Essay

It’s a jungle out there

By September 13, 2019 10 Comments

It’s not a particularly good picture, but it’ll have to do. That’s our house up at the top, maybe fifty yards or so away from the camera and me. What’s between us is five years’ worth of sweat and toil and the glorious result of more rain than we normally get, thanks (right now) to global warming. It’s prairie, revisited. 

We’ve got an acre out here, too much to mow, so we decided to take a chunk of it–about a third–and do it up with native grasses and native flowers, actually sew it, like Boaz, tossing out precious seed (it’s not cheap) with handfuls of saw dust to make the job simpler. Then, under the tutelage of a friend who knows what he’s doing, we raked the seed into the soil just a bit and let it be. 

The first year I was instructed to set my mower up as high as it would go and cut down the entire plot, as if that chunk of prairie were the lawn we determined not to have. Second year, same, although I let up in August. The idea was to let those native plants grow roots because, good night! they do. Holy coneflower, they do! This pic from the Land Institute gives you a sense of the healthy roots on native perennials.

The third year I let the whole mess grow and battled the Russians all year, thistles that is, which is not to say I hadn’t the year before or didn’t once again this year. Adam had native prairie, I’m sure; but post-fall, he also had thistles and mares’ tails, scores of ’em. There is abundant sweat in that plot of prairie. 

The fourth year things started popping, but an August hailstorm took out our garden and left the prairie brutally mangled. But this year, five years after casting that seed out almost biblically, we’ve got color galore and heft and density that’s plainly remarkable–and wonderfully beautiful.

Our little quarter-acre of renewed prairie is especially lovely because it reminds us of what this tall-grass eco-system, now almost entirely gone, once looked like. It seemed an ocean of grass, so many witnesses said and wrote; but at the right time of summer, glory hallelujah, it had more color and depth than any sea. And tall? No wonder people could get lost in it. It’s a jungle out there.

No eco-system on the continent is as thoroughly gone as tall-grass prairie–the system that reigned here. And no county in Iowa is as devastated as this one–Sioux. It’s almost impossible to imagine that once upon time the world looked like this.

It’s an exotic jungle that’s entirely native, a painting as new every morning as dawn itself, a cutting edge work of art that features the way things were.

And there’s music. If there were trees out here, they’d be clapping their hands. But this is prairie. Still, with all the pollinators right in our backyard, we’ve got a hymn of praise nonetheless, the murmuring of innumerable bees.

Show don’t tell–that’s the old rule of thumb, right? Take a look. It’s a flower shop of colorful old friends. I hope you’ll pardon my braying.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is so wonderful, and I thank you for your writing and your photos and your prairie. Yes, Psalm 65. How can we not break into song along with the tall grass. Meindert de Jong’s The Singing Hills is one of my favorites of his.

    • John vanStaalduinen says:

      Thank God for global warming, I love the wild flowers it produced. In twenty years when the earth’s orbit strays a bit further from the sun and global cooling takes effect again will you have to replant with a different mix of seed? It would be very expensive again.

  • mstair says:

    “Disorder and confusion everywhere
    No one seems to care
    Well I do
    Hey, who’s in charge here?” (Randy Newman)

    No prairie down here in nc … but your sharing brought it all back. Now have that image of looking west at sunset passed the elevator on 3rd. St., Sioux Center. That’s all ag, not pure prairie, but if you squint a little and use your imagination …

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, It is beautiful. Praise to the Lord who created all those flowers and for you and Barb for arranging them.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Braying pardoned, Jim!

  • Ann Clark Carda says:

    Stunningly beautiful! It’s amazing how “simple” is so much work. I toured the campus at Dordt this summer and was introduced to the native plant garden (prayer garden?). What surprised me was hearing how much work went into turning the ground back to it’s native state. Years and years of fertilizers and such have stripped the soil of it’s ability to grow native plants so the “old” dirt had to be hauled out and new dirt put back in its place.

    We don’t have a big enough yard to do the same but I was inspired to stop fertilizing and treating for weeds and instead I started picking them. And found that sitting in my yard picking weeds is surprisingly relaxing (almost to the point of addicting).

    Thanks for planting those seeds of hope even as I read the headlines telling me we are rolling back clean water protections.

  • James C Dekker says:

    WOW, Jim. Nice sweat and toil. Have you ever seen Carol (and the late Fritz) Rottman’s “Michigan Prairie” on Flat Iron Lake near Rockford, Michigan? It’s many acres and demanded lots of work too. They’ve donated the land to Calvin University (still not used to that), though Carol lives there a good chunk of the year.

  • Helen P says:

    This is delightful and lifted my heart today.

    I remember learning Randall Thompson’s “Peaceable Kingdom” in choir some years back.
    My favorite part of that work was “Ye shall have a song” because words were right from the Psalm, “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

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