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Ancient Islands of Grass

Ancient Islands of Grass

Theo Witsell and Dwayne Estes' work at the Southeastern Grasslands Institute sheds light on the forgotten ecology of the Southeast

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds."

Aldo Leopold

It’s called ‘May Prairie', a wedge-shaped bit of land that stands along US 41, a busy highway slicing through Manchester, Tennessee. It’s nearly 500 acres, but the part that really matters – the reason why May Prairie even exists – is a little patch of planet measuring a mere twelve acres plus, hardly enough sod for a decent par four. Here, and all-but-surrounded by a county jail, an industrial park, and an auto salvage yard, still lives a remnant, old growth grassland—a biodiversity hotspot with roots reaching back tens of thousands of years.

"This is one of the most special places I can think of," says botanist Dwayne Estes, co-founder of the Southeastern Grasslands Institute (SGI), an initiative based out of Austin Peay State University that is working to save southeastern grasslands. "May Prairie is truly a sacred gem when it comes to landmarks within the eastern United States."  

Dwayne knows of what he speaks. May Prairie is home to scores of rare plants native to Tennessee, including one endemic to May Prairie itself: Symphyotrichum estesii, or Estes's aster. Found nowhere else on the planet, Dwanye discovered the perennial plant—growing one to three feet in height and sprouting with white flowers—in 2008. The mind reels at how many people have clomped over those deeply unique twelve acres over the past two centuries, harvesting hay or blasting birds or just sucking suds by a bonfire, but all united across time by their shared obliviousness to the rarity of the life around them.

Southeastern Grasslands' other co-founder, botanist Theo Witsell and Dwayne's best friend, quotes at some length on this theme the father of the modern ecology movement, Aldo Leopold: "Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise." In a nutshell, or, in this case, a Symphyotrichum estesii's seed, the Southeastern Grasslands Institute exists to tell us otherwise.

The SGI grew out of the Midsouth Prairie Symposium in 2016 that Dwayne and Theo held at Austin Peay, their home university. The botanists' contentions were that, contrary to popular belief, meadows, savannas, prairies, and glades were once common to the Southeast; that there never was an unbroken sea of forest stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains; that no squirrel ever went nuts from a Virginian beach to the Mississippi River without once touching the ground. Instead, vast and innumerable pockets free of trees—old growth grasslands fertile and profuse with life—formed farm-ready oases that the equally innumerable settlers rolling west with their Old World seeds found irresistible.

A philanthropist from the BAND Foundation was in attendance at this symposium and sagacious enough to know that, if the scattered shards of the Southeast's once mighty meadows were to have any chance of squeezing through the anthropogenically-induced 6th wave of extinction, i.e., our own times, then Dwayne and Theo were the two dudes to lead the effort.

SGI officially launched in 2017 with a focus on the biogeographic Southeast, a region containing all or part of 24 states, its western boundary formed by the eastern edge of the Great Plains and its northern boundary by the southern limit of Pleistocene glaciation – think mid-Missouri to just north of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers to Long Island, New York. One of the things that makes the southeastern grasslands so much more biologically diverse than the Great Plains grasslands," Theo points out, "is the fact that they were never glaciated. At various points from roughly 2,000,000 years ago to 18,000 years ago, the northern part of the continent was all covered in ice. What we consider ‘northern’ flora and fauna were pushed southward. We have a much older biodiversity down here, a much older flora and fauna that were never destroyed by the glaciers."

But, of course, what successive ice ages couldn't destroy over multiple millennia, our cattle-culling, cornfield-cultivating culture could all but completely cancel in a couple of centuries. While southeastern grasslands remain reservoirs of biodiversity, they are now exceedingly rare. "The problem is they are almost gone," Theo says. "We still have open lands, a pasture with scattered trees, but that's a poor facsimile for what used to be there. These savanna lands were amazing. They might have had only a few species of trees, but, on the ground, there were hundreds and hundreds of species of plants and thousands of species of insects that depended on the original, intact natural community of these sparsely treed grasslands. Today, they have been replaced with a fescue pasture or a Bermuda grass field, or some very simplified, in many cases not-even-native to North America, low diversity landscape."

So just how bad is bad?  

"We're down to the last 1% of these ecosystems remaining intact," Theo says. But even he admits that this figure is an estimate. Due to spotty historical records and a shifting baseline, precision lacks when it comes to the full nature of what has been lost and what is currently under threat. However, from scant historical records, late 18th-century land surveys showing that more stakes than trees were used to mark boundary angles to a handful of eyewitness accounts, we can surmise that the grasslands were extensive. For example, circuit preacher Reuben Ross, rolling through Montgomery County in ca. 1812, described in a letter what he saw:

"It would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful, " he wrote. "As far as the eye could reach, they seemed one vast, deep-green meadow adorned with countless numbers of bright flowers springing up in all directions. ...Only a few clumps of trees and now and then a solitary post oak were to be seen.  ...Here the wild strawberries grew in such profusion as to stain the horses [sic] hoofs a deep red color."

Of course, we'll never know for sure, but that same section of Middle Tennessee that Reuben once rolled over could today be plastered over with a busy stretch of I-24 and an exit ramp. “...Here the gas stations grew in such profusion as to stain the cars [sic] tires a deep oily color.”

Gallows humor aside, some native grasslands still exist, and SGI is intent on protecting, restoring, and expanding them. In addition to SGI's continuing leadership in research, the organization also works closely with the National Park Service. "We have research projects that impact 40 national parks in the entire Southeast," Dwayne says. "We help those parks realize what grasslands they have, how to recognize them, how to better manage them, and, importantly, what species they should be planting in their own individual parks."

An example is the 600-acre Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro. Here SGI has identified two types of grasslands that historically would have covered parts of the park: limestone glades and deep-soiled oak savannas. SGI has developed a list of 175 native plant species that would have historically grown in these grasslands and others throughout the Nashville Basin.  

As for the native fauna, the good news is that many of these creatures demonstrate a remarkable degree of resiliency. Dwayne himself was very pleasantly surprised when he replaced a bit of his own suburban lawn with native plants. "What I was dumbfounded by was how much biodiversity was able to find that home garden," he recalls. "My wife and I planted a small area, 10 by 10 feet, with a little prairie micro garden with blazing stars and rosinweed and sunflowers and asters and native grasses, it was so rich in biodiversity. All the butterflies and moths and other insects were able to find that little spot. I must have been the only yard out of maybe a thousand in my neighborhood that would have had this prairie-type garden. How did they find that little oasis that we created?"

SGI has come up with a hypothesis for this observed phenomenon. "Unlike Great Plains grasslands with millions of contiguous acres of unbroken grassland," he reasons, "Southeastern grasslands were always islands." Therefore, it stands to reason that native fauna have evolved to be "used to island hopping."  

Now native fauna just need more islands. And quickly. While the SGI provides the leadership, any successful restoration of native grasslands will require a grassroots movement, a literal one. "So far, in our first five years," Dwayne says, "we have focused on getting the message out there. But what we absolutely recognize is that change starts in people's own backyards and at the individual level. Do we want to inspire landowners and homeowners to construct prairies in the urban or residential landscapes? Yes, we absolutely want people to do that. But we aren't there yet in terms of offering a lot of direct tools and resources for the homeowner. We are now going out with dedicated teams of seed collectors to get many of these species, especially those that are more useful for restoration. As we continue to grow over the next few years, we'll have more of a dedicated team that can help with those resources."

But we urban homeowners and apartment dwellers don’t have to wait until those SGI seed collectors return with commercially available packets of ancient grasses to get this grassroots movement going. It’s perfectly possible to plant some native wildflowers in your yard or pots on your balcony and watch the biodiversity ensue. "Grassland biodiversity in the Southeast is a lot more resilient than we have imagined," Dwayne says. That is very good news. That is, of course, if enough of us are willing to seed the change we wish to be.

Learn more about SGI at their website.