Friday, June 11, 2010

A Prairie Walk, Complicated

A beautiful June evening on the prairie.... Cooling wind pleasantly rippling the grasses and tossing the wildflowers.... A tour designed to acquaint folks with our tallgrass heritage and share with them the beauty of the tallgrass landscape.... Vistas stretching to the horizon, uninterrupted by telephone poles or electric wires or billboards....

What's not to love, right?

All of those things were present and were wonderful, but other, more troubling, things were present too.

For starters, the group was large, around 200 people. Too large, in my opinion, to do justice to truly learning about the prairie. Good accommodations had been made, though - a loudspeaker for addressing the entire group, a truly portable Porta-Potty (pulled on a flatbed trailer behind a pickup truck), 4 separate, knowledgeable, group leaders for identifying the plants, 6 bright yellow school buses to transport us all.

My first concern, though, was with the behavior of the folks present. Presumably most of these people were on this tour because they love nature and want to learn more about it, but the vast majority barely walked 100 feet out into the prairie itself. Instead they stayed huddled like a bunch of frightened cattle, seemingly nervous about getting too far from the safety of the buses, the road and/or the group. It's hard to truly experience a prairie while you're clumped up in a large group of people with your eyes firmly glued to the ground or to the group leader. Have we all become so scared of nature that even those who are fascinated by it are too frightened to really venture out into it?

As a group, we were given the appropriate warnings about this being private land and not to come back by ourselves without contacting the landowner(s) for permission. Of course, we weren't given the names or contact information for any of the landowners, so in essence we were being told "This is OURS - you can peek at what we have today, but otherwise stay away!" How can a society learn to love and protect the land when the vast majority of its people are legally barred from experiencing the land enough to learn much about it, let alone learn enough to love and care for it?

The most irritating part of the evening was the political rhetoric, thinly disguised as teaching about the prairie and ranching. We were literally told that without the ranchers, there would be no Flint Hills. Excuse me?! We were told that we should never criticize a rancher for how he manages his land because he knows what he's doing and we don't. We were told that the government should be kept out of the ranchers' business; that they should be allowed to manage weeds however they want to. We were told that it was necessary to burn AT LEAST 3 out of 5 years, sometimes more, to maintain the health of the grassland. (We were also told that cattle gain 10% more weight on freshly burned pasture; I highly suspect that's the "health" being referred to with a 3+ years of 5 burn regime. Biologically it's my understanding that the prairie does best overall with a burn approximately once every 3 years.)

All told, by the time we were done with the introductions of everybody and their brother who was involved in putting on the tour, with the "where is everyone coming from?" question & responses, and with the "ranchers are God incarnate" rhetoric, we basically had less than 45 minutes total to learn about the prairie plants and ecosystem that we'd come to see. Which gets us back to large groups of people huddled about next to the buses....

It was a beautiful evening in an incomparable setting, but it was a disappointment overall.


Rebecca M said...

We've been struggling with a similar issue in out g2g Outside do we get kids & families really interacting with and learning about our natural environment when you can't really do the things that you would do on your own land?

Gaia Gardener: said...

It's really hard when there is so little public land and the rules have to be so tight on what little public land there is.

There are some wonderful books on environmental education that come to mind, though. Joseph Cornell wrote a couple, for example. Then there's Project Wild and Project Learning Tree, which I presume are still around. In a less structured format, there are scavenger hunts. Bug collecting and pinning is a good learning tool, too. Although it's not really PC these days, it's not actually illegal and there are many good things to be learned from it, from the importance of scientific notes to simple identification.