the plant species associated with the orchids. One tree: bur oak. Three shrubs: lead plant, wild rose, and hazelnut. Four grasses: big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem, and Canada bluegrass. Eight forbs: groundplum, stiff goldenrod, prairie coreopsis, purple prairie-clover, smooth aster, strawberry, rattlesnake-root, and bastard toadflax. The abundance of forbs reminds me of one more element of the orchid's habitat profile: a diversity of nectar sources. This is a critical feature because the lady's slipper itself produces no nectar to attract insect pollinators. Instead, relying on the presence of nectar-producing neighbors to draw insects into the neighborhood, it tricks its pollinators—small sweat bees and miner bees—into entering the pouch of its attractive slipper with empty promises of a nectar reward. Once inside the pouch, the gullible bee follows colored lines that normally lead to nectaries, but after squeezing through a one-way gauntlet of stigmas and anthers in the lady's slipper, it encounters nothing but an exit hole in the heel. The bee has no choice but simply to fly away, charged with a fresh coating of pollen.
Excerpted from Deep Nature by John Pearson Copyright © 2009 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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