The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Coming to appreciate the peaceful prairie of Iowa

One of the most startling things I learned about Iowa after coming here is that it contains some of the most fertile agricultural land not only in the United States, but on the entire planet. We often do not think of soil as a resource in the same way we think of forests or minerals or even water as resources. But Iowa’s most valuable resource, the reason for its settlement by Europeans, is its rich, thick black topsoil—up to six feet deep in some areas. The ubiquitous presence of corn and soybean fields is a testament to the thorough and sometimes reckless exploitation of that resource. This soil, which is the ground under our feet and the ground of the entire history of this place, is the direct legacy of what covered Iowa just 150 years ago—tall-grass prairie.

Another thing that startled me once I started to find out about prairie is that if you look at a map of its former range across the middle of the country, you will find that Iowa sits at the heart of it. It’s the only state that was just about completely covered by the range of tall-grass prairie. This is why the center for place-based studies at the college is called the Center for Prairie Studies. The name does not mean that it is only concerned with the study of prairie, it means that whenever we are studying this place, whether we are directly looking at the prairie or not, it will invariably be a part of our study of place. Take, for example, the soil. The soil in Iowa was built over the last ten thousand years by tall grass prairie as year after year of accumulated plant material decomposed and grew layer by layer into feet of fertile soil. All the agriculture in Iowa—and all that the agriculture in Iowa has contributed to life in this place—has been based off the now-disappeared prairie.

In the mid 1800s, when the first European settlers began to settle and start farming in Iowa, about 80 percent of what is today Iowa was tall-grass prairie. Today less than one percent of that prairie is left, scattered across thousands of remnant prairies that survived in pioneer cemeteries, along railroads and roadsides or in small areas where the soil was not suitable for plowing. The rest of it has been plowed up, and most of it is still being used to grow the relentless duo of corn and soybeans that make Iowa famous for its agricultural productivity.

All of this is likely to be information you have heard or will hear elsewhere during your time at Grinnell, I hope. I heard it all pretty soon after I’d arrived in Grinnell. Prairie only came to be very meaningful to me, however, when I started working in a reconstructed prairie—one intentionally seeded by humans—this summer.

When I actually began to learn the names and forms of prairie plants and begin to see them in the ditches next to roadsides, when I began to think about what this land must have looked like when it was tall-grass prairie for mile after rolling mile, when I started to think about the implications of reconstructing prairie, and whether one day we would be seeding those acres and acres of land of farmland with big bluestem, Indian grass, pale purple coneflower and compass plants, that was when I began to get a sense of how important knowing about the prairie could be.

If you’ve never seen or visited prairie, or even if you have been but didn’t take much notice, find a sizable remnant or reconstructed prairie (there are a few around Grinnell, including the college’s own reconstructed prairies at CERA) and drive out there. Wade right out into the middle of the prairie and spend some time surrounded by it. It doesn’t have to be a mystical experience. It’s just noticing how different it is from any other place, how much being somewhere can change the way you are thinking or heighten your awareness. That opportunity for awareness exists everywhere, whether it’s a native prairie or the corner of Park and 6th. But I’ve found that the prairie, being in it and knowing the names of its plants, has had a special ability to make me feel connected to this place. I think that’s a possibility it holds for everyone.

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