Another little episode in the funeral of the native flora

Our culture has yet to embrace the value of native plants in the landscape.
September 28, 2017

In one of the fall classes I teach at the University of Illinois, the only required reading is Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” Although it was published nearly 70 years ago, I find that it speaks more eloquently to the central questions posed by the Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability major than anything written since.  

The stakes in this course are low—it’s essentially a one credit-hour introduction to the major, the primary focus of which is a weekend field trip—so there are no quizzes or tests on the reading. One way I ensure that all students in the class are familiar with at least select parts of Sand County Almanac is to read them aloud in class, and Leopold’s thoughtfully crafted prose lends itself to that.

One of my favorite parts of the book for this activity is titled “Prairie Birthday.” In it, Leopold tells of his pleasure in watching for the blooming of a particular compass plant that he sees while driving to and from his family’s farm, “the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of [the] county.” The compass plant grows in a yard-square remnant of presettlement prairie, which has persisted thanks to a tight corner in the fence that keeps mowers out.

Early one August, Leopold finds the fence has been removed and the tiny prairie remnant—compass plant included—has been mowed. He takes this as “one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which is in turn one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world.”

He goes on, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.”

A goal of my class is to cultivate in students the habits of mind Leopold exemplifies by providing them with opportunities to experience the natural world the way he does, as thoughtful observers who are continually adding to their knowledge and understanding. On the day we read “Prairie Birthday,” I ask students whether they know compass plant when they see it, and typically none do. (Do you?)

At this point, I offer them the chance to remedy their ignorance by issuing an invitation they love to hear, “Let’s go outside.” We walk from our classroom in a building on the main quad to the headquarters of the Campus Honors Program, where a few years back a student installed a 20 by 30-foot patch of prairie plants, including compass plant. We admire its tall flower stalk, note whether or not its 18”-long basal leaves really do orient north-south, imagine its root reaching down as deep as the stalk grows tall. We compare it to other plants. We note the insect life associated with the plants, and how, through that insect life, the little prairie patch is part of a food web that supports birds and other wildlife.

I also make sure to point out that whereas Leopold mourns the loss of a compass plant, we are able to celebrate where a student planted of one. Who knows how long it will live? As it turns out, that question has been answered.

In anticipation of this excursion with my current class, I went recently to scout the site, only to find that my compass plant and all of the other prairie plants there had been mowed and then finished off with herbicide. I understand they are to be replaced with a Japanese garden.

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