Finding seeds and hope in the grass

By Eric Chien

When I lifted my head up I was alone. Burgundy and purple seed heads brushed against my face and shoulders. The sound of grass shaking in the wind washed all around the deeply rolling hills and over the high ridges that surrounded me. Inside that glacial kettle, a bowl of land ringed by undulating hills and ridges, my world had compressed. A pair of hawks banked along the ridges, crying out into the wind, certain of their place on this back forty. Alone, surrounded by a virgin tallgrass prairie, steeped in the purples, blues and gold of fall, I was transported to a Minnesota that once was, and perhaps to a future that might be again.

“We are really proud of this,” Lucy quietly proclaimed several times as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road. Lucy was our project host, and as a resource specialist for the Minnesota DNR, she spends much of the year working on or thinking about prairies. She graciously responded to all of my questions about prairie conservation and her own restoration work, frequently ending long explanations with that phrase: “We are really proud of this.” She spoke as if she was rediscovering the importance of her undertaking as she reviewed it. The view rushing by the ATV gave credence to her claim. Indian grass, five feet tall and heavy with seed, grew so densely it could have hidden a bison. Less than five years ago this was an old crop field, its fertility exhausted and nearly devoid of native plants. Yet, on that afternoon, native grass seed flew over the hood and covered our windshield as we rumbled to the spot where she hoped to find the plants we were after.

Tallgrass prairie is defined by its grasses, but it only takes a few steps off the trail into the prairie itself to notice some of its other treasures. As my crew and I waded through the grass, we began to see on a different scale of detail. Countless species of plants poked their stalks and leaves in between the dense grass, more often than not declaring their existence with splendidly beautiful flowers. These are what Lucy wanted us to look for, and what we found in unique richness. Wild bergamot, bush clover, leadplant, thimbleweed, purple prairie clover, penstomen, milkweed, golden alexander and several species of coneflowers – a fraction of the wildflowers present whose seeds we were collecting for future restoration sites. We came to know them intimately; the feeling of their seeds between our plucking fingers, their fragrances emanating from our picking bags and the locales where they preferred to grow. The spiky black seed heads of purple coneflower loved to congregate on the upper slopes of south facing ridges and preferred the shorter little bluestem grass as their immediate neighbors, eschewing the lower slopes that were choked with tall stands of big bluestem and Indian grass. They were the preferred morning perches of dragonflies that very reluctantly vacated those seed heads as we picked them. Each plant had its own relationships and place in the prairie whole.  

In many ways we have been working on creating a shrine. Tallgrass prairie in Minnesota is functionally extinct. With less than 2% of its original tallgrass prairie remaining, Minnesota can only tenuously lay claim to being the home of the intersection of three major biomes. The remaining prairie lands are so fractured and few that the forces from which they were born no longer play out. Large herds of bison and elk don’t graze the plants, fires don’t sweep across the grassy horizon and immeasurable quantities of native plant seed aren’t sown into the ground every fall. I’ve read too many studies and articles that resign functioning prairie in Minnesota to a relic of the past. Perhaps the authors of those studies have spent too much time crunching numbers. While it is important work, I know from experience that it can breed a distorting pessimism that often passes for realistic perception. I believe that like big bluestem after a spring fire, there can be a rebirth of tallgrass in our state. It can rise out of the ashes of the last two hundred years of economic development, not as a shrine but as a resilient, functioning biome. Because on that afternoon, climbing up the slope to the ridge of that prairie kettle, my bags laden with a hope that only seeds can bring, I had no idea what the view over the top might be. Having spent days exploring breathtakingly beautiful and healthy restored prairie and ascended from a microcosm of a time supposedly long past, I would not have been surprised to crest that ridge and behold country filled with tallgrass, wildflowers and bison sweeping toward the horizon.

Read more about prairie conservation in Minnesota.