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73 Tugging at the Crow’s Tail A prairie hay meadow, shorn nearly as short as a suburban lawn in early July and then allowed to rest a year before the next annual shearing , is a wonderful place to watch the increasing stature of wildflowers as spring progresses. These meadows are rarely grazed and have but a single job to do—grow as much plant life as the sun and the rain allow and, in doing so, provide a dense carpet of native grasses, forbs, and legumes to be turned into cattle fodder at a time when the plants are at their leafiest. Investment in a hay meadow is nil. All that’s required to grow native grass is an adequately wet spring. The rancher supplies tractor, mowing machine, and bailer while being spared the expense of fertilizer, herbicide, and seed plus the time and equipment required for tilling and planting. The result of allowing nature to do the work is nutritious hay from acres rich in highly palatable native plant species that often disappear from neighboring pastures with their resident cows. Hay meadows never suffer from selective grazing targeting the more nutritious plants or from uniform overgrazing. Native grass hay fields endure a day or more’s worth of indignity, and then the mechanized invaders are gone. 74 Tugging at the Crow’s Tail Following this quick annual haircut, the meadow returns to doing what it does best. During the growing season, prairie hay meadows provide for birds, butterflies, countless insects, small mammals, reptiles , and all those that eat and in turn are eaten in an endlessly revolving and evolving process. The meadows accomplish this by absorbing sunlight and rainfall to enable photosynthesis that produces nutrients stored in roots and rhizomes.All this stored energy in turn anchors the circular ebb and flow of perennial plant life. When lengthening daylight awakens the life force in prairie plants following several months of dormancy, the release of energy to grow leaf, stem, flower, and seed not only invigorates bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian but also those of us who are as renewed by the arrival of spring as much as any frog, toad, or salamander. This morning a bright Easter Sunday reaches for a high in the mid-seventies. Big dollops of white clouds drift across a sky the color of turquoise. Below, the previously blank green canvas of a prairie hay meadow now appears to be the aftermath of some divine domestic dispute . Flakes of blue mirroring the color of the sky are scattered across the meadow, and it seems that some of the Greek gods of old, the ones with decidedly human foibles, have been chipping away at the heavens . The result is abstractly beautiful, a rich checkerboard of blue and green that actually harmonizes in a manner that’s difficult to comprehend —until you see it in person on a spring morning when the light is still strongly angular and the atmosphere clean and fresh. Close up, the flecks of fallen sky prove to be one of a tallgrass prairie spring’s most beautiful flowers. Common names include prairie pleatleaf and celestial lily. Yet a lily this flower is not. Nemastylis geminiflora is a member of the iris family. The flower grows from a typical iris-like bulb, and the rich blue inflorescence with bright yellow anthers offers only a fleeting display of floral beauty, yet one that’s difficult to forget. Nemastylis opens late in the morning and closes before three in the afternoon, sunshine or not. Essentially, the plant waits until the day is warm enough for insects to be active, then closes as the peak pollinating period subsides. And even though each flower seems faultlessly engineered, its life span is but a single day. Following pollination and the production of ripened seed, the plant disappears until the following spring. Subsequently, the work involved in remaining a wild iris continues underground. Prairie pleatleaf is prone to colonize, a fact of life evidenced in this turquoise-flecked hay meadow on an April day, 75 Tugging at the Crow’s Tail at a time when native grassland is striving to ignite the green flame of another growing season. Easter sunrise services for a pair of coachwhip snakes appear to be on hold as they wait for the morning to warm a little. The snakes display torpid indifference to my presence as the sun strives to heat the exposed bedrock overlooking Hominy Creek. The snakes are shiny black except...


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MARC Record
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