Two days ago I went for a run to Dick Young Forest Preserve for a closeup look at the prairie burn taking place in the western reaches of the property. Flames tore across the ground and smoke rose up in a yellow and white column. The billowing core twisted and spread east across the sky to mix with ellipses of smokey clouds flowing south from another prairie burn fifteen miles to the north.
Look at the trees in the photo above. They are tiny compared to the tornado of smoke columns rising in swirling fury from the prairie.
These cycles of growth and fire fascinate me. The scale of a prairie burn is so interesting to witness and consider. Each tendril of prairie grass or stalk of dried out bluestem contributes to the conflagration. Bits of burnt and ashen plant material rise with the heat and smoke pushing high into the air. The bits of carbon come floating down miles away, black curls wrought by combustion.
Imagine what prairie fires must have looked like when they were not conducted in controlled burns. They would have raced wherever the wind took them, tearing down ten-foot-tall walls of dried out grass with twenty-foot-tall walls of flame. You could not outrun them. That is why it is so important for professionals to manage prairie burns these days. The flames can easily get out of control.
These days, fire technicians study the wind and torch grasses in strategic places to conduct prairie burns. That said, the wind shifted during the burn I witnessed and a new strategy had to be adopted. The fire crew burned the prairie from both ends and flames met in a fantastic conflagration at the center. It was such a beautiful thing to witness.
During the early stages of summer, the prairie is where I monitor birds each year. Everything is fresh and green then. Where ashes now sit, bobolinks will fly. Meadowlarks will sing. Milkweed will push up from the soil and welcome monarch butterflies. Cream wild indigo plants lurch upward and butterfly weed crouches like a flowery orange torch among the grasses.
All the richness is fueled by roots sunken deep into the soil. That earth was farmed for decades dating back to the mid-1800s. Much of it was scraped off, blown away on winter winds or washed away in rainstorms. Evidence of the loss is clear in the long spine of raised earth marking the old fenceline at the center of the prairie. That line juts 18-25″ above the farmed dirt. It tells the story of many millions of pounds of earth gone somewhere else over time. The original prairie was formed during 10,000 years of geological and botanical change following the Ice Age. It all disappeared in a span of less than fifty years. That is why botanists seek to restore the prairie in this day and age. It is a heritage reclaimed.
So the soil cycle is now running in reverse. Prairie plants are growing and dying again, adding critical nutrients back to the soil as matter decomposes and falls like sediment upon the land. In five hundred or a thousand years the soil itself may rise back up again.
As I ride my bike through the prairie the trail rises up toward the north end of the preserve. There is glacial deposit underneath that rise in the earth. Less than a mile to the west is a spot called Bald Mound that is mined for sand and gravel. Even father west stands a glacial esker sticking up from the ground like a solitary earth pyramid. It stands thirty feet high, left there by a wall of ice a mile thick that once covered Illinois. Those glaciers melted north into Canada and beyond, leaving kettle moraines in southern Wisconsin and scraping off the flat central plains we cover in corn and bean fields to this day.
That ice tradition is melting faster than ever now. The human race is conducting what amounts to an uncontrolled burn all across the earth. Our combustion is heating up the earth’s atmosphere. The result is climate change. Global warming. We can see the effects in the plants that grow and the behavior of birds and animals. They are already beginning to adapt to the changes. Some will survive. Some might not.
When a tree falls in the woods
It is a warm December day as I pedal the mountain bike around the trails and head toward the wall of bur oak trees overlooking the marsh. I’ve been present when one of those giant trees fell to the forest floor. I was standing in the woods when a small crack of noise caught my attention. I turned my head to watch that oak lean and whoosh to the ground, sending leaves and branches flying.
What a sobering gift it was to be present for that moment in time. When a tree falls in the woods, it does make noise. When the prairie burns in the wind, it crackles and smokes. When a man pedals his bike along a trail, the sound of his breath echoes in his own head.
It strikes me that the thoughts that cross our minds are as ephemeral as the grasses growing in the prairie. We consume them at will in the prairie fire that is life, burning through the days as if there is no end to them, and no end in sight.
Burning to live
During my youth, it was common for my friends and I to “burn the candle at both ends,” working all day, running miles in workouts and partying late into the night. Sleep was the green path across which the prairie fire could not leap.
There is no other way to live. I have zero regrets in having burned as brightly as possible in those energetic, hormone-driven years. Perhaps they were not prudent or wise, but they were the inevitable product of fuel and flame, I realize.
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