Prairie Grass Profile: Split-beard Bluestem

Split-beard Bluestem (Andropogon ternarius) recalls confetti-strewn ticker-tape parades or prairie snowstorms. The feathery tufts dance-dance-dance in autumn breezes–suspended in sideways sways–on clear blue days. Even more memorable is to catch these grassy cotton balls backlit by beams of late afternoon light.

Better yet submerge yourself in them and let the grassy reality surround you. Experience prairie and grassy pastures as an ant or a bird. Plunge into their depths and you’ll emerge with a new perspective; maybe even a strong belief in prairie worth sharing with others…

Occasionally mistaken for Little Bluestem, Split-beard Bluestem is named for the silvery white “split” beard, as in the photo above. An older common name was Silvery Beard Grass. I think I like it better.

It shares the genus Andropogon with Big Bluestem, one of the big four grasses, (see my previous blog on that one; Prairie Grass Profile: Big Bluestem) but is very distinctive. With its snowy beard I’ve always thought it must be the wiser one. After all the genus Andropogon means man-beard–a fitting moniker for sure!

It may not actually be wiser, but it is more adaptable.

It thrives in old pastures where broken prairies and broken dreams live together and cedars and elms have moved in with them. It’s hard not see a field full as a replacement for the once unplowed prairie, but nature abhors a vacuum and so the land needs a species that increases with disturbance. This one does it with elan; I’m sure it’s festive spirit remains unaware of its role in the ecosystem.

Prairie Responsible

It may sound strange but we have taken the prairie for granted for too long. It continues to give Texas so much. And we have given it so little in return.

Since Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait was published in 2006 I’ve spoken probably to a hundred or more groups explaining that the rich backland prairie soil was Texas’ first black gold. It is why people came here in the first place.

It has enriched us beyond belief.

This is especially true inside the triangle formed by the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to DFW, then south along 1-45 to Houston and west along I-10 back to San Antonio which frames much of this now rare ecosystem and continues to generate considerable wealth.

Three of the United States’ top ten cities are here including Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. But also important are Austin, Waco, Fort Worth and College Station as well as dozens of smaller towns that were built on it. Think of the esteemed institutions of higher learning that thrive here on what used to be prairie…

Prairie soil that became the rich farmland supporting cotton, wheat, corn and so much more. These in turn brought merchants and professionals and schools for all ages.

Today even the farmland and the open spaces, in addition to the few examples of original grassland that once dominated this landscape, are being replaced by concrete.

If we don’t act now there will be very little of this earlier Texas.

In fact on the outskirts of Dallas even now the machines are getting ready to destroy one of the best examples of an urban prairie in this entire region. Soon the bulldozers will push the ancient sod into piles and what has spent an eternity forming will be gone in what will be, for the crew, “just another day on the job.”

It’s been said of rare art or other precious materials that we don’t really own them–we just save them for our children or future generations. But we do not save things unless we value them.

On a happy note, thankfully there are still a few places where we can experience prairie. But without constant vigilance, and being prairie responsible, even these will disappear.

Here are some suggestions on how we can be prairie responsible and give a little back:

1. Join and support conservation groups such as the Native Prairies Association of Texas. NPAT is doing a fantastic job of preserving a few handfuls of what for Texans is our heritage. They would be happy to have your support.

2. Learn how to spot a prairie. There are still remnants waiting to be rediscovered! See my blog on the topic from earlier this year:

How to spot a prairie

3. Visit a prairie near you. Then do it again and again until you begin to hear it speak to you. Share what you learn with others on social media or at work or wherever.

4. Take a friend to the prairie. This is important because your enthusiasm and interest will be contagious. The prairie needs allies and it needs us to be prairie responsible!

To be continued…

A Prairie Gray Day

The moon rose full last night into my soul and in the darkness I felt the tide rise in my heart. The day had been warm and the air seductive.

I’ve been meaning to write this. Everyone says about the weather here in Texas: “If you don’t like it, wait a little bit–and it will change.”

But nobody ever says–and they should–“If you love the weather, don’t get used to it, it’ll soon change.”

That is has been my experience especially as we pass into the lean days when the sun sets low in the sky and air masses from the north and the south compete for dominance above us.

Gone today are the blue skies and so too are the puffy white clouds. It is November now. Anything can happen.

The mercury has fallen in the thermometer and a cold, wet cloudy sky casts its grayness upon us. A north wind howls and growls, freezing what little memories we have of summer; the all-too-brief autumn whose humid breezes recalled remnants of July sky and green leaves is gone too.

Winter is in the forecast.

The lush prairie that was only a few weeks ago blooming with yellows and blues and pinks has become as dun-colored as the desert. The tall grasses shudder in their chilly wake as we begin this long arc through space and the northern hemisphere turns away from the sun.

The grassy stems that yesterday were skyscrapers are now bent into into the same arcs as the full thrust of the polar vortex–what we once called blue northers–bears down upon them.

Already I’m looking forward to Anemone, and to Astragalus, and to the succession of whites and purples that will finally announce our trip through the months that rhyme with ember will be ones we hardly remember. The petals emerge in February, or even January if you know where to look.

I’m going to be looking…

Prairie Sunrise and Prairie Sunset

Part One: Prairie Sunrise

To walk into a grassy world made white with frost crystals–the brief icy sculptures glistening in the first rays of yellow morning, flooding the gray earth with warm light, but soon erasing the hoary ease with which the day was brought forth–is an experience worth remembering.

Yesterday I arose early to experience it on my small reconstruction of prairie out back. It was only the second frost of the season.

Of all the great works of art that have been conceived by the eye, and created by the hand, of man, at that moment none compared with the singular beauty of those prairie flowers blooming unplanned and unplanted (at least by me) in that landscape. It’s an aster, named for the stars, we would say. Botanically its more complicated but I still can call it commonly an aster and feel right about it. Remember we make the rules. But to see those rosy pink rays gathering light and warmth from that big ball 93 million miles away but still covered in icy glass is to be unconcerned with taxonomic decisions. It’s stellar.

In that transitory moment I almost held my breath wondering what sage advice the ancient, and now white-haired big bluestem, had to offer.

For me it’s a question that needles and gnaws…

How can it be that the vast majority of humans have no eye for such beauty or long to be one with it? Or to preserve it?

My morning visit was brief and so was the ethereal experience. When I returned later after work I wondered had it been a dream? Had I witnessed a landscape of my imagination? Or had I actually walked this way hours earlier? What had become of that icy morning?

And how would the other bookend of the day compare if I returned when the sun ended it’s sojourn through my sky?

Part Two: Prairie Sunset

I like the frosty air, the sideways evening light, and especially the orange glow across the western sky just before the fall of night. A pale sliver of silver hangs over the prairie and somewhere in the distance the air grows silent and cold and creeps under my collar. A thrasher sounds a very crepuscular goodnight. I’m once again in the land of the long grass–alone–at dusk. A sudden winnowing climbs into the gathering darkness and is gone. An American Woodcock is back from northerly latitudes to probe the muddy earth for insects that will feed and power it’s timber-doodling when the moon has made two or three more passes around our planet.

But the prairie sunset displayed nothing of that earlier transcendent performance that allowed the spirit to soar with hope and expectations–I was just overcome with a feeling that winter is almost here again.

I wandered down into the steep creek toward the culvert my father built during his half life here. I pushed aside the saplings that have grown up in the years since his departure and made my way to the creek. The leaves over the dark woods and the dry prairie creek were glowing with the golden furnace of fall punctuated by the stark silhouette of a craggy bois d’ arc.

I thought maybe we can still feel hope and beauty in watching a fall sunset when we know with absolute certainty that a cold winter night is coming…

Prairie Grass Profile: Big Bluestem

Andropogon gerardii, Big Bluestem, is the star of the prairie show. Among the big four grasses her under-stated beauty exudes self confidence. Increasingly reclusive, her appearances are unpredictable, and as anticipated as any of the glitterati stalked by the prairie paparazzi!

When she emerges into the sunlight and blooms perhaps a thousand years of underground roots cheer her on.

Her performance is ancient and yet relevant. Timeless and still modern. She was the face of the grassy wilderness before it was torn in two.

And if you listen you can still hear her voice; you can still hear her singing and sometimes you can even catch the echo of her demise.

I’m sure her carmine-green-ochre stems–kissed with the pink glaucous bloom of youth–can yet remember when the prairie quaked before her with thundering applause from cloven hooves rushing to feast on her sugary leaves and chew them in their cud.

It must have been one of the biggest attractions the prairies had to offer. She emerged from curly green curtains in late summer and into the fall lofting her characteristic turkey foot into the air like liberty lifting her lamp beside the golden door. With swagger. And with sway.

In many ways she should be seen as the icon of the plight of the wild prairie before the steel age when an Englishman –Sir Henry Bessemer–learned how to remove the impurities from molten iron and strengthen it enough to take on her tough grassroots buried in the prairie sod.

But it was an American–John Deere–that sculpted that steel into shape, allowing the American Dream to be carved from her domain–in singular 160 acre squares–turning the Great Plains upside down, remaking it into a massive checker board of hopes and dreams unlike any the world had ever seen.

When I began stalking the wild prairie grass I sought her first among the commoners. She of course could not be found there. Finally I found a few stems along the fence where she sought refuge during the destruction that began with the Industrial Revolution.

I visited her at sunset this evening along the railroad tracks near here to photograph a fine stand on a stretch of forgotten prairie. Suddenly the ground began to quake, and for a moment I imagined bison thundering past.

How ironic that today she occurs along ribbons of steel that saved tiny passages of prairie from passing away.

Prairie Grass Profile: Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is probably the most common of the big-four grasses that once covered the bare prairie sod like a blanket tossed across a sleeping woman.

That’s because it’s a survivor; largely due to its ability to cling to fence rows waiting patiently for the chance to toss its gossamer-like seeds back into fields where the best laid dreams of mice and men lay dying.

After the first flush of a fall frost it becomes the color of freshly-minted cents just put into circulation–and ready to be spent by the herds of buffalo that once arrived from the north to feast upon its plenty.

Have you ever seen such copper grass glowing softly in the tenderest evening light? Dancing in the sunbeams like a memory from days gone by. Can you imagine it rolling on and on as a dream in your mind? Singing like a bird that knows no night.

When it returns to take the place of prairie it still pulls me. And I’ve passed by it never knowing when it will end. Seeing it and fearing that the dream will one day die.

Have you seen these grassy plains and wandered through what might have been?

This evening two of my daughters stood with me in the coppery grass that overlooks White Rock Lake. We watched the colors change and the day grow dim as the sun sink out of sight.

The sloping hillside covered in little bluestem reminds me of a place that only yesterday can know.

I come this way to merge today with the past in my imagination. To preserve and to restore a memory of history that someday, hopefully someone, will want to last.

Prairie Grass Profile: Indiangrass

Commonly called Indiangrass, Sorgastrum nutans is one of the so-called “big four” grasses, and often an indicator of unplowed prairie.

Easy to overlook for much of the year, until it “explodes” into lavish displays of golden fall color, if only briefly, marking the autumnal equinox with floristic celebrations of the earth’s celestial transition from summer into fall. Gaudy and a bit glammed up, especially in the dying light of a prairie day, the heads rival anything the prairies have to offer. They’re that beautiful!

Their blonde panicles held aloft on tall wand-like stems that dance on currents of prairie air. Wow.

Not even the eagle taking wing can beat it. You can stand still and ponder its meaning til it’s too dark to see and still not be sure the meaning of what you’ve seen. But it’s a performance for sure. Poetry put to music in the wind. Or maybe a cosmic ballet. I’m not sure.

But I would join the Indiangrass fan-club if one existed.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a prairie this fall and see for yourself!

But what I really like about this special grass, which is increasingly rare over vast swathes of North America, where it was once so common, is that it’s easy to re-establish. I started with handfuls of seed broadcast directly into the short grass of a mowed trail on Jacob’s Prairie about ten years ago.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the seed took to her old home and made herself happy there again. Seeing it feels like a return to the same Edenic beauty that existed in Prairie Time. Or maybe it’s just a fantasy of the imagination.

Either way it’s time and effort well spent and sends the eagle soaring in my heart and the golden grasses dancing in my mind.