National Geographic : 1980 Jan
The Talgrass Prairie: Can ItBe Saved? By DENNIS FARNEY Photographs by JIM BRANDENBURG T HERE IS HARDLY any prairie left in Illinois, the Prairie State. And when I finally found the prairie there, it was caged in like a prisoner. A prairie is not, as you may think, any old piece of flatland in the Midwest. No, a prairie is wine-colored grass, dancing in the wind. A prairie is a sun-splashed hillside, bright with wild flowers. A prairie is a fleet ing cloud shadow, the song of a meadow lark. It is wild land that has never felt the slash of the plow. I drove out one October afternoon, through the spreading suburbs west of Chi cago, searching for these things. I found toll booths. Bulldozers, gouging out basements. Billboards. And everywhere, the subdivi sions the billboards advertised. Then I saw it, a remnant of the landscape that once covered much of Illinois. The prairie was there, in a pioneer ceme tery surrounded by a chain link fence. And outside the fence was the most en couraging sight I'd seen all day. A young man was walking, head down, collecting wild-flower seeds in an old bakery sack. "You look like a prairie restorationist," I hailed him. Ken Klick looked up, then grinned his confirmation. "My 'prairie's' only fifteen feet by five-my backyard," he said. "But these wild flowers are so rare I want to do whatever I can to save them. I'm taking these few seeds home to plant." We wriggled under the ugly fence. Inside, like a scene from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, tombstones stood amid the swaying grass. Beneath them were sod busters of the 1840s and 1850s. Kinley Charles, 1821-1861. Mary His Wife, 1831 1879. Joseph Thompson. Jacob Brook. With others, they had tamed this land scape-tamed it all but the wild remnant that now engulfed their headstones. The autumn wind moaned in the chain link fence and rustled dryly in a clump of coarse leaves at our feet. "That's the com pass plant," Ken said, pointing out that the vertical leaves face east and west to best catch the sun. "There's the rattlesnake master," he con tinued. It was reputedly used as folk medi cine to cure snakebite. "Over there is the shooting star." Come May, its pale pink, swept-back petals suggesting falling stars would blanket the slope. Ken stooped to pick up a beer can and paused among the headstones. A milkweed seed drifted by on its puffy parachute. A Native of a vanishing land, Indian grass sways beneath the sun on a remnant of tallgrassprairie.The white man's plow all but destroyed the originalMidwest grassland.Now a modem-day feud smolders over a proposed nationalpark in the Flint Hills of Kansas, a planfiercely resisted by ranchers as a land grab.