National Geographic : 1980 Jan
(Continuedfrom page 52) capture the original's sweep and spaciousness. I joined him one November morning as he prepared to take another step toward that goal. "Looks good, eh?" he asked exuberantly. "That's an incipient prairie in there!" We stood beside a grass drill, a tractor drawn implement used for planting, looking into a seed box crammed with prairie seeds. There were seeds of little bluestem (big bluestem's shorter cousin), fluffy as a mouse's nest. Indian grass, dart shaped and sharp. Prairie cinquefoil, mere specks of dust. Culver's root, looking strangely like coffee grounds. Two dozen species mingled together-360 pounds of seed. Had it been purchased in small quantities from commercial dealers, that seed would have cost thousands of dollars. For seed of some prairie flowers can cost as much as twenty dollars an ounce. But the seed was free, handpicked by volunteers on remnants of prairie within fifty miles of Chicago. This method guaranteed seed precisely adapted to the area. Now it was ready for planting in a most curious setting. Imagine a giant doughnut. The doughnut is four miles in circumference, made of con crete and buried in the earth 35 miles west of Chicago. This is the housing for one of the world's most powerful atom smashers, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laborato ry. There, scientists accelerate protons to nearly the speed of light, then smash them to study the basic structure of matter. Now imagine the hole in that doughnut. It is a mile and a quarter across, 700 acres in area. In that hole, surrounded by 20th century technology, Bob Betz, colleague Tony Donaldson-a Fermi electrical engi neer-and a lot of other enthusiastic volun teer helpers are re-creating the 19th-century Illinois prairie, piece by piece. "I like wildness," Betz told volunteer Polley Cosgrove that day. "I like the idea of wildness. I'd like to see us restore areas as reserves for our grandchildren. The reserves would be kind of like Noah's ark. Then, if our grandchildren ever wanted to expand the areas of wildness, they'd have these nuclei. That's what we really are trying to do now-save the nuclei." It isn't easy. Some of the rarest, most beautiful flowers-the white-fringed prairie orchid and prairie gentian-are exasperat ingly finicky. The orchid needs particular soil microbes, and those microbes vanished when the virgin prairie was plowed. These species are perhaps best planted years, even decades, after earlier waves of pioneer spe cies have reclaimed the soil. But pioneers like big bluestem and blaz ing star present their own problems. Little in their evolutionary history has equipped them for taking hold rapidly on cultivated soil. In contrast, their nonnative competi tors are superbly equipped. For many of our common weeds evolved on the ancient culti vated fields of Eurasia, then hitchhiked to America with the settlers. They're genetical ly programmed to hit the ground running. Stamina Wins the Race Finally, prairie plant seedlings spend more energy growing down than up. A year old big bluestem may have a bundle of strong roots but only a wispy top. The seed ling is shaded by fast-growing weeds, which need an occasional mowing to keep them in check. If the prairie natives can hang on, the odds tilt in their favor. "Weeds are sprinters. Prairie plants are long-distance runners," Betz told me. "They're tough babies. Compared to them a dandelion"-he shrugged in utter con tempt-"is nothing!" I saw this for myself when Betz and I inspected two earlier plantings at the Fermi lab. The initial planting of 1975 was flour ishing, head high, glinting bronze in the November sun. But its boundary with the 1976 planting hit us like a stop sign. On the 1975 side, grass; on the 1976 side, thistles. There appeared to be nothing else. Even Betz, that most ebullient of men, looked downcast. We waded on, picking thistle Home on the range again, a bull elk turns againstbackbiting flies on Nebraska'sFortNiobraraNationalWildlife Refuge. Except for such preserves, the mountains have offered the elk their main havens following their exterminationon the tallgrassprairie. Can the Tallgrass PrairieBe Saved?