Field & Street 

Last Saturday, we planted 40 acres of former cornfields at the Nachusa Grasslands with a mixture of native prairie species. The job took us the whole day. Ross Sweeny and I started bagging the seeds about 8:30 in the morning. With a brief break for lunch, we worked until it was too dark to see.

Ross and I were part of a crew of about 20 volunteers working under the direction of Steve Packard of the Illinois Nature Conservancy.

Nachusa is a Conservancy project, a preserve that currently covers 600 acres and will, with some luck, eventually expand through the purchase of inholdings and a rounding out of the boundaries to include all the high quality natural areas in the vicinity. It is already one of the largest prairie-savanna complexes in the state, and the idea behind the restoration work we did is to make it even bigger.

The Nachusa Grasslands preserve lies a few miles from Dixon, Illinois. In fact, its name comes from the name the local Indians gave to John Dixon, the founder of the town. Two long, low ridges define the north and south ends. The area we worked on lies in a shallow basin between the ridges. To the east, the preserve ends at a gravel road. To the west, Wade Creek flows through a low woodland, also part of the preserve.

The ridges are still prairie, a mixture of gravelly knobs and bedrock outcrops that stayed natural because nobody could see any percentage in trying to plow them. These were the areas that first attracted the Conservancy because they supported healthy populations of several rare plants, including a prairie clover that is on the federal endangered species list. Much of the broad basin where we worked had soil deep enough to plow, so it had been producing corn and soybeans.

The plan for the preserve, to sketch it in the broadest terms, is to plant the old corn fields with prairie species in order to create an unbroken sweep of natural land from ridge to ridge. As a start in that direction, the Nature Conservancy hired a local fanner to plant oats on its newly purchased corn and bean fields to provide a ground cover that would help keep the weeds down during this past summer.

The next step was to find enough seed of prairie plants to sow the plowed ground. Finding prairie seed is somewhat easier than it used to be, if you aren't too fussy about where your seed comes from. There are now commercial nurseries that will send out seeds by mail order, just like Burpee. The problem for the serious prairie restorer is that the nurseries tend to be located in places like Nebraska. I don't have anything against Nebraska. Its prairies are quite nice. It's just that they are Nebraska prairies, and the goal at Nachusa is to recreate an Illinois prairie.

The assumption is that the plants of the Illinois prairie are local ecotypes, subspecies, or geographical races especially well adapted to the climate and soil conditions of this place. The further assumption is that preserving seed strains from throughout a plant's range will keep alive the maximum possible genetic diversity and that genetic diversity provides the greatest possible protection from disease and other vicissitudes of life in the wild.

The bulk of the seeds that Ross and I bagged were about as local as you could get. They were seeds of little bluestem grass that had been gathered from the north ridge of the preserve. From the spot where Ross and I worked, we could look north to the slope of the ridge and see the burnt orange stems that remained after the combine had removed the seeds.

We had two wagon loads of little bluestem and several large bags full of a mixture of seeds of various prairie wildflowers. These had been hand-picked by groups of volunteers in small prairie remnants in the neighborhood. There is no absolute rule about how far away you can get and still consider your seed to be a local ecotype, but nearly all our seed came from within 25 miles of Nachusa.

Before we saw them, the seeds had been transported to Juda, Wisconsin, where Steven Apfelbaum, who runs a company called Applied Ecological Services, had put them through a machine he has that cleans wild seeds.

Even after this cleaning, the seeds still looked unimpressive. They were mixed with large amounts of chaff and bits of stem and dead flowers and looked similar to the sort of stuff that might clog the intake of a storm sewer on a Chicago street comer.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was very valuable stuff. Steve told us that we had about $4,000 worth of purple coneflower seeds--at nursery prices--and purple coneflowers were only one among many species stuffed into our bags.

Bagging seed is hot, dusty work. We wore face masks most of the time to keep from filling our lungs with the dust that blew off the seed. We made two different kinds of mixes. A good part of the land we planted was gently undulating ground, so we mixed the little bluestem with wildflowers typical of hilltops and upper slopes for the higher places. Our lower slope mixture was little bluestem and wildflowers of the mesic--intermediate in moisture--prairie.

Once the seeds were properly mixed and bagged, we turned them over to the two sowing crews. The volunteers on this project included local prairie nuts as well as Chicagoans like Ross and me. By lunchtime, we had finished bagging all the seed, so we joined the sowers for the afternoon.

The technique of sowing prairie seeds harkens back to the way they planted wheat in the days before farmers had mechanical planters. The honest yeomen of the 18th century simply walked through their fields scattering handfuls of seed. We did more or less the same thing.

We lined up about six to eight feet apart along the edge of the field and made a sweep across it, sowing as we went. Ideally, you do this in a military manner--as they used to say in boot camp, maintaining dress, alignment, and interval--broadcasting seed in a perfect pattern over the ground.

We were not always perfect, but as the afternoon wore on, we got better. In spite of our improvement, I'm sure that when this seed starts germinating, we will see clumps of prairie plants here and there with weedy gaps between them. Irregular patterns like this occur in nature too, so we aren't too worried about them. If it's good enough for God, it's good enough for us was the motto we adopted. Anyway, in a few hundred years, things will even out.

It helps to be patient on a project like this. You can't make a prairie overnight. Next summer, these fields will be rich in weeds. It will take an expert eye--and a willingness to crawl around on hands and knees--to find the tiny prairie plants hiding under the bull thistles. But time is our major weapon against the weeds. Two years from now, the prairie plants will be bigger and stronger and a bit more visible. Their root systems will be taking up more space in the soil and grabbing more of the available moisture and nutrients. The weeds will be on their way out.

By nightfall only seven of us remained. Risking turned ankles on the rough ground, we sowed the last of all those bags of seed that Ross and I had put together in the morning. With the work done, Ross, Gail Lord, another Chicago volunteer, and I waited by the wagons while the others went after the cars. The sky was clear, and one at a time the stars began to come out. Soon we could see the Milky Way arching across the sky almost directly overhead.

The silence was so profound I could hear my heart beat. In a few years, sitting in this same spot, we will be able to hear the rustling of prairie grasses, grasses that we sowed.

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