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WM Voices: The Tallgrass' Last Few Shadows

Wabash may be a uniquely Hoosier word. It is derived from the French Ouabache, which is a translation or transliteration from the Miami language for “water over white stones.” Wabash is first a river, but also a state park, a city, and a college.  

Indiana is the crossroads of America. It says so on the billboards.  Indiana is also an ecological crossroads. The range of many plants either starts or stops, depending on your perspective or direction of travel, in Indiana. There’s tamarack from the north, beech from the east, sweet gum from the south, and compass plant from the west.   

The Wabash River was a crossing, or dividing line, between two major biomes—deciduous forest and the tallgrass prairie. Traveling westward across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, pioneers and settlers came to grassy opens or barrens devoid of trees. After a few hours or a couple days, they again met with the familiar shelter of trees. Once settlers crossed the Wabash River it was open prairie, only sky over their heads and grass beneath their feet. They would not meet continuous forests again until the foothills of the Rockies, half a continent farther.   

Wabash College was as much a crossing for me as the Wabash River was for the early settlers.  As a Hoosier schoolkid, prairie was simply a field trip to Fishers. Since Wabash, the prairie has dominated my life.   

My first tallgrass prairie was Smith Pioneer Cemetery in Vermillion County, just west of the Wabash River, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I don’t remember the date, but I remember who I was with.   

We make decisions every day in our lives, most inconsequential, some having consequences that reverberate through the rest of our lives. As a high school student I chose Wabash College. The second decision, which seemed far less important, was what Freshman Tutorial to choose. That class didn’t change my life, but in choosing a Tutorial I was choosing an academic advisor. Four years of advice on what classes to take next the semester turned into a friendship and mentorship that continues to this day, three decades after that class. I still seek Dave Krohne’s advice and insight weekly, often daily.   

Royal catchfly is one of the iconic species at Smith Pioneer Cemetery. Image by by David Krohne. During my sophomore year, a couple classes took a weekend field trip to Green Oaks Prairie where Dave did his undergraduate research. There he introduced me to Pete Schramm, his professor. A couple weeks ago I spent a day at Pete’s house listening to his stories. If having a good friendship with your professor’s professor more than a quarter century after graduation doesn’t speak to the value of the personal connections we develop at Wabash, then what does?   

Perhaps my biggest regret from my time at Wabash College is that I did not overlap with Robert Petty, biology professor and poet laureate of Indiana’s natural heritage. He described these prairies and prairie cemeteries perfectly when he wrote that the settlers “who turned their lives against a wilderness of grass should sleep in its last few shadows.”   

After my years at Wabash, I spent eight years in Kansas studying the prairie. From Kansas it was up to Minnesota to teach, then research, and eventually to help administer, fund, and develop policy for protecting, restoring, and managing prairies. For almost a decade, the word prairie has been in my job title.   

As a college student, and even a graduate student, I foolishly assumed I needed to know my birds, mammals, insects, plants, soils, and their interactions to understand and help conserve the prairie.  Ha!   

Biology is important, but so is a historical context. Should this piece of land be restored to prairie or forest? Why? What role did Native Americans and Euro-American settlers have in the history of this parcel?   

Prairie country is farm country. Farm country is dictated by farm economics which is dictated by farm policy and politics. All of that is related to the federal Farm Bill. A drought in the southern states could boost corn prices in northern states. Farmers in other countries flooding global markets with soybeans could drive down prices for American beans. Then there is livestock, grazing, haying, and markets. Add the international politics of trade wars, tariffs, or embargoes. Finally, add in the social, economic, and ecological repercussions of climate change. 

All of that will drive interest in conservation policies, programs, and practices across the Midwest. Waterfowl, pheasant, and songbird populations all track grassland acres enrolled in various programs within the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. Biology, history, economics, international affairs, weather and climate—it clearly takes a liberal arts approach to understand grassland conservation.   

The different trajectories my career has taken reminds me daily that what I learned at Wabash, the facts and figures, might not be that important. A lot of that has changed since graduation. The most valuable lesson I learned from all my professors was how to learn.   

That first summer of research, I asked Dave what books he could recommend for afternoons after we came back from our fieldwork. He recommended a little book by someone named Aldo about some sand counties in Wisconsin.   

In a 1942 essay titled “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education,” Aldo Leopold states “The objective is to see the land…I say land rather than wildlife, because wildlife cannot be understood without understanding the landscape as a whole.” In the next paragraph he continues “Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are only separate in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment.” 

Today, the eastern tallgrass prairie is functionally extinct. An acre here, an acre there, often dotted with tombstones or bordered by some of the earliest railroads. Across Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, less than one tenth of one percent of the prairie remains. Aldo Leopold wrote that “One penalty of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  

There is no more wounded landscape than the tallgrass prairie. My Wabash education introduced me to those wounds and gave me many of the tools and skills I need to do my small part in healing those scars.