Please join me on a journey to our Cuming City Prairie
Through my work at Fontenelle Forest and as an ASO volunteer, I have visited this prairie several times and would love to take you there in person. But until we can do so safely, let’s gather on the page! And let’s make our sojourn more about experience than analysis.
We are traveling just north of Blair to the last remaining virgin prairie in the Loess Hills. Untouched by the plow, this 10-acre preserve is home to at least 95 native plant species and serves as the final resting place for a small number of people from the late 1800s.
As we emerge from our car, we climb up and over the metal staircase onto the property. Let’s take a moment to read the sign detailing the history of the area, from its use as the town cemetery to its days as a preserve for native vegetation owned by the former Dana College. Audubon Society of Omaha acquired the land recently to use for educational purposes, like this program, and as a habitat for native organisms. Volunteers and partner organizations conduct habitat management, both by mechanical removal of prairie invaders and through the use of prescribed burns.
Before meandering up the hill, take a look around. Do you see the tree just to the left as you’re looking at the sign? Head around back. If you look closely, you’ll see a gooseberry bush growing out of a space where a branch attaches to the tree. How do you think that got all the way up there?
You’ll see a mowed path along the fence on the other side of the sign, heading up the hill. Let’s begin our hike there. We’ll make some observations and get extremely close to the native prairie. There will be time for wandering, as well. Here we go …
1. Take the First Step
As we start walking, with the prairie on the left and the fence on the right, look for deer trails. You’ll see animal runways through the prairie. You’ll also see exposed soil, where slight erosion has occurred from animals using the same paths. Now, depending on when you go, you’ll see varying amounts of exposed soil due to vegetation cover. Do you see more green plants, or do you see the spaces between them? The earlier you get out there, the more soil you’ll see. As the season lengthens, so do the plants.
2. Get Closer
We’ll keep walking. Notice the variety of plants. Get closer. Even closer. Go ahead and get right down on the ground and take a look. How many different colors do you see? How many different plants? Are there different shades of green? What do the blades of grasses and sedges look like — rough, smooth, hairy? How do the flower petals interact with each other? Can you see the insects hovering around flowers, or crawling on the ground? If you brought field guides for plants or insects, now is an excellent time to thumb through them to see what you’ve found.
3. Breathe and Listen
Once you’re ready, get up, and walk a bit further up the hill. Then pause. Slow your breathing … in, then out. Listen. Close your eyes and really listen. What do you hear? Road noise? Wind? Farm equipment? People? Birds? Insects? Listen while the myriad sounds separate to reveal distinct, natural voices. Where is each syllable coming from?
4. Be Curious
Slowly open your eyes, and move on. Instead of getting up close, now we’re going to compare and contrast the land on each side of the fence. What’s the same on both sides? What’s different? How do you think the land is used on each side of the fence? Why? Do you think there was a similar fence back in the mid-1800s? How might today’s landscape differ from yesterday’s?
5. Explore the History
Keep going, to the top of the hill. We are now at the cemetery. How do the plants differ from where we started? Are the sounds different? What do you smell?
Part of nature is history, and here, at the cemetery, are actual, set-in-stone, historical facts. If you’re comfortable, wander around and study some of the stones outlining lives lived. Some were very short, others very long.
6. Look Up
We’ve spent much of our time looking down and around. Now let’s take a few moments to look up. Is it a bright sunny day? Are there fluffy white clouds? Or are the skies slate-grey? How far can you see?
From here, take your time heading back, whether you retrace your steps or blaze a new trail. Watch your step among clumps of grass punctuated by pockmarks of subterranean animal activity.
7. Get the Big Picture
We haven’t talked much about birds, and that’s OK. Birds, insects, plants, microbes, fungi, mammals, reptiles and amphibians invoke a complex web of interconnections, which can distract us from seeing the beauty of the whole — leading us to, quite literally, not see the forest for the trees, and miss the macro in favor of the micro. Today’s program has asked you to experience the prairie holistically.
If you yearn for more specificity, grab a field guide or a smartphone with an identification app and trek back to Cuming City, remembering that prairie plants and animals can be very picky about when they appear.
(P.S. Send us your prairie photos.)