Repainting the Prairie

Classic prairie artist Malena Handeen has seen enough. Enough of the prairie ditches and field edges filled with silt blown from unkempt and poorly managed tilled fields without cover crops over the long winter. Enough of water trickling through paved rills in those same fields converted long ago from prairie grasses and forbs into industrialized commodity crops with no grass waterways nor buffer strips for protection. Enough poor corn crop production practices, drainage and ditching that is leaving behind a deadened soil and diminishing aquifers and water tables.

Enough so that she has offered to paint “classically styled portraits of the first five farmers to convert a thousand acres out of corn and back to native grasses. Sink some carbon and get a family heirloom. Maybe even let your grandchildren grow old.”

Malena Handeen with one of her paintings during a recent Meander.

Malena Handeen with one of her paintings during a recent Meander.

This is from a child of the prairie, one who has garnered enough of a reputation as a painter to attract art collectors and museums nationwide to her Loose Tooth Cowgirl Studio housed on the organic farm near Milan she shares with her husband, Mike Jacobs, and their children, Hazel and Arlo. Their Easy Bean Farm is one of the original CSAs in our neck of the grasses. Malena is the daughter Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen, who long ago converted their own Moonstone Farms near Montevideo from cultivated crops to a grass-fed beef, vegetable and grape farm, and have been involved in sustainable agriculture circles for years. That’s the pedigree.

A thousand is a lot of acres, so a willing farmer would be one probably considering such a move regardless. Her offer would be a bonus, if you will. The chosen five would have thoughts about the future of not just his or her farm, but a deeper future for all of us. Which, of course, is the intent of Malena’s offer. Her offer gravitated from a conversation that began over wetlands on a social media site when she wrote: “Restore a wetland or your ass is grass.” Many sources claim that more than 98 percent of the prairie and wetlands native to Western Minnesota have been converted to farmland through ditching and draining. Nowadays even more efficient drainage systems are being retrofitted onto formerly drained fields as even more remnants of native prairie grasslands are being stripped of glacial rocks and fitted with tile. All for corn. Bt corn, basically.

“I’m not trying to be clever,” said Malena. “I mean, our ass really is on the line if we just drain off all the water and till everything. Where do they think groundwater COMES from? I’m pissed today. I need to throw stuff.”

So she threw out an offer. She is, after all, an artist, and artists typically seek creative solutions to solve problems.

A nearby wetland at dawn.

A nearby wetland at dawn.

Ah, the wetlands and prairie, a vast ecosystem that is no more. Not many who are alive today can even recall what this prairie pothole biome actually looked like before Euro-American settlement. Too many generations have passed. Seemingly as soon as the settlers started moving into the heart of the biome the draining began, and the Jeffersonian grid system was soon etched with ditching to carry the water away. Those tributary rivers and streams, and main stem of the Minnesota River that Joseph Nicollet spoke of with the clear waters and sparkling rapids would, in time, become silt choked and ribbons of muddy waters all the way to Lake Pepin in the Mississippi River below Redwing.

Oh, but if you were to fly above this “black desert” on a very wet spring you can see the ghosts of the prairie potholes. Every single wetland, and there were often several large ones per section of land, thousands as far as the eye can see, are now laying latent, exposed ever so often by big rains and high spring snow melts. Such an opportunity was afforded me in the spring of 1997 after one of the snowiest winters in recorded history when a neighbor invited me along for a flight over the prairie for photographs. The sight below was astounding as we flew from Montevideo to Raymond. Below us were hundreds of potholes, all now part of a vast and complex agricultural economy. We passed over a huge “lake,” one my pilot friend identified as the former Willow Lake just northeast of Gluek.

“There were two resorts and cabins around that lake at one time,” he said, pointing out the open plane door.

Willow was one of five such lakes identified in Chippewa County. Black Oak Lake, for which the street is named, outside of Montevideo was first mapped by Joseph Nicollet with both its Dakota and English names. “Hutuhu Sapa” had a 40 acre grove of bur oaks, the waters having protected them from prairie fires. The remnant of that grove is where Tom Ryman now lives. Other principle lakes in Chippewa County were Shakopee (County Park #1), Bad Water (Lone Tree), Carlton (south of Hwy 212) and Norborg (Stoneham Twp.). Only Shakopee remains. The rest are long drained and have been farmed over for decades — as has the former prairie all around them … as far as the eye can see on any clear day.

Certainly no one, myself included, would expect complete restoration. That would be impossible logistically and economically as well as ecologically. Is balance possible? Perhaps. Malena Handeen’s enough-is-enough offer, as creative as it is, will offer one small, yet simple incentive toward some sense of balance, a step toward correcting one of the most dramatic and thorough degradations of a natural biome in the entire world in the history of mankind. We’ll see if someone has what it takes to take her up on the offer.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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