This is a story of a misspent youth, of wrong turns taken, of love misdirected and unwise romance. It is a tale of mistakes made and made again, of experiments with exotic plants and strange substances and foolish choices—and serious addiction. This is a ballad of unnatural behavior and of lost roots, but more than anything else, it’s the story of an approach to a long-sought goal: Nirvana. This is the story of how I found grass: pleasure in grass, euphoria in grass, contentment in grass.
“Oh, great!” you say. “Another Timothy Leary wannabe: broken-down old hippie. Get him outta here. One strike and you’re out, buddy.” Let me quickly assure you that I am not referring to Cannabis sativa, pot, weed. Nor do I mean “Iowjuana” or plain old hemp. No. The grass to which I am addicted is actually grasses. And it is referred to by many names: big bluestem, Indian grass, sideoats grama, and Canada wild rye. It’s little bluestem, dropseed, switchgrass, cord grass, and innumerable sedges. My addiction is to the prairie.
Let me tell you how I came to have this love affair with a patch of prairie, a place which many have told me looks like a bunch of old weeds, but which for me holds never-ending charm and which, like all true love, grows more beautiful every day.
In the early spring of 1976 I, along with a number of my Grinnell College colleagues, received a mimeographed sheet of paper by campus mail on which was an appealing description of a parcel of land that was being offered for sale. The sellers, members of the Department of Sociology, were moving to California; the land was located about 12 miles south of town. The flyer spoke of coreopsis and chipmunks, columbine and chickadees. Intrigued, my wife and I went out to have a look on what on what must have been the final day of that spring’s thaw. The fact that the ground we sought was accessible only through a quarter mile of naked bean field on the north or a greasy minimum maintenance road from the south presented us with our first challenge. We knew that trying to drive would be sheer folly, so we rolled up our trousers and slipped and slogged through several hundred yards of mud, reaching the property line with about 10 pounds of Iowa gumbo on each boot. Then we walked across the cornfield to the edge of the timber, stopped and listened to the silence and breathed the air…. we simply looked at each other and nodded. Watching a cock pheasant catapult from a bramble patch, cack-cack-cackling its way across the cornfield like an old biplane hitting on one cylinder certainly put an ear-to-ear grin on my face. Even with the brown muddy field and the leafless trees, we were smitten. Following a short price haggle, and after convincing the folks at the local savings bank that we were reasonable risks, our two names were added to the deed for the NW 1/4 of the SW 1/4 of Section 26, Township 79 North, Range 16 West of the 5th PM. What that meant was 40 acres, exactly square, a quarter-mile on each side, one half scrub timber, second growth oak, hickory, hack berry, silver maple, aspen, and box elder, 12 tillable acres, and 8 acres that looked to me to be just plain scrub.
I was holding down two jobs at that time—teaching at Grinnell College during the school year and running a theatre company in North Carolina during the summers—so it was well into autumn before I began to discover what we had purchased, to learn the gullies and small hills, the branches and shallow frog ponds, and to begin to devise plans for our acquisition’s future. I can’t say exactly what my wife saw that made her agree with me that we needed to buy this ground—virtually worthless by many standards—but I know what I saw. I saw a chance to create for myself a little bit of North Carolina—a piece of my old homeland—in the middle of this land of corn.
I hadn’t been long in the state between two rivers, and I must admit that I still felt like a stranger to the heartland. I missed the red clay hills I had left behind, the pines and hemlocks and the sweet gums. Why couldn’t I transform this little landscape so it would be green in the winter, burn red in the fall, and smell of pine needles all the year round? Ah, the thorny paths the follies of youth can lead us down.
Of course, what I was hoping to do is what settlers in a new land have forever done. From the irrigated green lawns of Phoenix to the rows of blue spruce in Nebraska to the place in the northeast of the U.S. called New England, we humans have always tried to bring home with us, and to recreate it when we arrive in a new and different place.
So, my initial impulse was unremarkable. The next spring I contacted the state forestry nursery in Ames and ordered a thousand seedlings—Scotch and white pines, spruce and maples. When they arrived I borrowed a planter from our biology department. Calling it a planter is an overstatement; it was a devious piece of iron, weighted and pointed on one end, that was heavy to lift, hurt my hands when I slammed it down, hurt my feet when I shoved it in the ground, and rattled my bones like a minor car crash when I was unlucky enough to hit it into a stone. Nevertheless, I set about circling the cornfield with little 6-to-8 inch sprouts and sticks, heeled them in (as they say in the forestry world), prayed for rain, and headed off to North Carolina for my summer of theatre.
On my return at the end of the summer, I went anxiously to my new tree farm, expecting at least two feet of new growth, and there, amid lush green grass, and in the shadow of 10-foot-high swaying Iowa corn, were my evergreen trees, exactly the same size I had left them, but a lovely reddish brown in color and as brittle as fine porcelain figurines. The maple sticks were nowhere to be found. It turns out I should have told my renter who was planting the cornfield what I was up to. I learned that seedling trees and the broadleaf weed-killer atrazine—which he had spread on the field—don’t get along.
Undaunted, I planned for the following spring. This time I would plant a thousand evergreens (after all I had lost a year) plus a few walnut trees and, as a nod to the Midwest and for bird food, some high-bush cranberry. The next May when my planting was completed I limped on my sore feet to the farmer’s house to make sure that he would spray only the middle of the field. Shortly thereafter we packed our things again and headed east. Each time I looked at those gently swaying Carolina pines that summer, I could almost feel my young seedlings growing like reeds, creating a miniature Tar heel state in the middle of Iowa.
What I saw that August was indeed remarkable—no swaying pines, no little saplings, no matter how hard I looked. They had been smothered by a twenty-foot border of weeds surrounding the cornfield. The burdock and velvet leaf and jimson weed and ragweed plants, overjoyed by the absence of herbicide, all about 12 feet high, had simply devoured my little babies.
Of course, there was nothing to do but plow ahead. Johnny Appleseed must have had setbacks, I reasoned; Sandy Seedling wasn’t going to let a couple of bad years put him off his course. If my friend on the other side of town could make pine trees grow on his lovely Christmas tree plantation; surely I could too.
I cut back a bit. Just 500 trees, all evergreens, I made a list:
Let the farmer know so he won’t spray.
Clip the weeds early.
Arrange for another clipping during the summer.
I even carried buckets of water around to give each seedling a drink before I left that May—and that was pretty much the last water they saw all summer. This time when I returned, everything was brown. It was the drought summer—dead weeds, almost dead corn—all curled up, and of course 500 little brown brittle match sticks sadly surrounding it all. Needless to say I was a wee bit disappointed. I was beginning to feel like the Jeffrey Dahmer of the tannenbaum world. I could imagine the little baby trees begging not to be sent to that Moffett guy. Unlike Mr. Christmas tree, I couldn’t get the damn things through one summer.
It was beginning to look like a change of tactics was in order, so for the next few years I simply let everything alone and enjoyed what was there. To say I decided to do this would be an over-statement. It was more by default, or maybe from exhaustion or a failure of imagination. But we were beginning to spend more summer time in Grinnell, and I was amazed and took pleasure in watching the corn and beans grow before my eyes. I set aside a couple of acres and seeded it to alfalfa and brome (which I realized later were non-native and invasive, but I was ignorant then), enough hay to get our horses through the winter. I laid out half a dozen possible cabin sites and built a small, if somewhat leaky pond. And I began to see things.
Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, devotes a chapter to seeing—the phenomenon whereby we alert our senses to something in our environment we have never noticed before, and then suddenly begin to find that everywhere. She tells of hiding a penny on a sidewalk when she was young and chalking arrows pointing to it with messages saying “surprise ahead” and “money this way.” Then she would spend the rest of the day imagining the lucky finder with wider eyes looking for pennies and finding many more. Reflecting on this, she says: “It is dire poverty when a man won’t stoop to pick up a penny . . . If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.” During the next two summers I began to see those planted pennies.
I saw that my oaks were not simply oaks, but burr oaks and red oaks and pin oaks; that the oaks grew in their own places and the hickories and maples in their separate spots. I saw what happened when an old tree fell—that the next summer, raspberries grew in the patch of sunlit ground that the tree had formerly shaded.
One May day, my nine-year-old son and I were walking through the woods when he spotted a morel mushroom and said “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” I said, looking straight where he was pointing.
“That brown thing.”
“Everything down there is brown,” I came back.
“This!” He touched it. And I saw.
Suddenly, as if by magic, there were morels all through the woods.
Then, one summer morning, I discovered that a little patch of rutted hillside, in the area that I had labeled “just plain scrub,” a piece of ground no bigger than an average back yard which I had written off as a worthless, washed out weed patch and seldom entered unless I was in hopes of kicking out a rabbit for the frying pan, was the richest, most diverse and complex part of the whole property.
It was the purple coneflowers that first caught my attention; the tall spindly native kind, that made me see this little place for the first time. But I found that this little piece of dirt was literally strewn with “pennies.” The flowers drew me to it—an array all summer long of wild rose, sunflowers, asters, many others I couldn’t name. And, of course the stately coneflowers; it was the other plants, grasses and sedges, that kept me there, though; each seeming to have its own place, a part in some kind of balance. Changes would happen from month to month and over the next couple of years, but never the sort of change that seemed to destroy anything. There was nothing that appeared to need mowing—nothing to apply chemicals to.
This relict, this little neglected park, was taking care of itself. It was an ebb and flow. If it was wet, one group of plants would come to the fore, and if it was dry they would make way for others; hot, others, cool, yet others, in a seemingly infinite variety.
What I was observing was a prairie, a community of plants—a tiny piece of the Midwest that had escaped notice, had probably escaped the plow, and, for the most part, had even escaped grazing by domesticated animals. This crazy-quilt of flora soon became my favorite spot, and a love affair had begun.
I had found grass, and although I still couldn’t identify much of it I was slowly beginning to see grass everywhere—the turkey’s feet of big bluestem, the plumes of Indian grass, the sprays of switch grass in roadside ditches, vacant lots, railroad rights-of-way. Something was taking hold. A dependence was beginning. I made pilgrimages to the spectacular national grasslands in Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota, and other places where native prairie grass could be found. I spent days in the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Prairie City, and the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge far away in the Nebraska sand hills—mile after unbroken mile of grass. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was hooked.
Then, in 1991, another change took place. I carried my little black loan book to the bank for the last time and saw it marked “Paid in full.” I had been thinking of taking my crop field out of production when the land was paid for and we no longer needed the income to cover the payments.
At first I had imagined our acreage as a clean green pasture of clipped fescue and bluegrass ringed by a rail fence and surrounded by, of course, softly swaying white pine trees. But that was before. What I envisioned that winter as I looked out over the snow-covered bare bean field was prairie.
So began my next, present, and I hope last grand horticultural experiment. Only this time I would not try to bring a piece of Carolina to Iowa; this time I would try to bring a lost piece of Iowa back home.
In the spring of ‘92 I prepared a seed bed, disked it a second time to kill any emerging weeds, and arranged for the head of the county conservation commission, with help from the local Pheasants Forever. chapter, to drill native grass seed in late May. A few days before this planting I walked the twelve-and-a-half acres with a crank seeder, spreading 30 pounds of forb seed (forbs are non-grassy native plants—mostly flowers) It was an exciting day when the tractor arrived with the drill filled with funny fuzzy little seeds and began crisscrossing the field, marking it like a sheet of graph paper. The seeds were in, and I began to pray for rain—and pray and pray and pray. In the spring of ‘92, as some might recall, no rain came. Of course, the weeds did, which I dutifully clipped, and then finally, about mid-summer with some rain, little blades of grass began to appear. I was beside myself. I went out twice a day with a ruler to measure the progress of these little shoots, and within a fortnight the entire field was as uniformly green as a billiard table. With great excitement, I brought out our local expert to see my miracle prairie. “Foxtail,” he said. “That’s a weed too.” So out again with the tractor and mower: clip, clip, clip, and pray for more rain.
That winter I again stared at a bare field, either a uniform brown or a uniform white depending on the snow cover, and when the next spring came it appeared again that the weeds would triumph. I watched in dismay as a slightly fuzzy plant with long finger-like leaves began emerging across the field like the advance guard of an attacking enemy army. This was beginning to look depressingly familiar. I readied my mower for a counter-attack when suddenly I noticed small buds on each plant. I decided to delay my offensive. Two weeks later I had a twelve-acre carpet of yellow black-eyed Susans. Then, when the truly hot weather of summer came, that year with adequate moisture, the real grasses (the warm-season grasses, as most native varieties are called) made their debut: straight shoots of big bluestem, curly switch grass, feathery Indian grass, and the curiously asymmetrical side oats grama. During the next months, almost everything I had planted appeared: prairie clover, coreopsis, primrose, and, of course, the spectacular purple coneflower. It has been a never-ending show ever since.
“If you build it they will come.” This familiar quote refers to turning a cornfield into a baseball diamond, but it also applies to projects such as mine. If you plant it they will come.
Native species that were not in my original seed mix appeared. A few summers later a botanist friend, on a quick walk through the prairie, identified 27 plant varieties I had not planted. The power of the native plants is awesome, and it is with great pleasure that I watched the clumps of bluestem and switch grass begin to crowd out the foxtail and thistle, and choke the ragweed and burdock to death. Ah, sweet revenge.
In addition to the flora, there are also enough ring-necked pheasants, turkeys, and magnificent white tailed deer to provide my family and friends with gifts of many splendid meals each year without doing any harm to their healthy populations. Finally, perhaps, I have got it right. My stash is out there; my fix assured.
I have since learned, to my delight, that there are many projects such as mine in Iowa and the Midwest. These projects have three main types: prairie reclamations, prairie replications, and prairie restorations.
Reclamation is discovering and saving a relict prairie, a little piece of ground that has managed to look worthless and hide out for the last couple of hundred years and avoid “progress and improvement.” Old cemeteries often hold some of these treasures. Remarkably there are some interesting relict prairies within in the city limits of Chicago. Replication is what my project is. This involves planting native varieties and enabling a natural process to eventually replicate the original prairie conditions. Restoration is the most complex process—locating and planting native seeds from within a specific area and recreating all the conditions that existed before the original prairie was destroyed. The task is painstaking and daunting, representing much research, work, and most of all, time. I once heard a joke about a Texas billionaire oilman vacationing in London buying up antiques and fine art pieces. On visiting a traditional English garden, he expressed the desire to have one for himself and asked the groundskeeper what it would cost him. “About a hundred years,” was the reply. That is what it costs to restore a prairie— about a hundred years.
Most Iowa counties are blessed with spots of prairie. From the magnificent Loess Hills to the bluffs along the Mississippi, one can look closely and find relicts, replications, and restorations of all kinds.
My own addiction has spiraled almost out of control. To my original prairie restoration, I’ve added an additional 80 acres on a farm I was fortunate enough to purchase and “unimprove.”
Prior to European settlement almost all of the mid-Midwest was covered with countless square miles of prairie. Now less than a tenth of a percent of this vast garden remains. What does remain is a priceless reminder that it was this prairie and hundreds and hundreds of years that provided us with the gift of the richest land in the world. This land and these little overlooked and rebuilt jewels desperately need our notice, our love, and our protection. Addiction’s not all bad.