Understanding place, or, my mistake

My sister and I grew up in Illinois surrounded by cornfields.  Before I left the state I volunteered briefly with the Natural Land Institute in Rockford and visited some land they owned and managed.  One piece was remnant savannah: red oaks, burr oaks, and hackberry trees crowding a rocky slope and scattering over the top into a grassland.  I studied native communities at the University of Illinois, taking field botany and working for a professor who stressed the importance of using native plant materials for landscape design.  My prairie experiences in Illinois and Wisconsin were always framed by trees.

When we visited relatives in Nebraska, we occasionally drove by the farm.  The fellow who rented it grew corn every year and kept cattle in the pasture.  When I moved to Nebraska and interned with the Soil Conservation Service first in Lincoln, then in Salina, Ks,  I visited the pasture more often and paid more attention to what was growing there.  Most of it seemed to be smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and weeds like musk thistle, hemp (grown during World War I for rope), and ragweed.  A few volunteer trees struggled to survive.

Kristin and our grandmother posing in front of musk thistle, a noxious weed in Nebraska

Kristin and our grandmother posing in front of musk thistle, a noxious weed in Nebraska

The 80’s were very dry.  The renter’s cows grazed from May through September.  Falling back on the notion of prairie formed in Illinois, I decided we should plant trees.  The Natural Resources District had a wildlife habitat cost share program for  tree planting.  My father was easily convinced this was a good idea because his father had been a windbreak advocate.  The large row of cottonwoods separating the pasture from the corn was established by he and his brothers in the 1940’s and it was in decline.  That row is visible in the background of the photograph above.


The original planting plan for the pasture with deciduous trees filling the swales.

As a newly educated landscape architect I had to “design” something more than a windbreak, more than a frame around the place.  I asked the soil conservationist if we could pull the deciduous trees out of the windbreak and plant them in the drainage ways where they would have more access to moisture.  I knew enough to realize most of the trees planted on the hills would not survive.  From a visual and functional standpoint I thought it was very important to draw on the contours of the place, literally.  So we planted 150 honey locust, 100 green ash, and 264 hackberry along the invisible currents of drainage swales.

In 1989 I sat in the planter's seat behind this tractor and planted trees!

In 1989 I sat in the planter’s seat behind this tractor and planted trees!

Nearly 3,000 trees were planted on 6 acres in 1989.  Along with the 2,900 planted by tree plow, my sister and I hand planted 50 burr oaks on Easter Sunday, 1989.  We carried them in a 5 gallon bucket half filled with water and planted them anywhere that looked like a good spot: on top of hills, on slopes, or in a draw.

One requirement of the wildlife habitat program was that the cows had to go: no grazing.  The transformation over time was stunning.  To this day I don’t know if I missed some of the wildflowers because I wasn’t there at the right time, if they were suppressed by grazing, or the drought knocked them back.  Likely it was all of these.  To date I have documented 50 forbs, 10 grasses and 3 sedges and I’m still learning (inventory page)  The wildlife habitat program may have been the best thing for prairie recovery in the pasture…

…Except for the trees, and the plums, and the abundant moisture in the 1990’s when work took me to the southeastern US and I rarely ventured out to the farm.  The trees that escaped gnawing by rabbits, rubbing by deer, and death from insufficient moisture grew rapidly.  Below is an aerial photograph of the pasture taken in 2009.  The planting pattern (revised from the original plan) is clearly seen from 10,000 feet.  This taken after we started removing them because I realized my mistake: trees don’t really belong here.  Illinois prairies differ from these in Nebraska.  It’s easier to transplant a household than your surroundings.  And part of the joy of moving to a different part of the country is learning what forces shape the local landscape and foster the plant and animal communities dependent on them.


What’s wrong with trees you may ask?  Most of the prairie species in our area are sun lovers and the trees have grown to the point where some of these rows throw a considerable amount of shade on adjacent slopes.  One plant that withstands shade is smooth brome, so in the battle of cool versus warm season grasses, shade helps brome win.  Smooth brome was introduced to this country by settlers needing more reliable spring and fall pastures for grazing herds.  When the pond was built in the late 1940’s, the dam was reseeded with smooth brome.  I also think brome and Kentucky bluegrass were overseeded at least once after the level parts of the pasture were cultivated early in the 20th century and then abandoned.  Another problem with trees is they don’t stay put.  The eastern red cedar, Siberian elm, and plums have all expanded, or exploded in population.  I won’t pretend to know why, whether it’s climate change, process change (less wildfire), or a population threshold has been passed and the seed is dispersed by wildlife that may not have been common in the area before trees were introduced.  And the problem with more trees is more shade, see above.  When we planted nearly 3,000 trees and shrubs we not only introduced new plants but also shaded out sun-loving natives, discouraged ground nesting birds that are deterred by tree-perching predators, and probably encouraged berry eating songbirds that perch and plant more trees, and so on.

As a result of all this meddling, the pasture prairie is degraded.  Portions of it have been tilled, graded, flooded, and overgrazed.  It’s an abused piece of land.  But it never ceases to amaze me with the diversity of species that pop up in spite of our misguided notions.  I’ll never forget disking a firebreak and finding spiderwort and coneflower blooming where there had been none before or the proliferation of violet sorrel in that same firebreak.  I’m sure it is more resilient than we are and know that it will outlast us.  The question is whether or not we can leave it in better condition than we found it.  These judgements are subjective, dependent on our notion of what is a “good” piece of land.  What I do know is I don’t want this prairie to look like Illinois or exist solely for the benefit of cattle.  We will probably spend the rest of our lives continuing to meddle trying to figure out what is the “right” thing.


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