Photo Essay: Summer at Eastern

Even though it feels like summer has been here for more than a week already, as of 11:24pm last night it is now officially summer. And that means the prairie meadows at the Eastern library are coming to life.

The tall grass prairie (which originally encompassed Iowa) is incredibly beautiful and complex, full of life and surrounded by birdsong. Rainforest ecosystems get a lot of press and support to preserve and save and while I have no problem with protecting rainforests, don’t forget about the eco-system in our own backyard – the tall grass prairie, which is almost virtually extinct, is just as valuable, complex and beautiful.

Monday night, between rain showers and with dramatic clouds as a backdrop, I took a little time to enjoy these wild gardens along the edge of the Eastern library.

The purple flowers around Eastern’s sign are catmint which is not an Iowa native, but blends well with the wild garden beyond.
Dramatic rain clouds above the Eastern library
Purple coneflowers (echinacea) among the grasses.
As part of the Green City initiative, the city of Davenport has planted and maintains the prairies at Eastern.
Grasses and sky, the simplest definition of the prairie.
Butterfly weed  (asclepias) is popular with bees too.
Sunny black-eyed susan (rudbeckia)
The barn isn’t actually very old (about 3 years old) but fits perfectly in this setting. Living Lands and Water rents it from the city.
A stand of wild yarrow.
Milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterflies, about to bloom.
A meadowlark visits the edge of the prairie. You’ll see – and hear – lots of birds including redwing blackbirds, plovers, song sparrows and red-tail hawks.
This is blue vervain, a member of the verbena family.
Prairies support lots of beneficial insects like this bumblebee.

Interested in learning more about tallgrass prairies? Check out Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie by Aimee Larrabee or Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: the Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle. Or grab The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed Collard which is about the efforts of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge which is located a few miles east of Des Moines.

I also highly recommend visiting the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – they have a visitors center with excellent exhibits, offer educational programs about restoring the prairie (it’s much more complicated than throwing out a few seeds), have an easy walking trail for up-close views of flowers and grasses and a scenic drive where you’re likely to spot the Refuge’s bison and elk herds. Even though it’s located just a few miles from I-80, there are a few places in the Refuge where you can stop your car and, if you turn your back to the road, all you see is prairie and sky. No cars, no roads, to telephone wires. You can almost – almost – imagine what it was like before the first pioneers arrived.

All photos by Ann Hetzler, 6/19/2017

Life and Death on the Prairie by Stephen Longmire

Iowa’s Rochester Cemetery (near Tipton) is one of the most unusual and bio-diverse prairies left in America, boasting more than 400 species of plants–337 of them native to the region–on its thirteen-and-a-half acres. Among them are fifteen massive white oaks that stood watch as the surrounding landscape was converted into farmland after Euro-American settlers arrived in the 1830s. The cemetery is the last resting place of these pioneers and their descendants, down to the present. Graves are scattered among the wildflowers, across hills that geologists consider sand dunes held in place by the deep roots of the plants and people and is beautifully presented in Life and Death on the Prairie by Stephen Longmire.

Pioneer cemeteries have been recognized as important prairie remnants and seed banks ever since Aldo Leopold, another Iowa native, called attention to them in his landmark essays of the 1940s, as he developed the new field of ecological restoration. At Rochester Cemetery, the drama of the prairie’s survival continues to this day, in a controversy that flares up as reliably as spring’s shooting stars. To botanists across the country, this place is a pilgrimage site. To local residents, it is either a source of pride or a shameful weed lot (some feel regular mowing would show more respect for the dead). To the photographer and writer Stephen Longmire, it is a place where the stories of the rural Midwest are written on the land-a long exposure, extending back to the days when Meskwaki Indians camped nearby and wildfire held back the forest. In the creative tension between people and place, Rochester’s prairie holds its native ground. Historic cemetery plantings grow wild among the native wildflowers, and bright plastic flowers decorate modern graves.

In compelling photographs and prose, Longmire shows this patch of original Iowa to be a living record of all the land’s uses since its settlement. (description provided by publisher)