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Out of Control

As an autumn gray settles, I stand in the middle of one of the last wildflower prairies in America. A slight breeze rustles the tan grass. I close my eyes and say a prayer to Jesus, the God of rebirth and resurrection. Then I bend at the waist, and with a strike of a match, I set the last prairie on fire. It burns like hell.

"The grass of the field alive today is thrown into the oven tomorrow," says the rebirth man. The Gospel passage comes to mind as an eight-foot-high wall of orange fire surges downwind crackling loudly and out of control. The heat from the wisps of dead grass is terrific. I am standing with a flapping rubber mat on a broom handle trying to contain the edges of the wall of fire as it marches across the buff-colored field. I remember another passage: "The new has come, the old is gone."

While the prairie burns, I think of machines. Gone is the old way of machines; come is the reborn nature of machines, a nature more alive than dead.

I've come to this patch of fire-seared grass because in its own way this wildflower field is another item of human construction, as I can explain in a moment. The burnt field makes a case that life is becoming manufactured, just as the manufactured is becoming life, just as both are becoming something wonderful and strange.

The future of machines lies in the tangled weeds underfoot. Machines have steadily plowed under wildflower prairies until none are left except the tiny patch I'm standing in. But in a grand irony, this patch holds the destiny of machines, for the future of machines is biology.

My guide to the grassy inferno is Steve Packard, an earnest, mid-thirties guy, who fondles bits of dry weeds -- their Latin names are intimately familiar to him -- as we ramble through the small prairie. Almost two decades ago, Packard was captured by a dream he couldn't shake. He imagined a suburban dumping ground blooming again in its original riotous prairie-earth colors, an oasis of life giving soulful rest to harried cosmopolitans. He dreamt of a prairie gift that would "pay for itself in quality-of-life dollars," as he was fond of telling supporters. In 1974 Packard began working on his vision. With the mild help of skeptical conservation groups, he began to recreate a real prairie not too far from the center of the greater city of Chicago.

Packard knew that the godfather of ecology, Aldo Leopold, had successfully recreated a prairie of sorts in 1934. The University of Wisconsin, where Leopold worked, had purchased an old farm, called the Curtis place, to make an arboretum out of it. Leopold convinced the University to let the Curtis farm revert to prairie again. The derelict farm would be plowed one last time, then sown with disappearing and all but unknown prairie seeds, and left to be.

This simple experiment was not undoing the clock; it was undoing civilization.

Until Leopold's innocent act, every step in civilization had been another notch in controlling and retarding nature. Houses were designed to keep nature's extreme temperatures out. Gardens contrived to divert the power of botanical growth into the tame artifacts of domesticated crops. Iron mined in order to topple trees for lumber.

Respites from this march of progress were rare. Occasionally a feudal lord reserved a wild patch of forest from destruction for his game hunting. Within this sanctuary a gamekeeper might plant wild grain to attract favored animals for his lord's hunt. But until Leopold's folly no one had ever deliberately planted wilderness. Indeed, even as Leopold oversaw the Curtis project, he wondered if anyone could plant wilderness. As a naturalist, he figured it must be largely a matter of letting nature reclaim the spot. His job would be protecting whatever gestures nature made. With the help of colleagues and small bands of farm boys hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, Leopold nursed 300 acres of young emerging prairie plants with buckets of water and occasional thinning of competitors for the first five years.

The prairie plants flourished; but so did the nonprairie weeds. Whatever was carpeting this meadow, it was not the prairie that once did. Tree seedlings, Eurasian migrants, and farm weeds all thrived along with the replanted prairie species. Ten years after the last plowing, it was evident to Leopold that the reborn Curtis prairie was only a half-breed wilderness. Worse, it was slowly becoming an overgrown weedy lot. Something was missing.

A key species, perhaps. A missing species which once reintroduced, would reorder the whole community of ecology of plants. In the mid-1940s that species was identified. It was a wary animal, once ubiquitous on the tall grass prairies, that roamed widely and interacted with every plant, insect, and bird making a home over the sod. The missing member was fire.

Fire made the prairie work. It hatched certain fire-triggered seeds, it eliminated intruding tree saplings, it kept the fire-intolerant urban competitors down. The rediscovery of fire's vital function in tall grass prairie ecology coincided with the rediscovery of fire in the role of almost all the other ecologies in North America. It was a rediscovery because fire's effects on nature had been recognized and used by the aboriginal researchers of the land. The ubiquitous prevalence of fire on the pre-whiteman prairie was well documented by European settlers.

While evident to us now, the role of fire as a key ingredient of the prairie was not clear to ecologists and less clear to conservationists, or what we would now call environmentalists. Ironically, Aldo Leopold, the greatest American ecologist, argued fiercely against letting wildfire burn in wilderness. He wrote in 1920, "The practice of [light-burning] would not only fail to prevent serious fires but would ultimately destroy the productivity of the forests on which western industries depend for their supply of timber." He gave five reasons why fire was bad, none of them valid. Railing against the "light-burning propagandists," Leopold wrote, "It is probably a safe prediction to state that should light-burning continue for another fifty years, our existing forest areas would be further curtailed to a very considerable extent."

A decade later, when more was known about the interdependencies of nature, Leopold finally conceded the vital nature of organic fire. When he reintroduced fire into the synthetic plots of the Wisconsin field grass arboretum, the prairie flourished like it had not for centuries. Species that were once sparse started to carpet the plots.

Still, even after 50 years of fire and sun and winter snows, the Curtis prairie today is not completely authentic in the diversity of its members. Around the edges especially, where ecological diversity is usually the greatest, the prairie suffers from invasions of monopolistic weeds -- the same few ones that thrive on forgotten lots.

The Wisconsin experiment proved one could cobble together a fair approximation of a prairie. What in the world would it take to make a pure prairie, authentic in every respect, an honest-to-goodness recreated prairie? Could one grow a real prairie from the ground up? Is there a way to manufacture a self-sustaining wilderness?