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.
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
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.
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
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
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?