Illinois, my home state, is also often called the “Prairie State” as for many centuries (and perhaps millennia) it had been the home to vast prairies. Before the settlers came in, more than half of Illinois was covered by a chest-high grass prairie. Well over twenty million acres of prairie land, as far as the eye could see, almost half the size of The United Kingdom. It would take few days on a horseback to cross this prairie, back then the native homeland to the indigenous people, whose tribe gave our state its name.
Prairie soil by its nature is very fertile, so soon after the settlers came in, they started turning it into arable land and farming it. Few centuries later, those twenty plus million acres of prairie shrunk to mere three thousand acres (which is approximately 5 square miles) of remaining protected prairie.
The Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL is a faithful recreation of a native Illinois prairie sprawling on a few dozen acres, with carefully selected indigenous plants. I always thought that prairie were mostly grasses. One may not realize until walking the prairie that grasses are absolutely prevalent, but only second to the incredibly vast variety of wild flowers! If you ever visit a native midwestern prairie in summer time, you will find it bustling with life and incessant hum of all sorts of flying or crawling creatures. I knew about this place, yet never really bothered visiting it, thinking it was not much more than a big patch of a grassy field with pretty sunsets. My opinion has changed dramatically. When you walk the paths in this prairie and hear nothing but the buzzing of bees, you can’t help but be overcome with a sense of complete calm. It’s a botanist’s heaven.
What I always wondered about was one thing: how come there never were any trees on a prairie and there are plenty here now? The answer is logical, yet unexpected. Wildfires. Apparently the prairies relied on annual spontaneous wildfires to burn the vegetation down, including young tree saplings, where the flowers and grasses would re-grow, but the young trees would not. An annual purging and regenerative process nature itself would use to self-regulate spreading of invasive species and create biochar, one of the most potent fertilizers there is.
Our thirst for progress, population explosion, the need of food, fear of fires, and industrialized farming practices have disrupted and obliterated all of this. Maybe the prairie will return one day and with it the ever-so-important pollinators we’ve all but pushed away by removing their habitat.
Nature will one day find its way back, despite our efforts.
She always does…