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Stone Prairie Farm: Swimming the Midsummer 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. You can read all of Apfelbaum's dispatches from the farm here.

Book Cover for Nature's Second ChanceI now understand the stories about pioneers having to stand up in their saddles on the backs of their horses to get oriented in a prairie. From my vantage, the vegetation over Stone Prairie Farm looks like a silky-smooth, blowing and swaying mass of varying shades of green, punctuated every here and there with diffused patches of yellow and lavender flowers. Those flowering stalks are tall enough to rise above the sward of moving, blurring grass. Compass plant is one such, which sends its tight clusters of three-inch-wide, sunflower-like flowers up from within the grass sea, into the light and air above.

Yesterday I walked the trail through the prairie here at the farm. A few months ago, in early spring, these same individual grass plants were the height of a mowed lawn, but now many are well over ten feet in height. The mowed trail offered a perspective and route through the wildness. It wasn't long before I wanted to inspect the status of the several Turks cap lilies, which I photographed a few weeks earlier before the grass bolted. I was off the trail, into the soup.

I swam through the prairie, a cross between a breast stroke and freestyle crawl, the most satisfying way to move through the sway and motion of the dense vegetation. When I stopped directing the stems they came crashing in. Blocking the assaults was necessary to see the direction indicated by the sun, and to orient myself so that I could find the lilies.

From Stone Prairie Farm: August 2009

I thought about the advantage of horseback viewing: laying some course over the landscape from a high vantage, and then following a compass bearing toward a distant tree or simply following some heading to get to a destination. My little trip this day could have reproduced the experience of a hundred plus years ago when the first pioneers crossed the same land, perhaps even crossed Stone Prairie Farm.

But today, finding the lily plants, which should now be just out of peak bloom, required that I continue swimming, looking down and ahead to find the three-foot-tall plants and likely dried, browning remains of the petals. A week before they held deep orange to scarlet red, four- to six-inch-long, downturned flowers with dark black interior spots in the corolla. Finding these plants was joyous: it was nearly a decade ago when I planted month old bulblets that we had grown from seed into the younger prairie restoration. I aspired to have this increasingly rare plant come back to life here at Stone Prairie Farm, but had pretty much given up that the planting had survived.

Maintaining an unwavering, durable patience is what the prairie teaches. And, there they were, over a dozen plants, several with flowers still in full and glorious bloom. Somehow I had managed to orient and navigate the several hundred feet through the swaying mass to the exact location. I couldn't have succeeded better by horse. If the travel distance had instead been several miles through the green tunnel, I don't believe I would have been so successful.

My primary mission was photography. The more important task, however, was pollinating the remaining open flowers. I pulled out a twist of cotton and a toothpick and went about collecting the orange pollen from the flowers of one plant and then dabbed this on the styles of flowers of the other plants. My goal was not to usurp or deny bees and butterfly's this opportunity, but simply to ensure pollination occurred. As with other rare plant species, ensuring that they go forth and prosper, here at Stone Prairie Farm and beyond, is a mission.

By this time, puffy cumulus clouds had blown in and obscured the sun. During my meanderings in the lily population, I was continuously focused down, holding steady the grass and lilies through the pollination process. But now I was done, and trying to orient was not so easy. A flash of anxiety could have easily overtaken me if I was truly miles out.

Before entering the prairie, I noticed a neighbor to the northwest raking the straw from his just-harvested wheat field. Jerry isn't just any farmer, as his family still uses the old John Deere tractors that most have given up in the transition to bigger and better. This morning, it was the drone of the old chugging three-cylinder diesel engine that helped me reorient. I faced in the direction of that sound, trying to focus and to hear it between the thrashing sounds of the heavy grass and compass plant stems around me. Once oriented, I knew our home in the prairie would be four to five hundred feet to my right. I commenced swimming again, in that direction.

During the swim, I thought about how a butterfly or bumble could possibly find the lilies on such a day. Would they get pummeled by the thrashing grass? If today was the critical day for successfully pollinating the remaining open flowers, it occurred to me that my efforts may have been essential.

And, about that time, I came upon a mountain mint plant in full bloom. The large cluster of flowers, white with blue interiors and yellow spots, was full of insects. Before me were a tiger swallowtail butterfly, several bumblebees, and a changing gathering of colorful beetles. An occasional pearly crescent butterfly would sweep in, grab and hang on for the ride as the mint swayed. Insect tongues probed for the nectar in each flower, but they were slow moving, doing better then the "three points of contact" adage of a mountain climber. I was amazed to watch the swallowtail getting thrashed about, but sitting stoic and un-tattered, while it appeared to casually sip nectar.

These observations again tested my concept of patience, as have most experiences during the restoration process. After talking myself into thinking I've done something essential to the success of the restoration, along comes another creature that does the same task, better, faster, and more effectively, then say by using a twist of cotton and a tooth pick.

The prairie matures through annual growth and color phases. Mid-summer is purple-- the pale purple of coneflower and lavender of nodding wild onion, penstemon, and monarda-- and white flowering period. This all gets smothered behind shades of light green as the big bluestem and Indian grass grow tall. Light greens become darker as the grass stems reach mid-late August heights and start to bloom. And then from within this green swaying mass emerge the yellow flowers, everywhere: below the grass are yellow coneflowers, goldenrods, western sunflower, among others, and above the grass are the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plants and various tall species of native sunflowers.

I intend to get lost in the prairie again in late summer in search of two species of gentians we planted also about a decade ago-- the blue bottle gentian, with cobalt blue colored flowers, and the creamy gentian, which has a bluish flash around the top of a several-inch-long creamy white flower. This may be the year for finding both species.

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