• Tom

THE WET PRAIRIE

Manitoba: The remnant prairie

There is in Southern Manitoba just a few miles north of the US border with Minnesota a land overlooked by the plough. There are hints traveling north in Minnesota. The transition from cultivated crops to increasing pasture land, Rock piles in field corners, Glacial erratics poking through the surface. Granite rocks, from the size of a melon to larger than a bison. In the spring they can appear as sheep lying in the field. In some areas the stones so prolific and the water table so high attempts at intense agriculture were soon abandoned. These glacial deposits, brought down from northern latitudes prevented the sustained tillage and settlement of the region. Too hard to plow and dig the required long drainage ditches. What remains is a remnant wet prairie. Tall grass, oak and aspen islands, pothole ponds and swamps asters, rudbeckia, wood lilies and a general proliferation of wildflowers seldom seen anywhere else on the planet. Only truly visible if you wade in.

So we walk, I wore sandals instead of my typical boots, the day was warm, the breeze slight. A wise choice. Wet was the operative word. The prairie water is clean, not muddy, I can see the bottom of the potholes, there is no runoff, no erosion, the roots are deep, the land is flat. When it rains it soaks in and gets used locally. When a plant or animal complete its life the accumulated compounds return to the soil. The deer, cow or historically bison push the nutrients down into the soil. The gophers and invertebrates further reduce the organic matter and then the microbes take over and complete the job. Truly a renewable, sustainable community. Agriculture is extractive. A prairie is an accumulator. All saved by a glacier dropping a load of rocks.

We read the accounts of the great North American Prairies. Grass so tall a man had to stand on the saddle of his horse to see more than a few rods. Prairie pothole lakes teeming with waterfowl. Top soil so deep as to be considered limitless. A resource beyond value. We removed the bison and in so doing starved out the indigenous peoples, The settlers came in waves, Then the equipment salesman, and the railroads. Farms got bigger, The small towns grew. First the horse and oxen then the steam tractors, With the development of rapid ditching tools and then tile drainage the conversion was complete. The resources of the prairie flowed by rail and barge to the markets of the world. It would never return. So today we have only a few pockets generally ignored because of an unsuitability for agriculture.

So my walk, Tall bluestem all around, Asters, yarrow, native fescues, Sedges in the wetter spots, Scrub oaks, birch and aspen were the land lies even a few feet higher. And the stones sticking up. I step into the water. I do not go in deep, The bottom is firm plant material and soil. My confidence grows. Only a few plants are uncomfortable to my exposed feet and legs, A thistle, a bramble, an oak branch. It is a slow walk. So many plants and insects, birds all around, Song birds, hawks, an owl in the tree thicket. Small ducks of many types in the potholes and a multitude of insects. The pollinators are on the flowers. Bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths. This land has never seen pesticides. I linger to photograph and ponder. But must keep moving I have a companion. There are mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks. My enthusiasm is no match for the others frustration. We are both flush with ticks and must strip to shed the persistent parasites. I’d go back in tomorrow. I likely will alone. I’ll bring a plant guide, Sun hat and notepad. Perhaps long sleeves but I’ll again wear my sandals.

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