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112 Searching for a Prairie Queen Aldo Leopold, whose book A Sand County Almanac helped ignite a wildfire of American ecological consciousness in the 1970s, liked to nose around old cemeteries and ruminate about the rare plants he’d discover there. Leopold, born an Iowan, understood that a little of the old tallgrass prairie survived in those cemeteries, while beyond their boundaries most of the tillable countryside had been plowed and planted to corn. In one essay, the sainted professor waxed poetically about Silphium laciniatum, the regal compass plant. Compass plant, often five feet tall or more and festooned with bright yellow flowers similar to sunflowers , begins to grace the prairie landscape at a time when the spring wildflowers begin to fade and the summer season, with its even taller wildflowers, many of them yellow, begins. “Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm,” Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. “Itistime foraprairiebirthday,and inonecornerof thisgraveyardlives a surviving celebrant of that once important event. It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday 113 Searching for a Prairie Queen bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July,to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium,spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway,and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” When I reread this passage from time to time, especially in late June, I wish Leopold was still among us so that I could show him Silphiums tickling the bellies of buffalo at the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. During the week preceding the Fourth of July, a healthy patch of compass plants began to flower where several dozen young bulls like to snooze and graze. There’s little doubt that even as the stout flower stalks burst into golden bloom, nearly a ton of bull bison, sleek as a show pig from all the nourishing spring grass, had his belly tickled by this statuesque plant with its big oak-shaped leaves that orient north and south. And if I had a chance, I’d show Mr. Leopold prairie hay meadows in the region where other once-common plants spread their leaves to the sun. These plants, like Leopold’s poetically immortalized Silphiums , still occur and retain their health because these hay meadows are mowed but haven’t been grazed in decades. Here on the rocky southern prairies it was the cow, and not the plow, that banished compass plants and other “ice cream plants” from the surrounding pastures. Cattle grazed these highly nutritious and obviously tasty plants so hard that they rarely had an opportunity to restore nutrients to their roots and, ultimately, were replaced by invasive plants or others much less palatable. So like Leopold’s carefully watched Wisconsin graveyard, the oldtime hay meadows tend to be living prairie museums. Walk through one in the growing season, and you’ll find grasses and forbs rarely seen these days in the grazing land across the fence. Toward the middle of summer they’ll be mowed down, allowed to dry in the sun, and baled for hay. But after that these meadows will recover, add leaf mass, 114 Searching for a Prairie Queen replenish roots, and awaken the following spring, as they have since long before the first bovine came ambling up from Texas. One of my favorite hay meadows borders Highway 60 west of Pawhuska. It belongs to a ranch whose founder came to the area as an Indian trader when the Osages established their final reservation here in the 1870s. The family has produced beef off these prairie grasslands ever since, and I have little doubt that this big hay meadow has been providing baled fodder for their horses and cattle for nearly a century and a half...


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