Aldo Leopold’s chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Prairie Birthday” contemplates the existence of a remnant of pre-settlement prairie and a particular Silphium plant which he estimates may have been old enough to have “watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreat from the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River.” He writes:
Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.
It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.
When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.
The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?
This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.
Leopold has a knack for writing in the 1940s about ideas we’re still contemplating today. I wonder what he would think of all the Silphium plants blooming today on restored prairies like those at the UW Arboretum (which he had a hand in planting) or at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Is today’s “mechanized man” less oblivious of floras than Leopold’s associates in the mid-twentieth century? Have eighty years of research on the consequences of replacing prairies with roads, farms, and cities taught us the importance of prairies? Or the importance of individual species?
Author and futurist Juan Enriquez believes that corn and soybean fields are the least natural places on earth. He contemplates, like Leopold did, how humans impact the natural world and asserts that corn fields “would not be here absent of human intervention.” He continues in a TED Radio Hour interview by saying humans are “determining, to a great extent, about 50% of what lives and dies on earth. And that is a true superpower: determining what that life form does and how that life form executes… We have to be awed by [this superpower], take responsibility for it, understand the ethical moral implications…but above all we have to become literate in this.” I have to wonder how Leopold and Enriquez, who is recognised as one of today’s leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences, might have debated the significance of that remnant Silphium plant being cut to the ground.
Find the full interview with Enriquez and his thoughts on our ability to modify life, not just with the mowing machine, but through writing, editing, and the execution of “life code” here:
Did you know…
According to the National Park Service, prairies of North America were once vast grasslands, covering 200 million acres. Prairies were and are a complex ecosystem supporting a large amount of wildlife. Today, less than one percent of native prairies remain. The Park Service believes that “in restoring the prairie, we are restoring our heritage and supporting an impressive and complicated habitat, that supports wildlife and is attractive to the eye.”
The official name of the Compass plant Leopold refers to is Silphium laciniatum. Though related to and similar in appearance to the sunflower, one major difference between the two is the sticky sap, or rosin, found in the compass plant’s stem. This rosin was once used by Native American children as chewing gum to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. Compass plants can grow to 12 feet tall with leaves that are 15 – 24 inches in length. For every inch of growth above ground, their root system – an extensive taproot – extends about the same distance below ground, sometimes reaching 15 feet. The bright yellow flowers at the top of the stem are more modestly-sized than sunflowers, ranging from 2 to 4 inches across. You can find Silphiums anywhere in the East-Central region of North America, mostly in tall grass prairies.
The “compass plant” name is derived from the discovery that the leaves on the plant usually orient themselves north and south to avoid the heat of the noonday sun. Once early settlers on the central plains realized this, they were able to use the plants as a wayfinding guide.
To Do This Month:
Pipers in the Prairie: September 30 @ 4:30 pm – 8:00 pm at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center
Light up the night sky at the annual Pipers in the Prairie fundraising gala and bonfire. Bagpipers will enchant guests with their ethereal melodies during this unique and extravagant evening.
Book a fall Field Trips with Community GroundWorks. Hands-on learning…delicious outcomes!
Check out the farm-to-table process from seed to plate at the Goodman Youth Farm or Troy Kids’ Garden. Both programs, offered by Community GroundWorks, serve up engaging, hands-on experiences for students of all ages. Field trips support classroom learning in a variety of academic areas, including participatory activities that make connections to topics like plant development to food systems.
Nature’s Transformers Family Nature Program on Sunday September 24th, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. at the UW Arboretum. Come learn about fascinating transformations animals make throughout their lives. Naturalist-led hike starts at 1:30, and indoor activities run from 2:30 to 3:30 pm. Free, no registration required. Meet at the Visitor Center.
The Henry Vilas Zoo’s Zoo Run Run is September 24 @ 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Get your running shoes on and join the Henry Vilas Zoo for the 12th Annual Zoo Run Run & Kids’ Roo Run Run featuring a Predator vs. Prey theme, with brand new predator & prey options! BACK for 2017: All participants will have the choice to sign up to be a predator (snow leopard) or prey (red panda). See how much prey you can catch OR if you can keep from getting caught! The Zoo Run Run and Roo Run Run help us to keep the Henry Vilas Zoo forever free.
Check out the Nature Net Calendar of Events for more fun family programs.
Environmental Education Annual Conference
The Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education hosts an annual conference for educators interested in the field of environmental education. The conference offers professional development and networking opportunities, the presentation of new initiatives, and fun and inspiring experiences. This year’s conference will be held in Mequon, WI on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan from October 19 through 21. The 2017 theme, “Water Rising,” focusses on community engagement, best practices, and diversity, equity & inclusion, among other topics, and features a keynote address from author and adventurer, James Edward Mills. Mills is best known for his newsgathering and reporting organization, “The Joy Trip Project,” which investigates outdoor recreation and environmental conservation with a particular focus on what Mills calls the “adventure gap.” He has also authored a book by the same name.
Early bird registration ends October 1st so, sign up today!
I love a prairie hike this time of year, when the plants (which were scorched to the ground just a few month prior, during controlled burn season) now sway well above our heads. Weaving along paths cut through Big bluestem dangling its seeds overhead, and New England asters providing purple and gold landing pads for ambling bumble bees feels like an escape into a labyrinth. It’s also now easy to spot Leopold’s Silphium plants as they’re six feet tall and topped with yellow blooms. Since prairie plants must spend summer days in the blazing sun without the benefit of shade, they have many adaptations for surviving the heat. Explore some of these adaptations on your prairie hike by using your sense of touch. Each of the Silphium plants has thick, waxy leaves covered with hairs. The Prairie dock leaves are particularly scratchy, like sandpaper, and the Cup plant leaves join at the stem to create a cup that holds water. Many Goldenrod plants also have hairy or scratchy leaves. See how many textures you can find. Need help identifying what you found? Try MyWildflower.com which lets you search by name, location, number of petals or time of year.
Note: on today’s walk at Nature Net headquarters (the Aldo Leopold Nature Center), I found most Silphium plants are no longer blooming. However, their leaves are still easy to find as the dried stalks, standing 7 feet tall, mark their location. I also found Bee balm seed heads that are fun to crush and smell the earthy, mint aroma, and hundreds of grasshoppers happily making use of their season-end wings. Here’s what to look for:
Special thanks the Petra Jungbluth for the beautiful cover photo this month.