Thursday, August 8, 2013

Remembering Clair Kucera, His Grasses, His Gayfeathers

Sue and I drove to Tucker Prairie, just west of the Kingdom City exit off I-70 on Sunday, July 28, and spent the afternoon wandering around in that plot of never-broken prairie soil, examining plants, watching insects, and enjoying the abrupt, intense flights of an eastern kingbird. At one point, a covey of northern bobwhites erupted before us and flew away. Prairie cicadas droned . . .

I always find myself filled with wonder on a prairie. From a distance, it looks scruffy, and up close, you see that it’s a dizzying variety of plants that gives it that texture. The insects, birds, and other wildlife are similarly diverse.

Hardly any of it lives in forests, or subdivisions, or weedy roadsides. As you wade into the grasses, every few steps there is something to peer at, some new marvel.

I felt a different kind of wonder a few days later, when I learned that Dr. Clair Kucera, the ecologist credited for saving this spot of virgin prairie, had passed away the day before our visit. I felt sorrow of course, for I count him as a friend . . . but I felt wonder, too.

I heard Clair Kucera’s name a lot when I was growing up. Because I was young, I didn’t know who he was—someone my dad knew. He was a colleague of my dad’s at the University of Missouri, and they both were doing research on prairies; they were also both active in the Missouri Prairie Foundation. My dad, as I said in an earlier post, is a professional geographer who, using thousands of historical survey records as data points, mapped the presettlement prairie of Missouri.

Among Clair’s trailblazing contributions are his studies on the role of fire in maintaining prairie as prairie. He was an ecologist at a time when ecology was flowering as a discipline, and the ideas of biological succession and climax communities are core ecological concepts.

A vexing question about prairies was, What keeps them from being colonized by trees, and eventually turning into forest? We know that forests—oak-hickory being the predominant type around here—are the climax community, not tallgrass prairie.

As we know today, it was fire—started by random lightning strikes, or started by Native Americans—that kept the trees from taking over, maintaining the prairie as prairie.

Clair did much of his research at Tucker Prairie, using controlled burns, to figure out what frequencies of burning, in what times of year, are best for the prairie. How often, and when, should prairies burn, in order to keep out trees and shrubs, or kill off invasive plants like fescue, or invigorate the tallgrasses, or enhance the diversity of wildflowers and other forbs? As you can guess, these questions are critical for wise management of what few prairies remain in North America.

I don’t need to go into his life story or professional accomplishments. The Columbia Missourian did a nice job of describing those things in his obituary.

But I wanted to share a little about how I think about him. In 1995, I was living in Montana and looking for a new publishing job. When I learned of an opening here in my home state, at the University of Missouri Press, I applied for a number of reasons, but I wasn’t sure it would be a good “fit”—looking at their catalog, I noted that they published a lot of political philosophy and postmodern lit crit, which I didn’t think would interest me much. As an editor, I specialize in biology and natural history. During a phone interview, I asked if the press ever published much of that kind of stuff.

When the managing editor, who was speaking with me, mentioned that Clair Kucera’s manual The Grasses of Missouri would be coming out in a revised edition in the next few years, and I might get to work on it, my opinion of the job prospect improved tremendously. The first edition had been published in 1961, and this would be not only a chance to work in my preferred area, but also an opportunity to work with someone I had long admired.

And it was a pleasure and an honor to work with him. Even after the book came out, he sometimes called me just to chat. One time, he brought me some Liatris pycnostachya corms—surplus gayfeathers from his farm—to plant at the apartment where I lived then. So naturally, whenever I see blazing stars, I think of him.

And, of course, I think of him whenever I see prairie grasses, too. He wrote the book on them.

One more thing. Next time you’re on I-70 heading east out of Columbia, not long before the Kingdom City exit, turn your head and look at the scrubby-looking green grassland to the south. There’s a sign that says “Tucker Prairie,” in case you’re not sure.

The humble green building there is the Clair Kucera Research Station. Since the last time I wrote about Tucker Prairie, it’s been repainted and the windows repaired. It may not look like much, but for ecologists, for lovers of the prairie, and for friends of Clair Kucera, this research station, and this 160 acres, is cherished ground.


Mommykat52 said...

Great message Julie! I so admired Dr. Kucera and his work. Sure wish I had a copy of the revised Grasses book.

Anonymous said...

Nice tribute, Julie.

He lived right around the corner from me, and I've always enjoyed the prairie flowers and grasses that he brought to his urban yard.

The Kuceras'persimmon tree provided fruit for my cookbook persimmon recipe experiments.


Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you both for your comments.

Mommykat, I hope you do find a copy of Kucera's book, though I warn you, you'll have to use a hand lens and a needle to probe inside the tiny grass flowers!

Bernadette, it seems a lot of people know the Kucera yard by driving past it! It's kind of a landmark in your neighborhood. Good to hear from you--I hope you're well!