As flames danced exotically against the blue sky, Earth Day 2017 became one we’ll not long forget thanks to a favorable wind and the Clinton Fire Department.
Ah, yes. My very first prairie restoration burn. And one I didn’t quite expect so soon. Initially we had plans to attend the important March for Science at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Age perhaps had a hand on my being home after two straight days of driving to Fargo and back with computer issues. Surprisingly the call came mid-morning from the fire chief. Yes, I had the burning permit, and yes, I would be home. All I had to do was activate the permit with a phone call.
About an hour later the trucks began arriving, along with the wind. “This won’t take us long,” said the chief, eying tree activity in the grove. Yes, even the larger branches were swaying. “We’ll start here in this corner and work around your farmstead.” Which I found interesting since I had envisioned starting on the northwest corner of the prairie and working down this way. Luckily I wasn’t in charge.
Taking the canisters of mixed fuel, he and another fireman walked the edges of the prairie next to the garden and along the county road and my first, on-farm prairie burn was underway. All eight acres! Within moments the wind fueled the blaze, fanning flames high into the air. Smoke bellowed above the prairie sending the signal aloft for all to see miles away. Their burning plan created a natural fire break and kept the burn both within caution and reason. The burn was going extremely well despite my fear of being a bit late, for the undergrowth of grasses had already begun to green. That green was no match for the intense heat. Initially we had aimed for the first of May so the weed trees would have a bit of greening. An unseasonable, early spring had taken care of that.
My burn plan actually began a few weeks ago when the same Clinton fire crew suddenly pulled up in front of the farm and made preparations to burn a patch of prairie across the road. As they monitored the burn I approached to ask a few questions. “We really don’t have time to talk now, but will once we’re done here,” said the harried fire chief.
About an hour later they drove up the driveway. And new plans were crafted. With the proximity of my studio to the prairie, the fire department would have been called despite the original plan made with a dear friend, with ample restorative prairie burning experience thanks to his work with Pheasants Forever, over a pizza weeks ago. He is also deep into wild turkey season, and frankly, the distant two-hour drive and unpredictable wind directions made it more sensible to do the burn with a local crew.
So on this sunny and windy Earth Day all forces joined together to renew our prairie. We were due a burn for both prairie age and to thwart the encroachment of the weed trees, mainly Chinese Elm. Now the wait begins to witness an amazing transformation. It might not look like much now, for the only green is in the walking paths we had cut through the prairie … for there were no matted prairie grasses there for kindling. Otherwise the prairie is charred black. It won’t take long for the prairie to recharge. Typically a beautiful flush of forbs and flowers will explode from that blackness, and hopefully the big bluestem will finally take hold to become the dominate grass.
We still have some important steps to take. First will be the arrival of Blayne Johnson with his brushhog to whack down the weed tree forest that has taken root over three primary portions of the prairie. Within an hour of his tasking, the small exposed trunks of the seedlings must be sprayed with a strong brush herbicide to kill them. Although the tops were likely “killed” by the heat of the fire, the roots … like those of the matured prairie grasses and forbs … are very much alive and have stored enough reserve energy to quickly send up new shoots.
We have a serious an issue with weed trees. When the grasses went into dormancy last fall the true extent of the weed tree takeover was vividly evident. Those elm shoots remained green in contrast with the brown prairie grasses, showing a dominance of volunteer seedlings.
This will likely be a life-long fight on this little Big Stone County prairie regardless of our success with this initial burn. The real solution is to take out all of the “mother” elms, a decision I have yet to accept because I hate losing mature trees that add both physical beauty and shade for the farmsite. Especially the tree next to the studio, one of stature, character and beauty.
Certainly the elm issue is of topical concern, although we are beginning to see an influx of Eastern Red Cedar on the nearby hills and bluffs that aren’t farmed. Cedar can throughly dominate prairie lands as evidenced by the wild, unfarmed areas around Granite Falls, just little over an hour southeast of here. More and more of the cedars are dotting the hillsides up here which isn’t a positive sign.
Fortunately, we’ve seen no cedars here on the farm.
Our Earth Day burn didn’t take long. About as much time as the march in Morris, I suspect. We’re quite fortunate to have a small town fire department in Clinton with the knowledge and tools to do a good burn. Soon after they motored off to do three more burns Saturday afternoon we sat on the deck sharing glasses of wine and marveling at the blackness of the charred prairie and talking about the resurgence of the native flowers and grasses.
Within a few weeks, perhaps, the greening will begin, and the entire eight acres will soon be in full flush of new growth. Lush with color and vigor. That is one of the beauties of growing an underground jungle. And, certainly, a reason for our sense of excitement. While we missed participating in a wholly necessary political march less than an hour from our doorstep, our Earth Day was hopefully spent in an equally important manner.