Driftless Terroir: Reconnecting with the Grass of Our Ancestral Prairies

Jerry Davis

by Jerry Davis

Most southern Wisconsin tallgrass prairies lost their ecosystem icon, and therefore the dominant component of their terroir, when moldboard plows touched the rich soil.

While this probably has to be, one wonders the impact on our mental state and continued living with this loss unless a portion of the original terroir is re-established from time to time.

This alteration may have changed the prairie characteristics and appearance forever. The rolling waves of perennial big bluestem tall grass instantly became a monoculture of monotony, field after field, interrupted only by fences, roads and homesteads.

Big bluestem, once a prairie icon, now exists in remnant prairies, showing us what prairie grass once was.

Gone for the most part are the quintessential big bluestems, standing up 8 feet, and an unbranched stem forking into a turkey footprint with flowering.

The soil, which gives life to nearly all terrestrial plants, still runs deep in prairie soils but the roots below the soil are now those of another grass, one never noted as an indigenous species where the badger digs, the bison stepped and the upland sandpiper nested.

Bluestem’s fruits were too small to feed the masses; an annual replacement grass came instead sucking nutrients beyond even what a prairie soil had to offer.

Corn, Zea mays to agronomists, while seeming to fit the opening in terroir, was unfulfilling in some ways. The annual plant’s fruit was sweet enough for a stove kettle, wholesome enough for swine and Holsteins, and tall enough to match the bluestem’s stature.

But would anyone whizzing past in a convertible notice the change from big bluestem to corn, the prairie’s new grass? Were the rolling waves, a mind-calming design, to be gone forever?

The new grass, up from South America where the sandpiper winters, had many more loves, too. Mycologists found some fungi loved corn’s carbohydrates, and fermented them into alcohol that could supplement the black gold of Texas, which the convertible needed to whiz past.

Instead of bison, white-tailed deer brush against the new prairie grass, corn.

Maize needed special care, however. It couldn’t compete with other land pioneer species and liked to be free from botanic competition. It ate more nitrogen from the soil than was present. Without help, this annual could not replant itself, either, even though the seeded fruits fell close to the original “one-year tree.”

So it was; the people pioneers pampered corn’s needs. They placed the one-seeded fruits in rows for easy cultivation, first single-handed, then with mechanical cultivators and finally with chemical compounds that selectively killed any plant competitors. Sometimes genetic concocting was first required to protect corn from these compounds.

Our eyes, and minds, seem to like a diverse ecosystem, numerous species, varied texture, height, even colors; all present in big bluestem plants and prairies of them.

The corn monoculture seemed to work, however. The farmer prided herself with laser-sharp straight rows, identical genetics so there was no stalk standing taller than the neighbors. This monotony was accepted by the motorists’ passengers. The cleaner the field was of weeds, the better our minds began telling us. The straighter the rows, the more accepted. Then came “checked” corn, corn planted in rows and rows within rows. Regardless of how one watched the rows go past from a passenger’s window, there were still rows, first down the fields to the stream, then crisscrossing the field from corner to corner and everywhere in between. The perfect geometry helped with a replacement for diversity.

The purpose of these “checked” plantings was not for the motorist at all but for the farmer who could mechanically cultivate fields horizontally and vertically, without pulling out a corn plant.

The pleasingly artistic prairie soon regressed back toward old ways and then to greater plant density. Rows became closer to one another and until the plants in the rows began running out of breathing room. Next came alternating two really close rows and a much wider distance between the next two really close rows. As long as the nutrients were applied and the rains came, all was good in the new prairie.

For a while the limiting factor was the harvesting equipment, a corn chopper, corn picker and combine. Those first harvesters needed to follow the straight, narrow rows.

Now, while a few big bluestem grasses are still stranded in the fences and field corners, corn harvesters are more and more able to cross the fields without much regard for the straight rows.

Modern-day prairie grass, Zea mays, stands tall in a full moon.

Finally, the fields are closer still to a more natural-appearing ecosystem. It’s still a monoculture of corn, however, but there are often several heights, sometimes due to genetics but usually to field variations in nutrients, sunlight, soil depth and available space.

Although the field appears somewhat more natural, ecologically, now what is lost is the art of a farmer being able to plant a field with his hand on a tractor steering wheel and having the convertible passenger smile at seeing such precision, such regularity.

But is the passenger bothered, or is he more at ease with a new dominant?

Regardless of the prairie terroir, can this monoculture go on forever, like chemotherapy in a body, or does the prairie have to reset every decade and touch the soil’s microbial ancestry of the big bluestem before another half century of corn monoculture?

Now when a white-tailed deer ranges through this tallgrass prairie of corn, it’s getting the same sensation the buffalo enjoyed meandering through a mixed stand of big bluestem, compass plants and dozens of other species.

But maybe not.

Jerry Davis is a freelance outdoors writer, biology professor emeritus at UW-LaCrosse and an Honorary Fellow in the Botany Department at UW-Madison. He lives in Barneveld and can be reached at sivadjam@mhtc.net. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.