The Prairie is Our Home
“Nothing worthy of note, it being entire prairie.” - Surveyor’s Field Notes, 1855.
“Then I discovered the prairie, and a slow healing began.” – Stephen R. Jones, 2000.
Our relationship with the prairie has always been a mixed one. Many of us look out upon the sea of grasses and see weeds. On the flip side, a smaller group sees home.
This wide-ranging depth of feeling began with the first Europeans and continues to today. I suppose, though, to be fair, today’s experience is extremely limited due to the disappearance of almost all native prairie from the state.
While grasslands exist in Russia, Africa, and South America, it wasn’t a habitat found in Europe. The first explorers, surveyors, and settlers were a bit stunned when faced with a land without trees. So, they concluded, must be pretty poor land; let’s homestead in the timbered river areas.
Of course, eventually our timbered areas became settled and new settlers were pushed into the open. At the same time, John Deere’s new invention – the steel plow – comes to Iowa, permitting a relatively easy way to break the tough prairie sod. And lo and behold, the settlers discover black gold: the rich, Grade A soil hidden under those “weeds.”
Eventually, 99.9% of our prairie would be plowed up. Iowa is transformed from tallgrass to corn, beans, and other crops.
And since we no longer see it, our prairie past is forgotten.
I, like many of you, have heard that we study the past in order not to repeat its mistakes. I respectfully disagree. We study the past to learn who we are.
Let’s try this using a different subject: math. There is an accepted flow of learning for math. You start with learning your numbers, how to count and then move up to simple addition and subtraction. While those problems get more complicated, you move into multiplication and division. Eventually, you get to geometry, trigonometry, and maybe even calculus.
However, if you start with multiplication or worse, trig, the students are going to be completely lost. You need a steady foundation before you work up to more complex problems.
We need the same for history and part of our history is the land that supports us. Underlying our status as an agricultural and rural state (even as we move onto more technological fields), is the prairie. Our history is not just defined by the events that occurred, but also why they occurred. And the prairie influenced all of it.
As an Iowan, I invite you to learn more about your past, about the foundations that made Iowa the state it is now. Visit the prairie exhibit at Marr Park’s Conservation Education Center now. In a month, it moves to western Iowa and the opportunity will be lost.
The exhibit is designed for all ages, from young ones grasping depths of roots to prairie critters to adults learning about the changes through time, the benefits, and even what they can do. Visit any time during open hours. We’ll even be glad to show you around, if you desire.