The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Anthropocene Reporter: Prairie to the people

As the self-proclaimed Jewel of the Prairie, Grinnell (both town and College) has had a long tradition in keeping in touch with its cultural and historical roots. Where we stand today, there were (literal) roots that go back much further than the College’s 1846 founding. The reason Iowa is swimming in endless fields of corn and beans is its famed soil, the hummus and nutrient-rich soils that were steadily built up over centuries as prairie communities thrived and stored their wealth in that “black gold” that makes Iowa a famed agricultural wonder. This is the state that has indeed heard calls for a “State Soil” based on its understated and oft-overlooked role as the key to Iowa’s success.

Prairie is a vital theme running through both town and College, and an important symbol in our shared cultural heritage. Looking around Grinnell, though, I have begun to wonder what exactly lies behind that symbol.

In nearly four years here, I have gained a thorough and sincere appreciation for the prairie ecosystem as a truly unique and beautifully biodiverse community. And it doesn’t just come from the hallowed halls of Noyce. In fact, the best way to learn about the prairie is to spend time living in it, protecting it and celebrating it, as I have had the chance to do.

Living in this Jewel of the Prairie, I admit I had expected to see a greater appreciation of the prairie. If this ecosystem is so central to our town’s—and our College’s identity, evidenced by the work of the Center for Prairie Studies—why do we find it so difficult to appreciate?

Looking at the 14-square-kilometers of Grinnell, it would be all too easy to point out the irony in that snappy byline, in the obvious fact that Grinnell isn’t exactly swaying among Big Bluestem in the wind.

In fact, it is pretty difficult to find any prairie within reach of town and College residents. Besides the prairies on Springer Field and in front of Macy House, home to the Center for Prairie Studies, there is no prairie within the bounds of this Jewel. For such an important, indeed existence-supporting, component of our community’s history, it doesn’t seem to receive much attention beyond the invoked name.

Which brings me to my question: Why is prairie something that the folks of Grinnell either love, or love to hate?

Take, for example, the case of the John Crystal Center (JCC). Built in 2002, the building was designed with Iowa in mind, using local limestone and specifically including a strip of prairie planting along the east side. Despite the prairie establishing well and receiving attentive management, Facilities Management was forced to remove the prairie planting and replace it with sod grass in the summer months of 2013 after consistent pressure from the JCC staff.

While it is disappointing enough that this occurred, what is more discouraging is that there was no public discussion of the decision to remove a ten-year established prairie, and there was no opportunity to prevent the destruction of a well-managed and aesthetically pleasing prairie planting. Although few students spoke up about the JCC’s prairie loss, the building’s alum sponsor did, upon visiting in 2014 to find the prairie conspicuously absent.

The town appears to struggle with this as well, as the example of Grinnell’s Drake Community Library illustrates. The Library was similarly designed with sustainability and local legacy in mind. It achieved LEED Gold certification and made prairie landscaping an important aspect to ground the new building to the Grinnell community. Since its completion in 2009, the Library has tended its prairie plantings, making changes like the creation of a children’s play area in the south prairie in 2013.

However, the Library still received negative reviews from locals unimpressed by the prairie’s appearance. This has led to the creation of the Converging Landscapes campaign, revealed last spring, to redesign the Library’s landscape to better reflect the urban environment it is in. Library Director Marilyn Kennett described the change as reflective of the fact that “We are not the prairie, we are a gateway to the prairie.”

All of this to-prairie-or-not-to-prairie is especially timely, given the College’s recent identity diagnosis and anticipated reimagining. I understand that the complicated positions taken by public institutions like Drake Library and private institutions like the College reflect their desire to serve and attract people. Both have responsibilities to make themselves as welcoming as possible, to people with wide-ranging opinions and far-ranging backgrounds.

But in deciding Grinnell’s future identity, prairie deserves to be represented, not just remembered. As much as I can sympathize with Drake Library’s efforts to be inclusive, is it worth $90,000 to rectify what some see as “ugly grass”?

Keeping in mind the impressive environmental benefits offered by prairies, as well as their historical role in making Grinnell, and Iowa, the place it is, is important for determining the identity of Grinnell. As Grinnell looks for room to grow into the future, continuing the legacy of the prairie can keep us grounded.

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