Why Prairie Matters – A Guest Essay

It’s never been easy for me to synthesize the importance of prairies into a compact essay or blog post.  My most recent attempt to describe why I care about prairies included, of all things, a Dr. Seuss reference…

The other day, however, I was reading a past issue of the Missouri Prairie Journal (Summer 2011) and ran across an essay by Doug Ladd that encapsulates the importance of prairie better than I could ever hope to do.  Before I was halfway through, I’d already decided to ask Doug for his permission to reprint his words.  Doug is the Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy of Missouri and a brilliant botanist and ecologist – among other things.  He has had a tremendous influence on the conservation of prairies and other ecosystems.  I learn something every time I’m around him, and I’m not sure there’s a better compliment than that. 

I hope you enjoy Doug’s essay on “Why Prairie Matters.”  Because it was originally intended for the Missouri Prairie Journal, it focuses on Missouri prairies, but it’s easily transferrable to other grasslands.

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WHY PRAIRIE MATTERS

by Doug Ladd

WHENEVER I AM IN A TALLGRASS PRAIRIE, I AM ASTOUNDED BY THE DIVERSITY AND COMPLEXITY SURROUNDING ME—uncounted numbers of organisms, interacting at multiple levels, both visible and invisible to the human eye, above and below ground, shaping and in turn being shaped by the physical environment. To visit a prairie is to be immersed in the result of thousands of generations of competition and natural selection resulting in a dynamic array of diversity, which, collectively, is supremely attuned to this uniquely midcontinental landscape.

Taberville Prairie – north of Eldorado Springs, Missouri.

Here flourish long-lived, deep-rooted perennial plants annealed by the frequent Native American fires, searing summer droughts, frigid winters, episodes of intensive grazing and trampling, and rapid, recurrent freeze-thaw cycles that exemplify the Midwest. These plants in all their varied magnificence in turn support myriad animals ranging from minute prairie leafhoppers that spend their entire lives in a few square meters to wide-ranging mammals and birds that travel hundreds or even thousands of miles in a season.

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Photo of the Week – August 12, 2011

As the sun neared the horizon during my evening prairie walk in Missouri last week (see last week’s Photo of the Week post) I had to be more selective about what I tried to photograph.  The low light intensity and the light breeze that was kicking up made it difficult to photograph flowers or insects – or anything else that moved or swayed very much. 

I found two last opportunities before I gave up and headed back to the hotel.  The first was a close-up photo of a compass plant leaf that was backlit by the sunset. The initial challenge was to find a leaf that was positioned so that I could set up the camera with the lens parallel to the leaf (which allowed me to get the whole leaf in focus).  I also needed the leaf to have shadows behind it so that the background, as seen through the spaces between the lobes of the leaf, would be dark and uniform in color/texture.  Once I found an appropriate leaf, I played around with exposure until I found the right balance between light coming through the leaf and the shadowed background.  Fortunately, the leaf was low enough to the ground that the light breeze didn’t move it too much.

A compass plant leaf lit from behind by the setting sun. Taberville Prairie, Missouri.

The second shot was simply a silhouette of a compass plant against the setting sun.  By shooting right at the sun, and not caring if the foreground went fairly dark, I was able to use a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze the slightly swaying compass plant.  The trick was to find an exposure that preserved some color in the sky but also enough detail in the foreground to make the photo interesting.  I was able to do a little correction in Photoshop to accentuate both, but in order for that to work, I still had to capture both the light and detail in the original photo.

Compass plant silhouette against the sunset. Taberville Prairie, Missouri.

It was a great evening.  Thanks again to the Missouri Department of Conservation for the invitation, and to Len Gilmore and Matt Hill for the tour of Taberville Prairie.  I look forward to going back sometime to see more of the beautiful prairies in southwest Missouri.