SENSES OF PLACE
A Prairie Walk: Late Summer, Mid-Morning
By Elizabeth Schultz
All morning, as we drove from Douglas County north to our destination in Riley County, the weather was iffy. “Iffy” is not a term you’d find a meteorologist using, but one which anyone with expectations for clear skies, mild temperatures, and a prairie walk in mind understands. Dark clouds had trailed us past Manhattan, occasionally moving aside to show a span of blue. We were prepared with boots and umbrellas, and with no sign of rain on our windshield, we were glad to see a small group waiting at the Outpost Western Store, off Highway 24, ready to head up the dirt road to Bob Haines’ 1,250-acre prairie. The minute we unloaded from our cars, however, at the crest of the road into the prairie, the thunder began to boil, the wind to swoop, and the rain to fall.
Most of us were strangers, but with a love of prairies in common, we set out walking together, umbrellas and hoods up. We knew that the Haines prairie, like any prairie, would be lapping up this luscious late summer rain. Keeping to a cattle trail (and avoiding the pies), we strolled along a high ridge. In this gentle rain, our view was panoramic. We all had heard of Bob’s Herculean efforts in clearing red cedar off these acres, and although in distant, deep valleys, patches of cedar still loomed as dark pools, we focused on the multitudinous and diverse prairie swooping out and away and down in front of and around us, its rises and swales moving away from us out toward a distant, smudged horizon.
In the morning’s diminished light, the prairie’s dominant flowers—lavender Gayfeathers and dazzling, yellow Curly Cup Gum Weed—glowed. Valerie Wright, prairie botanist extraordinaire, made certain that I leaned down to touch the curly cup to feel just how very gummy it is. As the rain began to lessen, Valerie and others identified the variety of prairie flowers flourishing in the grassy quilt on this prairie plateau—Louisiana Sage Wort, Wooly Croton, Rigid Golden Rod, Missouri Golden Rod, Heath Asters, Round-headed Clover, Grooved Flax, Dakota Verbena, Penstemon Grandiflora, Ironweed, Button Blazing Star.
Continuing to follow a cattle trail, we began to walk downward, going deep into a fold of the earth, it seemed. We passed long dead and fallen cedars, stepped over and on chunks of limestone, finally reaching a spring. It was evident that Bob’s cattle knew how to find their way down to this spring though we encountered none on our way. Set deep into a hillside, contained in a large stock tank, and stippled by rain, the spring maintained its own eco-system. It was surrounded and shaded by Chinquapin and Bur Oaks. Dru Clarke was fascinated to discover minute snails, smaller than kernels of wheat, on the sides of the tank, and to spot inch-long worms wriggling along the bottom. Bob recalled having seen a bobcat come down to the spring on one occasion, but to his knowledge, no cougars had come calling. He told us, though, he could count on dogwood blooming here in the spring.
We came up from the darkness of the spring hollow, to the open prairie again. The rain had wiped the sky clean, and Franklin’s Gulls were doing celebratory, calligraphic swirls. Suddenly, it seemed there was even a greater diversity of flowers blooming on the Haines prairie than we’d seen earlier. Add to our list Snow-On-The-Mountain and Horse Gentian, whose purple, burgundy bloom would soon turn persimmon orange. Earl Allen, Konza docent, was delighted to find Lady’s Tresses and Silky Clover here, blooming so late in the summer. Leaving this lovely native prairie and its multitudinous and diverse life just as it was drying out in the sun, someone remarked, “It’s always about the light, isn’t it?” I nodded in agreement.