Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prairies Are in My Genetics

I’m lucky beyond all reason, because the love of prairies runs in my family. My Grandma Schroeder, a loyal garden clubber and enthusiastic horticulturalist, was a charter member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF), and as far as I know, she always had prairie species such as purple coneflowers in the flowerbed—and yes, they’re still there. If you want to see them, just drive by on Broadway in midsummer.

Grandma used to gush on about the prairies and how beautiful they are, “natural flower gardens,” she’d say. To give you an idea about how she felt toward the prairie, here’s how she’d pronounce the word: “pHRARE-ie!” You could hear the h when she said it. Indeed, the sun-drenched rolling landscape of waving grasses and dancing wildflowers was a romantic, almost overwhelming place for her.

My dad and uncles carry on the interest—my dad’s a geographer who in the 1970s and early 1980s did the intensive and immensely tedious work of turning zillions of early surveyors’ handwritten notes into a precise map of the presettlement prairies of Missouri. Land managers and conservationists are constantly referring to this map. It tells them, for instance, about the ecological history of a particular parcel of land: Was it prairie before white settlement, fire suppression, and the plow? Or was it forest?

The MPF awarded him Prairie Preservationist of the Year in 1982 for his work. And he has analyzed, mapped, and cared for Missouri landscapes throughout his career, even to 2002, when he cowrote the Atlas of Missouri Ecoregions, another invaluable tool for conservationists and land managers.

My Uncle Richard’s career was with the Conservation Department. He was a conservation agent who tirelessly interpreted the landscape and its history to, well, everyone, from kids in classes to good ol’ boys in cafés to hunters in the field. He used to don historical garb and play the part of “drover” during the MPF’s annual Prairie Day event. As a law enforcement officer charged with enforcing conservation law, he quite literally protected Missouri’s landscapes from poachers and their ilk. Both he and my dad have long been associated with the MPF, too.

My Uncle Tom has also worked hard for the environment, and today he deals with land-use issues in the West. And those of us in the next generation—me, my brother, and our cousins—continue in our own ways not only to be interested in prairies and the land, but also, often, to work in jobs associated with biology and the environment. With the guidance and enthusiasm of our family, there was hardly any other alternative.

From the time we were little kids, we were crouching down looking at wildflowers in the spring, capturing bugs all summer, learning oaks from maples in the fall, and listing our birdfeeder visitors in the winter. We picked up feathers and naturally had to know what kind of birds they had come from. I took it for granted that everyone did these things.

Looking back, I’m sure that my mom and dad planned our various outings to some degree, but at the time it just seemed like something that is a basic part of life—to go out hiking on a weekend afternoon.

And so today—the medical and insurance industries be damned—for me, going outdoors into nature, whether to the prairie or a forest, on a hiking trail or just busting through the woods, is my best medicine, my method of getting away from it all and yet somehow getting in touch with everything that truly matters.

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