Strolling the Remnants: Sand Prairie Conservation Area

My work through the Institute of Botanical Training takes me all over the Midwest. In 2009, I was working on a contract in southeastern Missouri that was about an hour from Sand Prairie Conservation Area. An admirer of prairies of all kinds, I visited the site twice over the season and would like to share my observations below.

Visit One: April 17:

A chilling spring breeze blows across the sand prairie.

Sun-warmed sand dislodges, rolls and re-accumulates as it gradually exposes and conceals scattered pebbles in this sandy scene.

Small dune-like hills stabilized by vegetation subtly gradate into expansive flats. The surrounding landscape speaks of the early Holocene winds and braided waters of glacial outwash that are responsible for the sandy deposition. A sprinkling of sand islands scattered within a matrix of wet forests of the Mississippi floodplain. Here, inches in elevation separate desert from swamp.

Weathered gray stems spinning in the wind draw solar systems in the sand.

The stenciled yellow and green haze of the far tree line is the only sign of spring, but even then it is muted and distant. I drop to my knees and just beneath the tattered remains of grasses I notice tender new blades. They mirror my delight in the warm touch of the sand.

A lonely clump of Asclepias amplexicaule, huddles nearby. Its cells dividing by the millions and fighting the urge to elongate, I smile at hard-wired patience.

Visit Two: July 14

Summer is in full force. The quartz crystal sand grains are readily absorbing the sun’s light and reflecting it back as heat. An occasional gust of wind flattens the radiant heat and reminds me just how hot it really is. The sterile sand is bone dry. I can feel the crisp vibration and microscopic scour as my boots sink down into beaded firmness. In an awkward succession of steps, I traverse the slight dunes.

I am careful not to crush any vegetation or get close enough to disrupt root systems. Each individual plant here is a treasure, though many of them are rather weedy. They are consequential remnants; the crumbs and afterthoughts of agricultural impact whose persistence on this reservation comes secondary to someone’s inability, financial or otherwise, to find a distinctly human use for the land. Thus, signs of ecological abuse abound and the site is far from pristine.

Dancing in the wind and sun, happy as a lark, Crotonopsis linearis thrives in the sand.

Its entire body is encrusted with lepidote scales; little partially transparent shields that reflect most of the overabundant radiation of the sun and serve to reduce transpiration.

The patient Asclepias amplexicaule plant that I encountered last spring survived, bloomed, fruited and now disperses its seeds into a landscape to which it is no longer adapted. Perhaps its propagules will find a suitable slice, but pickings are slim to non-existent in the dominantly row-crop surroundings.

As is the habit of naturalists deep in exploration and children hard at play, I push these grim realities out of my mind and envision myself in a landscape without a parking lot, powerlines or quarter-mile rotating sprinkler systems. Instead, I am hundreds of miles from home and new discoveries are footsteps away.

The dune blowouts are margined and capped with numerous conspicuous tufts of grass. I examine one. Its short ligule, double vestiture sheath pubescence and relatively small spikelets make it, unquestionably, Dichanthelium columbianum.

One of the most poorly understood grass species in North America, it is currently known from only two stations in Missouri; here and another site a mile or so up the road. Damn if it doesn’t love sand.

Above the grasses, white pillows of floral décor top the dark green sub-shrubbery of Polygonella americana. Another sand-lover.

Up close the flowers take on a pinkish hue due to the infusion of red pigments in the anthers.

As I walk further onward into the preserve I am drawn to a patch of Monarda punctata with its Suessian verticils.

Rolling a thick, symmetrically rugose leaf between my fingers releases a flush of aromatic experiences. The ineloquent would say “minty”, but that falls short of capturing the crispness, the coldness, the dry, burning earthiness and sweet pungency that seizes the nostrils and nearly brings water to the eyes. Perhaps no words can capture it fully. It is considered to be a bit weedy in other reaches of its range, but it is listed as a species of conservation concern in Missouri, due to its rarity. It was a pleasantly refreshing encounter.

Dropping off the sandy dune-like portion of the preserve, which comprises only a fraction of the site, and onto the larger flat expanse, the floristic quality plummets. Polygonella americana, Dichanthelium columbianum and Andropogon ternarius are replaced by such emblems of disturbed acidic soil as Diodia teres, Rumex acetocella and Andropogon virginicus. As I meander further through the spoiled remains of the site, I am transformed back to the sad reality of our impacted world. I ponder what fascination these sand prairies would have evoked had knowledgeable eyes seen them first. How splendid it would be to have witnessed these jewels in high gloss and strongly fastened to the crown of a natural landscape. But like much of what is beautiful in the world, they were first met by poor hungry souls armed with God’s wills and empty pockets. They dared challenge their own lowly station in life in an attempt to scratch out a living on such humble ground. I want to blame them, but how can I? Instead, I ask myself if I will be blamed when I am an ancestor. I don’t like the answer.

As I head back to the truck, to burn an hour’s worth of fossil fuel back to my overpriced, over-air conditioned and over-illuminated hotel, I look for something more positive to which to cling. I try to shake off the dread with the classic clichés of conservation, “at least we were able to save a few acres”, “every little bit helps” or “with a little education, people will see the value of such places”. Ultimately, I decide that these mantras are largely untrue and certainly aren’t my style. Habitat loss is a stark tragedy and trying to polish it over is pathetic, hollow and self-serving. Mourning the cake by honoring the crumbs gets us nowhere, fast. We need to cut our losses and get down to serious work if we are going to prevent further loss of what’s left of the irreplaceable. So, I look west and feel the pull of the Ozarks. There, hope for conservation can still be found, sprawled along ridgetops, seeping through fens, buried beneath the leaf litter and dripping from torches.


  1. Thanks for the narrative and sobering insights.

  2. Beautiful commentary... too bad the outlook is so bleak. You say that we need to get down to serious work to prevent further loss of what's left or irreplacable... what do you recommend? What can be done?

  3. Dana and I were talking with Dr. Hardy Eshbaugh once about this very issue. He commented that botany has yet to break into popular culture and that there is no reason it couldn't be as popular as birding (which is rapidly gaining in popularity). But how do you get people more involved in botany, birding or conservation in general? How do you shape culture? Most people that are interested in conservation issues don't think like marketing or advertising agencies. Rather, they see culture as something that should organically evolve into what it is by its own volition. Public and private conservation organizations have public outreach folks that primarily target children and people that are already interested in conservation. This is great work and relatively easy to conduct. Unfortunately, most children are more interested in Power Rangers than Ranger Rick. The few that like Ranger Rick grow up to be organic farmers and biologist. The others grow up to be hard core capitalist/consumers. If Ranger Rick had more advertising dollars, perhaps he could compete. Of course, there are folks in the middle of this oversimplification.

    Aside from that and other obvious directions for conservation to focus on culture, I have been thinking lately about what appears to be an unexplored avenue: a community-based "Conservation Watch" program or a terrestrial version of "Stream Teams". The mission would be to get communities involved in conservation issues in their own back yards. It would focus on rural communities (an urban version could evolve later) and would include monthly meetings, presentation and field trips on private land with presenters from the conservation field. There would be major objectives for all chapters that include; 1. The removal of invasive species from private land. The community group could approach folks in the community (their neighbors instead of a stranger from the conservation department) and ask to "clean up" their woodlot or whatever the case may be. 2. Inventorying and monitoring green-space that is held in private property. Again, neighbors asking neighbors then compiling data. What landowner wouldn't like a list of plant or animals found on there place. They would be surprised and may be more interesting in conservation/preservation. 3. Initiating conservation objectives on private land. Landowners that have been friendly to #1 and #2 above could be approached about the implementation of other programs conducted with assistance from the local community-based conservation group (again, their neighbors).

    The group would need to be called something patriotic and appear non-nature based. Something like "The American Heritage Foundation". The message would be to restore the America of old and to maintain it for the future as something of historical and, secondarily, natural significance. This would appeal to more people than organizations like “The Nature Conservancy” or “Heartwood” that frighten fence riders from the get-go.

    Like Ranger Rick, some folks won't be interested, but I've found that many private landowners (especially those that own a lot of acreage) are very proud of their property and like talking about what animals they see and where the most wildflowers are. We need to meet these people on their level and give them community incentive and support toward conservation driven objectives.

    I plan on attempting this sort of thing here in Salem. If it doesn’t work, I don’t know what else can be done.

  4. It sounds like what you are saying is that we, as a community, need a better land ethic. From Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949)...
    “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for). The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

    Man, was Leopold ahead of his time. I think that your approach is a good start to changing the land ethic of property owners. I also think that something has to be done to make Ranger Rick as "cool" as the Power Rangers. I was at an Audubon meeting today and was one of only three people there under the age of 40. Something needs to happen to change the image of "dorky scientists" to "cool, dorky scientists" to get more younger people involved, and to make conservation more of a priority to them. I wish I had an idea of how to do this.

  5. Yes! A land ethic. Why aren't there groups doing this? Are there any? I'm perfectly willing to accept it if there are. It is funny how people accept the "think globally, act locally" jargon, but rarely is it put into meaningful action.

    Dana and I just watched the movie Avatar. Wow! We aren't blockbuster buffs, but this film hit many environmental and human rights nails on the head in a very visually and emotionally charged way. Finally, the "PowerRanger/GIJoe" mentality can be replaced by even cooler beings that live with nature and are at odds with corporate greed. Here is the chance for science, conservation and human rights issues to find a soft spot in the heart of an hard-hearted American populus. That is if conservation groups sieze the opportunity, jump on the Avatar ban-wagon and inform people that this is not just a movie about a far away world with cool special effects, but a commentary on our lives and our world today. Hopefully, the message of this movie doesn't flatline like that of "The Matrix" and such books as "1984" and "Brave New World".

  6. Justin, A wonderful piece and great discussion of the issue.

  7. Hi Justin. I love this place, despite the overwhelming damage that is apparent over most of its area. The small remants of still recognizable sand prairie make this place a refuge - not just for the rare plants and animals that they harbor, but for the souls of those who appreciate what they are seeing.

    I have been to Sand Prairie several times in the past two years and have written a few posts on it myself - Polygonella americana, Monarda punctata, and Andropogon ternarius are common themes that we have shared, as well as lamentations over the damage that this place has endured.

    I am surprised we have not met in the field yet. Though you are a botanist, and I am an entomologist, I hope we do get the chance to meet, and I hope it occurs in the field. I am certain we would have much to say to each other.

  8. Hi Ted. My sentiments exactly.

    It’s funny, I was just looking at some of your posts involving Sand Prairie CA the other day. Noticing the degree of budding on the trees in the background, I estimated that we had to have been there within a few days of each other.

    As you say, it is amazing how wonderful a place it is given its size. I plan on visiting again this spring. I'll keep an eye out for you and I'll be sure to yield to the tiger beetles.

  9. Classy. Now that the conference is over, I can actually read something that doesn't pertain to fire and birds. Great post. Will forward out. You don't want to hear my thoughts on southeast Missouri. Keep up the great work, and know that anytime you participate in a project, I'll know that it won't be one of the four I heard about today wherein "our botanists weren't trained to key plants to species...." thus invalidating any semblance of true science. You and Dana rock. Don't leave Missouri.

  10. Thanks, Allison. We had to leave soon after your presentation at the conference, so we didn't get a chance to tell you how much we enjoyed it. It is sad that fire still needs such fervent championing. I'm glad you, Paul and a handful of others are here to fight the good fight. Dana and I were talking on the way home about the regress of meaningful conservation in Missouri over the past few years. Perhaps the worm will turn. If you stick it out, we will too.

  11. This is one of my favorite places to visit and photograph. My wife is with Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and you might be interested in knowing that she is working to raise awareness of this rare ecosystem and hoping to help establish and small example in the nearby town of Haywood City. The town is built on sand and a prairie could be relatively easily reconstructed as an educational tool there. She is working with Bob Gillespie of MDC (I think), who is "in charge" of Sand Prairie CA, and he agrees that this is a feasible project. I hope to visit the CA again in the near future.

    Beautifully written, by the way.

    Randy Tindall


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