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Out of Control

In the fall of 1991, I stood with Steve Packard in one of his treasures -- what he called a "Rembrandt found in the attic" -- at the edge of a suburban Chicago woods. This was the prairie we would burn. Several hundred acres of rustling, wind-blown grass swept over our feet and under scattered oak trees. We swam in a field far richer, far more complete, and far more authentic than Leopold had seen. Dissolved into this pool of brown tufts were hundreds of uncommon species. "The bulk of the prairie is grass," Packard shouted to me in the wind, "but what most people notice is the advertising of the flowers." At the time of my visit, the flowers were gone, and the ordinary-looking grass and trees seemed rather boring. That "barrenness" turned out to be a key clue in the rediscovery of an entire lost ecosystem.

To arrive at this moment, Packard spent the early 1980s locating small, flowery clearings in the thickets of Illinois woods. He planted prairie wildflower seeds in them and expanded their size by clearing the brush at their perimeters. He burnt the grass to discourage nonnative weeds. At first he hoped the fire would do the work of clearing naturally. He would let it leap from the grass into the thicket to burn the understory shrubs. Then, because of the absence of fuel in the woods, the fire would die naturally. Packard told me, "We let the fires blast into the bush as far as they would go. Our motto became 'Let the fires decide.' "

But the thickets would not burn as he hoped, so Packard and his crews interceded with axes in hand and physically cleared the underbrush. Within two years, they were happy with their results. Thick stands of wild rye grass mingled with yellow coneflower in the new territory. The restorers manually hacked back the brush each season and planted the choicest prairie flower seed they could find.

But by the third year, it was clear something was wrong. The plantings were doing poorly in the shade, producing poor fuel for the season's fires. The grasses that did thrive were not prairie species; Packard had never seen them before. Gradually, the replanted areas reverted to brush.

Packard began to wonder if anyone, including himself, would go through the difficulties of burning an empty plot for decades if they had nothing to show for it. He felt yet another ingredient must be missing which prevented a living system from snapping together. He started reading the botanical history of the area and studying the oddball species.

When he identified the unknown species flourishing so well in the new oak-edge patches, he discovered they didn't belong to a prairie, but to a savanna ecosystem -- a prairie with trees. Researching the plants that were associated with savanna, Packard soon came up with a list of other associated species -- such as thistles, cream gentians, and yellow pimpernels -- that he quickly realized peppered the fringes of his restoration sites. Packard had even found a blazing star flower a few years before. He had brought the flowering plant to a university expert because varieties of blazing star defy nonexpert identification. "What the heck is this?" he'd asked the botanist. "It's not in the books, it's not listed in the state catalogue of species. What is it?" The botanist had said, "I don't know. It could be a savanna blazing star, but there aren't any savannas here, so it couldn't be that. Don't know what is." What one is not looking for, one does not see. Even Packard admitted to himself that the unusual wildflower must have been a fluke, or misidentified. As he recalls, "The savanna species weren't what I was looking for at first so I had sort of written them off."

But he kept seeing them. He found more blazing star in his patches. The oddball species, Packard was coming to realize, were the main show of the clearings. There were many other species associated with savannas he did not recognize, and he began searching for samples of them in the corners of old cemeteries, along railway right-of-ways, and old horse paths -- anywhere a remnant of an earlier ecosystem might survive. Whenever he could, he collected their seed.

An epiphany of sorts overtook Packard when he watched the piles of his seed accumulate in his garage. The prairie seed mix was dry and fluffy-like grass seed. The emerging savanna seed collection, on the other hand, was "multicolored handfuls of lumpy, oozy, glop," ripe with pulpy seeds and dried fruits. Not by wind, but by animals and birds did these seeds disperse. The thing -- the system of coevolved, interlocking organisms -- he was seeking to restore was not a mere prairie, but a prairie with trees: a savanna.

The pioneers in the Midwest called a prairie with trees a "barren." Weedy thickets and tall grass grew under occasional trees. It was neither grassland nor forest -- therefore barren to the early settlers. An almost entirely different set of species kept it a distinct biome from the prairie. The savanna barrens were particularly dependent on fire, more so than the prairies, and when farmers arrived and stopped the fires, the barrens very quickly collapsed into a woods. By the turn of this century the barrens were almost extinct, and the list of their constituent species hardly recorded. But once Packard got a "search image" of the savanna in his mind, he began to see evidence of it everywhere.

Packard sowed the mounds of mushy oddball savanna species, and within two years the fields were ablaze with rare and forgotten wildflowers: bottlebrush grass, blue-stem goldenrod, starry champion, and big-leafed aster. In 1988, a drought shriveled the non-native weeds as the reseeded natives flourished and advanced. In 1989, a pair of eastern bluebirds (which had not been seen in the county for decades) settled into their familiar habitat -- an event that Packard took as "an endorsement." The university botanists called back. Seems like there were early records of savanna blazing star in the state. The biologists were putting it on the endangered list. Oval milkweed somehow returned to the restored barren although it grows nowhere else in the state. Rare and endangered plants like the white-fringed orchid and a pale vetchling suddenly sprouted on their own. The seed might have lain dormant -- and between fire and other factors found the right conditions to hatch -- or been brought in by birds such as the visiting blue birds. Just as miraculously, the silvery-blue butterfly, which had not been seen anywhere in Illinois for a full decade, somehow found its way to suburban Chicago where its favorite food, vetchling, was now growing in the emerging savanna.

"Ah," said the expert entomologists. "The classic savanna butterfly is Edwards hairstreak. But we don't see any. Are you sure this is a savanna?" But by the fifth year of restoration, the Edwards hairstreak butterfly was everywhere on the site.

If you build it, they will come. That's what the voice said in the Field of Dreams. And it's true. And the more you build it, the more that come. Economists call it the "law of increasing returns" -- the snowballing effect. As the web of interrelations is woven tighter, it becomes easier to add the next piece.