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26 Renewal at a Slow Burn Early in the spring, much of the Flint Hills grassland takes on a smoky haze and an acrid odor as ranchers set fire to the prairie. Burns are scheduled for days when the breeze is light and the humidity high, resulting in a blaze that burns low and slow and is more easily controlled . People here have been burning grasslands since long before Columbus . Native Americans used fire to encourage the growth of new green grass, which in turn attracted the animals they utilized for food, shelter , and tools. Fire keeps woody growth in check and provides fertilizer by converting the previous growing season’s leaves and stems to ashes. Flint Hills ranchers,borrowing a page from their predecessors,burn old growth in the spring when the sun starts to climb higher in the sky, days are warming, and spring thunderstorms are either under way or soon to occur. By removing the dry plant material, ranch managers leave a swath of blackened bare earth that soaks up heat. Warming soils, nurtured by spring showers, erupt with the tender green shoots that cattle covet. It’s not unusual on a calm March afternoon to see cowboys on four-wheelers, dripping liquid fire on bleached brown grassland. Part 27 Renewal at a Slow Burn of the process includes building firebreaks along fence lines, so that flames won’t consume any wooden posts. Pickup trucks equipped with water tanks and sprayers await, insurance against the fire spreading beyond established perimeters. As the sun goes down, the orange-red fire line seems to burn into outer space as it crawls over dark hills and drops into even darker valleys. Now and then an eastern redcedar, an evergreen juniper common to the region, catches fire and erupts like Fourth of July fireworks. When a big pasture of two to three thousand acres goes under the torch, the spectacle is breathtaking and almost otherworldly. At the same time,the smoke and the smell are a summons to winged predators. Hawks arrive like boys excited by rumors of a schoolyard fight. At times it seems that you can almost see the anticipation in the birds’ eyes and sense the adrenaline pumping as they seek out a perch on a fence line, utility pole, or nearby oak, mostly something tall and as close to the fire as possible. From this vantage point, the hawks crane to see what the fire flushes into the open in front of the flames. Rats, mice, rabbits, and voles scramble for safety as the fire draws near, all terrified by the creeping conflagration. As a result, they fail to notice death descending from above—winged last rites in the form of one of nature’s most highly proficient dive-bombers. The following morning, these burned pastures will be at their bleakest , a blackened stretch of undulating earth pocked by thin columns of smoke rising from thousands of smoldering cow patties, those gray ovals of dried dung once used for fuel by pioneers. Scavengers, from crows to blackbirds to flocks of longspurs, walk the ashy aftermath searching for morsels ranging from blackened mouse to fried grasshopper. Yet this scorched Hades recovers quickly, especially if a rain shower helps push tiny new grass shoots toward sunlight. Within weeks, barring an unforeseen cold spell, the endless black will evolve into emerald, a shade so bright it seems electrified, a color that burns into the mind with its vibrant greenness. According to a wildlife biologist friend, the timing of prescribed burning can alter the components of a grassland community. The rule of thumb, he said, was that spring burning favors the development of grasses (why ranchers burn in the spring) while autumn burning favors forbs (nonwoody, leafy, flowering plants). Wildlife managers are more apt to burn in autumn or sometimes in the middle of the summer 28 Renewal at a Slow Burn to invigorate plant communities and encourage the growth of wildlifefriendly plants. Others condemn the practice due to the collateral damage to box turtles, reptiles, and ground-nesting birds. On the other hand, the rebound in the numbers and species of ticks sometimes makes it easier to strike that match, especially now that tick-borne illnesses are proliferating. There were no ticks to speak of when I was a kid in the nineteen fifties, and we never used—nor had we ever heard of—insect repellent. Then the numbers of whitetailed deer began to rebound in our county. Ticks were...


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MARC Record
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