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56 The Grassland Legacy of J. E. Weaver He never achieved the lasting fame of conservationists like Aldo Leopold or Theodore Roosevelt, but to his credit no man before or since has known the North American grasslands like John Ernest Weaver. The words he wrote about the prairie were wrung from the sweat of learning about grassland ecology from the roots up—literally. Weaver was an academic who understood that the science he sought to master required hands-on investigation, and that the data he collected over the years were best disseminated in a conversational manner that readers could both learn from and appreciate. He wrote a number of papers and several books about grasslands that remain timeless in both scope and energy—a fitting legacy for a man who dug miles of trenches related to his work, all while wearing a three-piece suit. Weaver was born in Iowa in 1884,a prairie state that was already seeing its sod turned upside down as the region’s rich black soils were fast becoming America’s agricultural epicenter. He earned his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, taught botany at Washington State College , and accepted a position at the University of Nebraska in 1915. The Nebraska prairies would become his laboratory, classroom, and spiritual home for the rest of his professional lifetime. He remained at the university as a professor of plant ecology from 1917 until 1952, assem- 57 The Grassland Legacy of J. E.Weaver bling material for books that included Native Vegetation of Nebraska and his unparalleled PrairiePlantsandTheirEnvironment:AFifty-YearStudyin the Midwest. Weaver was obsessed with learning about prairie plants from the top of each flowering stem to the tip of the tiniest and deepest rootlet . To accomplish this, he and his students dug trenches, many of them fifteen feet deep, to reveal the roots of the prairie plants he was researching. Next, he’d carefully expose each individual root mass and then draw it in intricate detail. Needless to say, few scientists have had the patience or the desire to duplicate such effort. In his day, no one understood the complexity of the underground prairie the way that J. E. Weaver did. Weaver undertook all these years of exhausting labor because he felt that to know grasslands, you have to become as one with the soil and the root systems that support all the endless miles of waving green leaves and stems. He understood that the engine driving a robust prairie was hidden underground. In Prairie Plants and Their Environment, Weaver explained that frequently half—and often considerably more than half—of every grassland plant is invisible. For much of the year, the entirety of the living prairie is underground. The explosion of leaves and stems during the growing season is essentially refueling, exposing leaf surface to sunshine to funnel nutrients underground through the process of photosynthesis . For plants that are adequately nourished, the green season ends with a stem rapidly extending skyward, topped by tiny flowers and eventually seeds.Then nutrients migrate back to the roots to await another hot, humid, and hopefully rainy year of photosynthesis under the sun. Weaver’s trenches uncovered roots that mined much deeper than anyone had previously imagined. The professor discovered that the common prairie forb false boneset, a tall, coarse, not so colorful plant aboveground, waves in the wind atop a root system reaching sixteen feet deep or deeper. Another autumn prairie favorite, the truly colorful purple-flowering Liatris species, enriches the landscape on a flowering stem rarely more than several feet tall. Weaver uncovered the underground growth of Liatris plants that also dug down sixteen feet, mining moisture and nutrients from every available prairie particle and pore. One of the plants the botany professor excavated was thirty-five years old. Weaver felt that native prairie 58 The Grassland Legacy of J. E.Weaver plants evolved a long life in order to successfully develop the extensive root systems needed to mine nutrients and moisture at multiple levels. Vast root networks also allowed the plants to interact benignly with neighboring plants, sharing the chemical resources needed to prosper within a few square yards of subterranean prairie earth. A contemporary gardening blogger who writes under the moniker Garden History Girl described Weaver’s detailed drawings of root systems as nothing less than art. Certainly the perspective needed to portray these intricate and complicated systems in three-dimensional renderings sprang from a mind that seemed able to crawl into the soil and...


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