Tall Grass Prairie
Aug 28, 2009
|Seeing Kansas as the first settlers saw it - Friday, August 28
Our next destination had been Topeka, but we decided first to take a detour. The Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve is a hundred miles out of our way, but it’s something we need to see and what’s a hundred miles when we’ve already come so far?
Traveling through the prairie states makes a person either so bored that you never want to see them again, or so fascinated that you fall in love with this sea of grass and crops and hard working people. We are of the latter persuasion, and this was a chance to see the prairie as it once was, before farmers transformed it into a food-basket to the world.
In school we were forced to read Giants in the Earth, a book about the early settlers of the Dakota plains. I hated every page of that book at the time. Now I want to find a copy and read it again. That’s what the prairie can do if you let it into your consciousness.
Once you do let it in there’s a yearning to see what the prairie was like before man came along - when only God and the buffalo moved across it and not even the Sioux or the Osage had come on the scene.
Today that chance is largely gone. There are few if any places on the plains where you can stand and see no sign of man. And we didn’t find one today - but we came as close as possible. On a ranger guided tour we stood at the top of the tallest hill on the preserve, and at 1,300 feet above sea level we gazed out over a piece of tall grass prairie that is about as natural and unspoiled as any left on earth.
Cattle graze here, and soon there will be buffalo again. Not wild and free as they once were, but a small and carefully managed herd. Management includes moving the herd around so the grasses don’t get overgrazed, and setting controlled fires to burn off the trees and shrubs which will try and encroach if you let them. All this activity isn’t exactly ‘natural’ but it’s what is necessary in today’s world if the prairie is to survive in as pristine a state as possible. Both the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy that control this 11,000 acres are dedicated to that purpose, and so far they are doing a pretty good job.
No plow will ever disturb this soil, and no corn or soybeans will ever grow here. Only wildflowers and sage, ragweed and lead plant, and grasses of every description. Birds abound, and the insects they need to survive. Butterflies flit from flower to flower, and crevices in the limestone hide lizards and horny toads. This landscape that bores the ignorant is so complex that students and scientists come from all over the world to study it.
We studied it too for a quarter of an hour and then we boarded the bus. The ranger who had driven us up said we could walk back if we wanted to - it was only three miles. We were sorely tempted and I think it would have been the sweetest walk in the world, but it was nearly 5:00 PM and we didn’t have a campsite figured out yet.
We had come for the 1:00 o’clock tour, but the Park Service has had to slash their staff and only the 3:00 PM tour was available. We spent the waiting time touring a house and barn and outbuildings of the ranch that once flourished here. Started in the late 1870’s, all the buildings are built of the limestone rock that is just under the surface of the ground. They are as beautiful to look at as they are durable, and the Park Service has kept them as an integral part of the preserve.
We left the preserve shortly after 5:00 and we headed fifty miles up the road to a lovely Corps of Engineers campground on Melvern Lake. After two nights of dry camping a shower felt good, and we have water and electricity and all the comforts of home. From our windows we can see the lake, and there are no bright lights to spoil a dazzling display of stars in the mostly moonless night sky. God love the prairie, for we surely do.