email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTallgrass Prairie Preserve
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The balance isn't perfect, of course. Without human intervention, the Flint Hills would burn more randomly than they do now, creating a broader range of habitats than frequent burns allow. Annual burning may suppress some species—including prairie-chickens, whose numbers have plummeted—that might flourish in a more complicated tangle of grasses. There is also a worrying trend toward ground and aerial spraying with broad-spectrum herbicides to control a highly invasive weed called sericea lespedeza, introduced decades ago to curb erosion around mines and provide forage and cover for wildlife around reservoirs.

And yet the Flint Hills is one of the few places in the United States where the prevailing agricultural system works essentially in tandem with an ancestral native ecosystem, preserving most of its complexity and the dynamic processes that helped shape it. First comes the fire, then for a few months the cattle—intensively stocked—and then the hills are left to themselves.

The springtime sacrifice of grasses does more than fatten steers. It is the prairie's only defense against woods and heavy brush. Wherever the range fires have lapsed, trees begin to move in, especially eastern red cedar. Deep in the tallgrass, it is hard to imagine that this lush growth cannot hold its own against woody species. The prairie seems so durable, so all-encompassing. And yet the prairie is the natural habitat of fire. So far, the way the land has been settled—sparsely and mostly in the bottomland—still leaves room for the flames of spring to sweep unchecked across the upland horizon.

In the Flint Hills, you instinctively feel that the prairie is for looking outward. But to see it truly, you have to look downward, past the seedheads of switchgrass and Indian grass, past the flowers of leadplant and stiff goldenrod, and down into the roots. This is not just an act of imagination. Here and there, you come across the cutbank of a shallow stream, and you can glimpse in the exposed earth an unraveling skein of tough fibers working their way downward. It's enough to make you doubt the priority of what grows upward. The grass leaves and stems and inflorescences seem to exist to serve the roots, rather than the other way around.

The Flint Hills lie at the western edge of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, and except in wet, sheltered spots, the tallgrass species here grow much shorter than they do farther east. In late summer, walking through a patch of restored Illinois prairie, you can almost imagine the scale of the root system, because it is mirrored in the head-high plants all around you. But here the prairie is surprisingly asymmetrical. The late-summer grasses and forbs, burned and grazed earlier in the year, rarely stand more than knee-high. They give no hint of what lies beneath them.

Even the cutbank does not reveal the mass and density of the roots pushing beneath the prairie surface. But imagine the prairie upside down—the leaves and stems growing downward into the soil and the roots of all these species growing skyward. You are suddenly walking through a dense, tenacious thicket of roots. The horizon is gone because you are over-ears in plant fibers, some spreading and slender, some tall, with strange bulbous growths on them. It is as though you were walking through a forest of veins and capillaries, each species finding a different niche—a different height, a different strategy—in the competition for resources.

This image alone cannot convey how tightly the prairie roots—rightside down—grasp the soil into which they have plunged, how closely they bind the earth and sky. Part of the pleasure of walking through the Flint Hills is sensing that coherence underfoot, the way the prairie roots have woven the soil together and anchored a stunningly diverse community above and below the soil line.

Just how the prairie speaks to you depends on who you are. Some will find it full of nothing or full, at best, of cattle fodder and copious views. But like any ecosystem that remains more than a shadow of itself, the tallgrass prairie also reminds us how we should think about the life that surrounds us. Spring brings the fires, the solid hopeful green of new grass, the booming of mating prairie-chickens in the Flint Hills. Our old habits of seeing find in all of this a familiar simplicity, the kind you push past on your way to a more human future. But in the ancient prairie itself—in its diversity, its coherence, its community, its capacity for regeneration—there is a new way of seeing waiting to be found.

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