Tuesday, January 5, 2010

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.