Once again I was overcome by a gut-wrenched sadness when walking through my Listening Stones Farm prairie the other night, for I couldn’t help thinking what might have been, of what was lost and will likely never be regained. Here’s the back story:
Back in 2017 we did a prairie burn. Our local fire department was hired to do the honors, which came with what seemed like an exuberant boast when one of the fireman excitedly exclaimed, “This is great! No more pancake flipping!” Firemen apparently love playing with fire more than flipping flapjacks. Unfortunately I seriously doubt if enough native prairie exists around these parts to burn on three to four year cycles to offset their traditional fundraising efforts. Yet, what happened after the burn was simply incredible. The flush!
Like some magical enchantment the burn was followed by a beautiful rejuvenation of the forbs and grasses, one of unmatched beauty in our prairie. A “tired” prairie had come back to a full-fledged life. Magnificent colors throughout, and particularly in the yellows. From one end of these 14 acres to the other the color and depth was unbelievable. The yellow was then followed by a beautiful purple, a purple that unfortunately came with a price. An unwanted attention, for these were the blossoms of a fearful “weed” commonly called “thistles.”
With the turning of the calendar page to July all of that came into jeopardy. Apparently a complaint was filed concerning the thistles with the county weed inspector by a local farmer who spreads poisons on the field abutting our prairie by tractor or plane each season (although I’ve never filed a complaint about his reckoning with pollinators). Coincidently a farmer with an agreement from the neighboring commodity farmer arrived to mow and bale the right-of-way roadside shoulder grasses for hay and was coming through with his mower.
Earlier in the week we had traveled down to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where they had brought in a mower that had simply topped off the blossoms of the offending thistles while leaving the prairie grasses and forbs tall and intact. Removing the heads prevents the thistles from going to seed, and eventually eliminates them from the prairie. What a wonderful idea, and one which was approved by the county weed inspector. So I stopped to chat with the man with the mower and explained what I needed done.
“What I need,” I told him, “is simply to top off the thistles. I do not want my prairie grassed mowed. I need the mower high enough just to top off the thistle blossoms. Can you do that?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he said while removing his hat to wipe his sweaty brow with his shirt sleeve.
“Remember, the mower blade must be high enough that only the tops of the thistles are cut. Nothing more. That’s gotta be the deal.”
In our bartering agreement he was free to mow and bale the grasses on the roadside shoulders alongside my prairie.
On the afternoon he showed up with his mower I again went through the exact same instructions, and he said he completely understood both my reasoning and needs. He headed into the prairie as I left to head downriver for a meeting in Montevideo. When I returned home a few hours later he was down to his last two acres, and my heart nearly stopped. My entire prairie was leveled as if it was a hay field. From the upper prairie down through all but the last couple of acres left on the lower. All of the flowering forbs were clipped and layered in with the grasses, all flat against the ground.
“Our agreement was that you were just topping off the thistles?” I yelled at him after running down his tractor.
“This is as high as my mower would go?”
“Why in the hell didn’t you recognize that and stop?”
He shrugged as if nothing was amiss. It was just grass. Prairie grass, translated to say it meant absolutely nothing to him. Another neighbor suspected his intent was to eventually bale it for hay. What other use of prairie grasses is there? When he pulled out with his mower that was the last I’ve seen or heard from him. He didn’t even return to rake and bale the roadside brome he had leveled.
My prairie has never recovered. That prominent yellow has not been seen since, although there was hope that after our burn last spring during the pandemic that there might be a bounce back. There wasn’t, and I was reminded of that while walking through with my camera the other night. Present were ample purple and white prairie clover. Bee balm was scattered throughout, too. A handful of yellow daisies. Literally, in all 14 acres. This was not our colorful prairie of the past.
There couldn’t have been any miscommunication. My intent was made clear twice before he put the mower into the prairie. Yes, I agree that I should move along and get over it, yet it was about this time in 2017 when the inquiry about topping off the thistles was made. A gloomy anniversary, at best. All with the experience and knowledge that in no two years will a native prairie ever look alike.
My interconnected paths through the upper and lower prairie are frequently taken with a camera in hand, and on this night as the evening settled in I ventured out once more and the memory of that fiasco hit home once more. This time with more force than normal. To date I’ve never sued anyone, and this incident was as close as I’ve ever come. Yet the reality is that I wouldn’t have won. Not in this commodity-rich cropping landscape, and not against a fancy attorney whose primary argument would be, “It was only a prairie.”