Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kansas in Missouri

That afternoon, after the boat was piloted out of the water and we had eaten more Fig Newtons and peanuts for the ride to our respective homes, my colleague asked if I had ever seen the Flint Hills of Missouri. I've seen a nice 5,000 acre prairie on the far western side of the state, I explained, but certainly not anything remotely similar to the expansive, undulating landscape in Kansas (except for in Kansas). But we were in the Gasconade River watershed, and nowhere near prairie country. "You're not going to believe what you see," he said, ushering me into his truck, leaving my Honda at the boat ramp. So I hopped into his passenger's seat and we set out in the streaming late afternoon sun to see a landscape very much unlike anything else in Missouri's Ozark Highlands.

For 8 miles, every so often, my guide pointed out his window to a 40, 80, 100 acre hay pasture: "Look! It's lovely, isn't it?" followed by a snicker. We drove past acre after acre of dense woodlands, interrupted periodically by fields of fescue, roadsides of sericea. Historically, he explained, this part of Missouri was post oak savanna country, and large stretches of prairie. No traces of that landscape remain, according to the Natural Features Inventory for Osage County.

We kept driving, the sun continuing to dip lower on the horizon, until we rounded a bend and saw this:

A loud "holy mackeral!" came from the passenger's seat. Beautiful, recently burned native prairie on the roadsides, and 8,000 acres of land cleared of most woody vegetation, a handful of older trees toughing it out. Baptisia australis, known primarily these days from the White River Hills (5 hours away) grew on the roadside, along with lots of rattlesnake master, Liatris squarrosa, and lots and lots of grasses: they were all there: big and little blue, Indian grass, switch grass, etc. and various sedges, unable to be keyed out even by my expert-sedge-guy driver.

The storyline is that this wealthy Texas oilman decided he wanted a ranch in Missouri. Many years ago, he cleared the land of timber and grazed camels on it to keep the woody vegetation at bay, giving new meaning to "vegetation management." At some point, the landowner burned the land regularly. As evidenced by his roadsides, native prairie existed here. The landowner now has cows on the land, and it looked as though he had seeded the land with fescue, grazed to a nub. But I can't imagine how incredible his 8,000 acres looked after his intial clearing and a few years of fire (without cows). 8,000 acres of prairie-savanna country. In Osage County.

We stayed there for a while combing through the roadside prairie, not even able to identify some of the rushes that grew in the swales. We want to return there to conduct a full botanical survey of the last known tract of prairie in the whole region, perhaps inviting my colleague's talented botany contractor to come along. The roadside prairie, all 1,000 yards long and 80 feet deep of it, seems to be holding its own these days, thanks to fire and the absence of exotics. We're keeping our fingers crossed that the highway department doesn't come by to gum it all up with their random seed mix.

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