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Spring Arrives at Stone Prairie Farm: Time to Burn the Prairie

Today's post is from Steven I. Apfelbaum, author of Nature's Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is founder, president, and senior ecologist of the firm Applied Ecological Services, known for its international science-based ecological design and restoration work. He lives in Juda, Wisconsin, on Stone Prairie Farm.

Book Cover for Nature's Second Chance, links to Beacon Press page for book

The flocks of sprinting robins bulleting across the sky criss-crossed the seemingly less focused red winged black birds with their slower bounding flight. Today, a cacophony of bird calls has startled the landscape from the near silence and sleepiness of winter. Birds are everywhere, momentarily landing, then departing as the edgiest or most eager in the flock again takes wing. An amazing energy prevails, with the whipping south wind bowing last years' standing prairie grass stems, clouds quickly moving east, imparting a dappled pattern of light and shadow on the prairie.

Today was the last day of Applied Ecological Services, Inc., annual corporate meetings, a gathering of 150 staff where, to break the ice, frog calls and cheering competitions preceded the business of hearing of the company's performance over the last year and a rally for the times ahead. To get this many pyromaniacs together would normally be a liability, but to those us of doing ecosystem restoration, it's a blessing. At the meeting I planted the bug. "Sure looks like a good day to do a prescribed burn of the prairie at Stone Prairie Farm," I said in the ear of Aaron, one of the fire crew bosses. And just like the high school game, post office, word came around in the affirmative minutes later.

It all happened so fast that Susan and I missed most of the prairie burn. Like the speeding birds, this spring tradition of burning the prairies, the big flames and immersion in the sweet smoke, lured 20-30 staff to the farm. When I arrived nearly an hour later, I parked and looked over the farm from a promontory. I could see the yellow flames spiking and billows of white smoke emanating behind each yellow Nomex-suited person as they walked across the prairie dripping fire from a red drip torch. The migrating birds were popping out of the smoke and haze, like jets on final approach do when the stratus clouds hang low over the airport.

The fire burned down with nightfall, responding to increased humidity and the calming of the wind that was pushing it across the land. The crew convened to the promontory where we reflected on the great burn, the fleeing rabbits, pheasants and deer, and the fire's intensity. Staff from our upstate New York office passed their digital camera around, sharing images of the burn which they hoped would be useful to persuade local regulators to allow such prescribed burning in New York. Several other staff drove up with their children. As they spilled out of mini-vans, the sounds of inquisitive children--why is this burning done, where will the rabbits live now--were followed by parents providing answers to the most wonderful questions. I watched as arms pointed to the many remaining unburned habitat areas, which gave a tangibility that would never be forgotten. Fires such as this do not eliminate the wildlife and their homes. This was followed by the emanations of young understanding minds. "Ohhh--thanks Mom."

I saw future prairie enthusiasts becoming part of the story of the management of the increasingly isolated and fewer and fewer prairie remnants on earth. Darkness and a chill soon sent everyone else to their vehicles and home on this wonderful Friday 60 degree Fahrenheit evening. Susan and I went indoors, wrestled with Willow our dog, and settled in to prepare and eat dinner.

I went to the windows a few times during the evening. In the darkness were scattered small flickering and glowing flames. Some looked like scattered elfin villages where dancers were moving around campfires. The more distant gleamed steady like stars in the sky. As the weight of humid air settled over the over the farm, the parties ended, and the blackness won over the landscape.

Early the next morning, partly because of the lightly smoky night air that came in the bedroom window, and because I wanted to see what the land looked like, I arose early to watch the sunrise. As the black starry night gave way, the eastern morning glow grew over the sky, over the land to the west of Stone Prairie Farm. And as the sun continued to rise, this golden light oozed eastward, accentuating the roll and dips on the land with pleasant shadows. Almost in a cinematographic sense, at Stone Prairie Farm's western border, the glowing golden light met the blackness on the land. As unburned patches of the golden prairie grass momentarily ignited in the golden wash, the moving wave of daylight flickered from black to moments of gold. With the wave came the stir of a gentle breeze.

I found myself in a trance-like state, staring from the window overlooking the curious patchwork of blackened and unburned areas. As the earth warmed, my spell was broken by the flocks of birds taking wing from their night lodging here at Stone Prairie Farm. Then my eye was caught by two killdeer chasing each other in the blackened patch not more then fifty feet away. This precipitated a giddy smile--at the full appreciation for the role of prescribed fire in the grand cycle of the prairie ecosystem, and at the knowledge that spring was definitely here.

You may also be interested in Steven Apfelbaum's previous post about Stone Prairie Farm in Deep Freeze Mode and the Turning to Warmth on the farm. Nature's Second Chance was recently featured in the New York Times Currents section.

Images of Stone Prairie Farm during and after the burn.

Prairie Burn with Windmill

Wearing a Nomex suit for protection while performing a prairie burn

Smoke rises over the Prairie

Prairie burn

Sunset after the prairie burn

The house at Stone Prairie Farm after the burn