Saturday, June 25, 2011

On Grass

I spent the week crouched down in prairie grass sampling weeds and plants associated with overgrazing. Because of the long days in the Osage Plains, I missed the first week of Wimbledon altogether, watching only a few minutes of a Sharapova match over eggs and dry wheat toast in the early morning at the Super 8. Sampling vegetation on high quality prairie natural areas used to be fun, always looking forward to the next of 50 quadrats to see what cool plants would show up, to see how many species you could assign cover value to in order to ultimately evaluate the floristic quality index (the cholesterol count, as it were) of the prairie. But this week was different. And I missed American Ryan Harrison (who was trained by my tennis coach in Louisiana) play Ferrer on the smooth grass courts.

Owners of our public prairies in Missouri are destroying these last remaining remnants of our state's natural history by overgrazing with livestock. The once heterogeneous matrix of conservative prairie plants are now dominated by grazing increasers like Helianthus mollis, Vernonia baldwinii, Verbesina helianthoides, Pycnanthemum tenuifolia (neither cows, bison nor deer like either of those two), and the weediest of them all, Solidago gymnospermoides. True, they're all prairie plants, but all unpalatable by grazers. In the absence of the rest of the matrix, these spread like wildfire, or like Festuca eliator and Lespedeza cuneata in an overgrazed prairie.

Out of 8 other prairies I visited in the late afternoons following my long days sampling, I only saw two prairies with any integrity. Neither of them are or have been grazed in recent history. Of the other grazed sites, even those that have not seen a herd of cows for a few years are irreparably damaged, much like the site I sampled. Historically, these ancient systems were not dominated by a handful of generalist prairie plants. Today, under the current trend in management regimes, the biodiversity once associated with high quality prairies is disappearing. Once it's damaged, it doesn't heal itself. If it did, we'd have much more prairie left instead of little postage stamps hemmed in by the grid system of roads--100 acres here, 240 there.

I missed a week of tennis exuding my negativity in every plot, grousing about the sericea with the 25% cover value and the simplicity of sampling. I normally don't work in goat barns or old crapped out fields, so a lot of these plants (like Poa pratense and the young plants of Festuca eliator) were new to me. To add insult to injury, no one in the area carried flour of sulphur so my entire body served as host to millions of chiggers as I sat in the weeds and big bluestem. I look like a victim of a pox, covered from neck to toe in weeping red welts. I also sampled a patch of poison ivy (another grazing increaser with no real place on a prairie) and ended up with a mess of ticks. So I have chigger bites, tick welts and poison ivy. Awesome Assistant to Missouri's Best Botanist (Jacob, or Justin #2) told me I should really just rock the look, show off my red weeping welts rather than cover them. Here's a close up of my leg today:

Much like the mattresses and ugly recliners that line the streets in my neighborhood each Sunday night before Monday trash pickup, I have bugs. It's really all the beauty I can handle.

And so, having seen in the course of one week how the Osage Plains are being homogenized into something completely different than what the purchasers originally set out to protect, I'll try to turn my thoughts to the fast play of grass court tennis. I remain grateful that Roddick is out, Sharapova is in, and my favorite grass court-playing bartender will switch all televisions to tomorrow's match as I drink mediocre wine and try in vain to forget for a few hours that the prairies that were once so full of life and diversity will soon be a mere memory.


Nathan said...

I'm so sorry, Allison. As I read this post, I kept wondering about chiggers, and then you delivered. Awful. Chiggers are the thing I hate most about living in Lawrence. In Louisiana, if I strayed from the trail into tall grass I might get them, but they never infested my yard. Here, they are so endemic, so pervasive, that I can only assume that we are the invasive species, building our homes on their prairies. I refuse to use pesticides on my lawn and am rewarded with lovely lightning bugs this time of year, but I loathe the chigger bites that arise from something so simple as a walk out to the compost pile. Your post reminds me that things could be worse, not just for us, but for entire ecosystems, when we interfere.

Here's to hoping that lawn tennis at Wimbledon proves more rewarding than other dramas played out on the grass.

Paul W. Nelson said...

So I too went on a prairie management tour. In my 35 years experience in characterizing Missouri's highest quality natural communities, I would have never imagined that our highest quality prairies would be placed in jeopardy (perhaps irreversibly damaged)by state land managing agencies entrusted with caring for them. Never mind the original intent of their purchase-to protect those rich prairie qualities that existed at the time of purchase; never mind emulating historic natural grazing patterns (not sure we can); never mind not establishing a statistically sound floristic baseline of vegetation plots randomized in each prairie; never mind taking a most conservative approach to studying the effects before launching blindly into most of our high quality prairie tracts; never mind the obvious effects of heavy grazing, increaser plants and disappearing rare plant species; never mind the excuses-we can't look at everything and don't need to. And why do we even need to experiment with the last remaining fragile pieces for prairie chickens that are for the most part now reintroduced from other states. And sadly the proclamations and fighting will likely continue instead of simply removing the livestock and experimenting in plenty of other more degraded prairie-old field landscapes you can find nearly anywhere. Paul W. Nelson-I believe I am a true prairie ecologist

James C. Trager said...

Sheesh - of course it is! Couldn't see the flowers for the ants.