Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Patchwork Prairie

Several years ago now, I asked for suggestions on what to name our little piece of property.  I got a few suggestions, but none of them seemed right.  The ideas I was coming up with didn't fit either.  So I let the concept brew for a while longer and eventually a name suggested itself.

Patchwork Prairie.

It's not a fancy name...but, then, this isn't a fancy piece of property.  The name fits on many levels and, most importantly, it comes naturally as I think about our land.  So Patchwork Prairie it is.

So what do I think about our property?  Why does the concept of "patchwork" seems to fit so perfectly?

First of all, prairies themselves are patchworks of many plants:  a clump of this, a spread of that, a few individuals stitching things together throughout, another large swath of something else over here.   Different patches appear during different seasons.  It's a crazy quilt design where some pieces intermingle with others and it all changes from year to year.  To give you examples, right now, on the back 5 acres (Back Five) that we are working to restore from highly overgrazed pasture to reasonable prairie, I have large swaths of tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) developing.  I didn't notice any tall dropseed at all in our Back Five until the second year we were here; now it's a major component of our grassland.  In the photo below, the tall dropseed is occurring in the two lighter gold sweeps that run from one side of this photo to the other.

There are almost a dozen patches, ranging from large to small, of dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).  The first summer, I noticed fewer than a dozen gayfeathers in one single, small area.  Presumably, all of the current patches have either spread from those original plants or the plants in each of them were simply too stunted to bloom for the first several years.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), the small, white flowers in the photo below, and silver bluestem (Bothriochloa laguroides subsp. torreyana), the grasses with the soft, fluffy seedheads in the same photo, are found throughout the Back Five, stitching all of the recovering prairie together.

An increasing number of compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) are beginning to appear scattered throughout the Back Five, acting as another "stitcher."  I found my first ones about 3 years ago, and have now counted over 2 dozen individuals.  The photo to the left shows one of only 3 compass plants that were mature enough to bloom this year.

Another stitcher, this time one that's declining as the grassland recovers, is the annual threeawn grass (Aristida sp.) that was so prevalent 6 years ago - I can walk the paths and not get a single awn in my socks these days, which is a major change from when we started.  The whitish grass, leaning over the mowed path, is a threeawn plant that I found this morning.

There are large, diffuse patches of white prairieclover (Dalea candida) in the spring

and I've even noticed a few small patches of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) developing.

On the other hand, another milkweed known as green antelopehorn (Aslcepias viridis) is dispersed everywhere during the spring, but is nowhere to be seen at this time of year.

It's not just the recovering prairie that's a patchwork on our 10 acres.  The entire property is, itself, a patchwork quilt:  the house and lawn (moving towards buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides) with flower beds form one major patch with smaller areas forming patterns within it.  Other patches include the courtyard; the vegetable garden; the lagoon area; the Draw; the Cedar Grove; the front tallgrass areas; and the Back Five, the recovering pasture/prairie. Within each of these patches are smaller patterns:  aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) in the flower beds, rows of eastern redcedars (Juniperus virginiana) forming hedges at the edges, different vegetables in each of the raised vegetable garden beds, a large area of prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) in the Cedar Grove, panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) in the draw, pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) along the edges of the draw and up near the house.  Paths stitch the patchwork areas together.

Finally, patchwork is a perfect historical term for modern human life on the prairies too.  European and other settlers had a tradition of using even small scraps of cloth from wornout clothing or from other leftover material.  The women would gather these scraps and sew them together to make warm, artistically beautiful and intricate quilts:  patchwork quilts.  The settlements themselves formed a patchwork on the prairie of different cultures from around the world.  And, of course, the farms soon created patches in the landscape - eventually forming a quilt that almost completely replaced the original prairie with agricultural fields.

Patchwork Prairie.  It's the right name for now, and we'll be working to increase the richness of our crazy quilt of a property for as long as we are its stewards.  The pattern is set.  Our success will be measured in the future.

Like Leaves on The Grass....

One of the things I enjoy most about being outside, walking or gardening, is how my mind is free to spin and make connections.  This morning I had one of those "Aha!" moments.

What if human lives are like leaves on a tree?  Each leaf is born, new and fresh and perfect.

Over time, the leaves grow to maturity, making food for the tree as they convert sunlight to the sugars that the tree needs to grow.

Along the way, the leaves experience problems.  Drought shrivels them a bit around the edges.  Insects gnaw holes in their pristine surfaces.  Diseases may kill off part of a leaf - or may even kill off entire groups of leaves.  Stormy winds pull some leaves off before their time.  Hail shreds other leaves, especially those on the outer and upper levels of the tree's canopy.

Eventually most of the leaves are simply worn out.  It's the end of their life span.  The tree withdraws the life force from within them, they turn colors,...

...and they drop from where they've lived high up in the air, down onto the ground.

There they will join with a myriad of other dead leaves...

...and slowly decompose, turning into fertile soil that enriches the ground where the tree, of which they were once a living part, grows stronger each year.

No two leaves are ever exactly the same, yet all of them are more alike than different.  All the leaves on a single tree are part of the same living organism, even though they each seem separate from each other.  No leaf can - or should - live forever, yet the life of the tree goes on for a long time...and the life of the forest of trees goes on even longer.

This analogy soothes me.  It gives me a concrete understanding on which to pin philosophical concepts such as "we are all one" and "there is life after death," as well as biological concepts such as aging and the inevitability of death.  To every thing, there is a season....