Rites of Spring

Every year, I look forward to my favorite rite of spring — one observed nowhere else in the world except at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. After all, where else could you begin the growing season by rescuing a bunch of native plant seedlings from a WWII-era munitions bunker?

One of nearly 400 bunkers, or igloos, that once stored massive amounts of explosives. Now, this one harbors prairie plants. Some might call that progress.

Midewin is a big place. Twenty thousand acres big, requiring millions upon millions of plants to complete its full circle recovery from farmland to arsenal back to its tallgrass prairie roots. That means we have to propagate a lot of plant stock. Each year, we harvest native seed from the seed beds and the restoration areas. We clean the seed — removing husks and chaff — through a series of machines. Some of the seed we sow directly on the ground, often time during the winter months.

Harvesting native plant seed by hand.

Some of the seed, however we plant in trays — like the ones you see at nurseries if you’re looking to buy a full flat of petunias or marigolds. Once the seeds sprout, they’re called plant plugs, which we hand plant into various restoration areas. Sometimes, we can’t get all the plugs in the ground before the weather turns. In which case, we store them in a munitions bunker for the winter.

The vaulted, concrete munitions bunkers are marvels for many reasons, including their year-round stable temperatures — perfect for curing TNT and overwintering native prairie plants.

Really? Yep. Turns out that structures designed to cure and store TNT are perfect for overwintering plants. The temperature inside the bunker remains a relatively constant 55 degrees all winter long. The tiny plants, in their dormant phase, don’t freeze.

Trust me, the plants don’t look like much when we bring them out into the light. They look like a bunch of dead weeds. In fact, the plant material we see is dead. But the tiny roots are alive. We take the plants back to Midewin Headquarters and place them in outdoor shade houses to “harden them off.” Basically, that means providing them a little TLC — watering them, allowing them a little diffused sunlight — until they grow strong enough to plant in the ground. Once established, the deep roots of prairie plants will allow them to survive the harshest winters, the severest droughts and even periodic fires.

All these prairie plants spent the winter hunkered down in a WWII munitions bunker. Now, they’re ready for a little water and some diffused sunshine before being planted in one of Midewin’s many restoration areas.

Speaking of fire, that’s another rite of spring I love. The prairie wildfires, of yore have long been suppressed. And for good reason. But we use prescribed fire today to maintain the health of our prairies, savannas and other fire-dependent natural area communities.

Long ago, wildfires were one of the scourges of pioneer life on the prairie. Today, prescribed burns are critical to maintaining the health of our recovering prairie lands.

I love the prescribed fires for another reason — they burn away duff and thatch around the old farmsteads. This provides the opportunity to see the foundation stones of the farmhouses, the barns and other outbuildings. To stroll through the old farmyards, to walk in the footsteps of the pioneers who first busted the prairie sod. And to be remembered that, in a way, we aren’t all that different — restorationists are farmers, too. We sow and harvest. We nurture young plants. We weed out the plants we don’t like, sometimes even using herbicides. We do all this hard work and cross our fingers that the vagaries of weather will be kind and yield us the different kinds of crops we desire.

Limestone stairs and foundation wall at one of many farmstead sites scattered throughout Midewin. (As a reminder, Midewin is a shared cultural resource where EVERYTHING is protected.)

Another favorite rite of spring, for me, is to find one of the old farmsteads. At dusk. To stand on the the front porch steps. To turn away from the caved-in cellar and look out over the land. The land we both cultivated — corn farmers and prairie farmers, alike. And there, as the light fades, hand in hand we listen to a robin chant its evensong in counterpoint to the distant trumpet call of a pair of sandhill cranes.

Looking west across the former farm fields, now the restored South Patrol Road Prairie
Several pairs of sandhills have been hanging out at Midewin the past couple of years, but no one yet has discovered if they’re nesting. Fingers crossed we’ll soon see the first colts (the name of young sandhill cranes) at Midewin in more than a century.

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