Sign up for News & Updates

Prairie Independence Day

By Katie Townsend, Urban Farm Educator


 Bound to celebrate the Fourth of July. The Patriotic Prayer Breakfast begins in thirty minutes. I dress with firecracker speed not to miss out on the doings. After the musical rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, speeches delivered and of course petition to the Maker there is the rest of the holiday. If snappy with my day off chores there will be time for viewing shimmering colors over the river. So why do I suddenly find myself pouring the last of my coffee into a travel mug, grabbing my backpack tossing in journal, camera and granola bar? It has happened again. I have talked myself out of the social and traditional. Dog and I will pray and praise in another place.


I love the red, white and blue, but my remembrance is flags of different colors. Purple, cream and yellow like sunshine wave on the prairie. Now I know why I am here. Wind and warmth conjure up euphoria. I cannot decide if I want to dance or whoop out a freedom cry. I do neither. Instead smile, lift a prayer of thanksgiving and remember.


Choking trees and shrubs are less. Compass plant, pale purple coneflower and false wild cream indigo are more. National treasure and the sacred live just ten minutes from my house on Carolina Ave. All that breathes, transpires and buzz rejoice over the here and now. Momentarily all the pain and chaos of advocating for wild places has been forgotten. Just glory shines on the morning.


A time to remember enhances the celebration. Like a veteran recalls a battle I remember when wind did not blow freely through Indian Grass. In fact, you could not see blonde grass stalks with fruited heads. A pause interrupts a romp. Oh yes, I can still feel the weigh. There was a time when the ground and myself were encumbered.   


The “country” inside the Country requires protection and restoration. Over a decade ago some different soldiers heard a whisper in their soul. Then Prairie Independence Day was borne. “Mike’s prairie” started out with Mike. He freed captives without taking payment for his initial effort. A young man with an “ Aldo Leopold” vision hacked at sumac, honeysuckle and buckthorn with tenacity that would have pleased the farmer of Sand County. Places where his hand cut brush sunrays touched the cold ground. This resurrection call for prairie plants to wake and come forth revealed islands of grassland grandeur.


I had rank over the archangel of Atwood Prairie. He was live in help. He exchanged labor for room and board at the environmental center. I was directing environmental programs. Over committed to existing projects I liked the idea of a prairie, but only had time to half listen. However, in the end he enlisted me and I served his troop. He proved to me that the prairie remnant existed using a field guide I provided him. What could I do? Land restoration was not in my job description, but undoubtedly it was my job.


My homeland security duties included being present when Michael was using a chainsaw. It was unsafe to work alone with such tools. The best time to cut brush was January and February. This did less damage to sprouting forbes and slender stems of gramma. So I bought fingerless gloves and on occasion moved my office to a cab of a pick up truck. Mike slashed woody invaders as I wrote reports and corrected budgets…not to mention shivered.


My tour of duty was not just sedentary. I have been wounded by thorn. My blood and sweat are on this ground. So was my pleasure. Memories flood in. October, Saturday morning’s when fresh brewed coffee was not the only thing warming this “Doughnut Dolly”. Serving off the griddle pancakes to eager high school green club recruits gave me a chance to encourage the new forces. United we left the lodge walking tall like we had a mission, but then we did. There was a prairie to save.


Mike left to study land management at University of Illinois. My service extended beyond that of the pioneer. Others jumped in. Members of a local ecosystem partnership joined bringing a more knowledgeable workforce and funding. The governmental body overseeing the land committed support in the form of prescribed burns, staff expertise and educational signage. For a time it was called “people’s prairie”, because so many volunteers were from different age groups and walks of life. I am not sure what it is called now, but I am sure it is not Mike’s prairie.


Having moved on professionally visits to this country are infrequent. So why did I ditch my plans and come today? Curious about the beauty of the landscape after the summer rains the blooms were the attraction. Somehow in my innermost being did I know it would make me patriotic?  A good pride rises and thankfulness for a citizenship that can exert change. I am reminded that victory is possible, but hard won. I did not miss anything this Fourth of July. I am with America the beautiful.


 Editor's Note:  If you are interested in helping restore a prairie, come out to Tinker Swiss Cottage & Gardens on the second Tuesday of each month from 6 - 8:30 p.m.  Please meet in the parking lot and bring work gloves.