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.
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.
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.