Late Autumn Prairie

View of Piedmont Prairie

By Devin Floyd

12/1/2020

The video relays a simple glimpse of the beauty of a Piedmont grassland in the dormant season. The footage was captured recently by one of our volunteers and supporters (Bill Sykes). The view is dominated by the characteristic indicator species of high quality grasslands, including little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). There are around 200 plant species within the view of this short fly-over.

We can easily imagine this beautiful little prairie reaching beyond the strict confines of the thicket woodland that contains it now. Can you? Can you imagine this grassland stretching to the horizon, leapfrogging wetlands and streams and hopping over steep forested slopes? We can. What is perhaps harder to imagine is the sheer volume and variety of life and color it would hold!

The late autumn prairie is hauntingly beautiful, for it communicates across deep time for those that can read it. Have you begun learning how to read a grassland? Spread among the autumn prairie one will find clues that illuminate stories of fire, herds of browsing megafauna, of cultural upheaval, and of ice ages, global warming, and geologic forces. One will see colonialism and global trade in the weeds at the manicured/oppressed edges, and the story of the slave labor and emancipation in the thicket woodland that contains the prairie. One will find a diverse buffet of native herbs, tubers, nuts, and seeds that miss their co-evolutionary partners – Native Americans. One will find hundreds of plant species with survival strategies uniquely honed for the prairie. For those that take care to see deeper patterns, one will see the oppression imposed on the prairie and the impact it is having on species diversity. And for those willing to stretch the cranium a little further, one will find hope for full renewal in the persistence and adaptations of the tough prairie flora. Also in the grassland one can release their child to wade through the rich time-travel soup, their smile beaming in the autumn sun. The intricate sensory detail laid out before them is apparent and delightful – A prairie steward is born!

Expansive and varied grasslands, now much diminished, are a critical part of the natural heritage of the Piedmont. They are mostly forgotten and ignored. The misled ethic of “this land was made for you and me” ignited a long campaign of agricultural and horticultural oppression. It continues to this day as old ecosystems are sprayed, planted, cut, diminished, developed, and otherwise displaced to meet the short term needs of an ever-growing population of humans. Were long-term well-being of value, every little drop of old growth grassland would be protected, cared for, and expanded. Unfortunately it appears that the flat open spaces of the Piedmont will continue to be valued most for how much crop or meat they may produce, or how much timber they may hold. Open spaces (“fields” and “meadows”) are maintained as shallow and dysfunctional grassland facades. These spaces are often valued for the long views they support, for their ability to get out of the eye’s way, – but not for the most important and extraordinary thing they hold in their potential – Biodiversity, the key to the survival of life in the Piedmont region!

You may be surprised to know that a large portion of all native plants and animals in the Piedmont region are grassland-dependent. Many of them are forest tolerant, and so they linger in reduced numbers, capacity, and function. But they do not thrive.

It may also come as a surprise that grasslands are the most biologically rich ecosystems in eastern North America.  But they can’t be bastions of diversity if they are oppressed or minimized in size or capacity. There are remnants of healthy old grasslands remaining – small fragments on landscapes that were never plowed. They are demonstrating that they can, and would, be more widespread if we let them. In conservation, we nurture and protect old forests, but we fail to acknowledge and conserve grasslands that are much older. It’s time for a change!