Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death of a Prairie

It's all gone. I left for work travel on Monday, and when I opened the blinds to let in the sunshine Thursday morning the vacant lot prairie had been scraped clean, down to mineral soil. Not even the seedbed remains. Only the few live oaks linger. It used to be, after all, a remnant oak savannah.

The efficiency of this near-total obliteration is shocking. I'm not mad-- not exactly. Not at the construction workers anyway. I knew this land was likely to be developed in time.  I didn't own it, and it wasn't a park. It's the speed of the shift that is upsetting. This was original, unplowed, native prairie. It had managed to hold out in an urban center for over a hundred years. Then, after discovering this prairie in May, it was gone by early June. It is such a strange twist of fate that after persisting so long without notice, I should stumble upon it, begin documenting its flora, and then lose it all in a month. I bet no one had ever performed a floristic survey there before, and now I have one just in time to list what we have lost. What bitter herbs.

The greatest hurt to me is the destruction of this genetic reserve. At a few acres, this parcel was too small to harbor a functioning ecosystem, but the bones- the plants- were there. I didn't manage to save so much as a seed. I kept telling myself they'd be ready for collection in a week, and that I'd gather them next weekend. I hate digging up native plants- to me it feels like vandalism. Now I am filled with remorse that I couldn't save anything. This is the true heartbreak. If I had been in town when the clearing started, perhaps I could have performed a salvage operation. 

In the month that I knew this little prairie, I identified 25 blooming native wildflowers, many of which were atypical to the region. Who knows else we've lost? If I'd been given a full growing season instead of just a brief window, what would I have found? If the prairie had persisted until the fall, what genetic gems might I have saved?

Last green thread growing near the new fence
I mourned the passing of my prairie to a friend over the phone, and she said that perhaps what we can take from this is that anything not explicitly protected is under threat.  The destroyers do not do so out of malice, just out of a kind of blindness. A forest, a prairie, a stream may look permanent, but everything is transitory. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Ideally I would see this loss as a call to arms. Ideally, I would drive around Fort Worth, find other lots, and save what I can. Be more ruthless about plant collection. Convert my front yard into a native plant preserve (not a bad idea, and I'm working on it). But I feel tired. It is easy to retreat, to spare my sensitive heart and love only what is already protected.

But I will be dogged in my search for these little remnants. I know I will continue to seek out these special places. I will seek them out with a visceral understanding of their vulnerability, and I will document them for posterity because not even knowing what we have lost is the greater tragedy.

The final plant list:

Latin Name Common Name Date Observed
Asclepias asperula antelope horn 17-May
asclepias viridis green antelope horn
Cooperia drummondii evening rain lily 17-May
Cooperia pedunculata hill country rain lily* 17-May
Dracopis amplexicaulis clasping leaf coneflower 28-May
Engelmannia peristenia engelmann daisy 17-May
Gaillardia pulchella indian blanket 17-May
Gaura coccinea scarlet gaura 17-May
Glandularia bipinnatifida prairie verbena 17-May
Helianthus ciliaris texas blue weed 22-May
Krameria lanceolata ratany 17-May
Lantana urticoides lantana 17-May
Lupinus texensis texas bluebonnet 17-May
Lysimachia lanceolata lance-leaf loosestrife 28-May
Mimosa nuttallii sensitive briar 17-May
Monarda citriodora horse mint 28-May
Neptunia lutea yellow-puff 17-May
Oenothera speciosa pink ladies 17-May
Phyla nodiflora texas frog fruit 17-May
Polytaenia nuttallii prairie parsley 17-May
Ratibida columnifera prairie coneflower 17-May
Senna roemeriana two-leaf senna 17-May
Solanum carolinense carolina horse nettle 17-May
Stenaria nigricans var. nigricans diamond flowers 17-May
Thelesperma filifolium green thread 17-May
Tradescantia occidentalis western spiderwort* 17-May
Verbena halei texas vervian 17-May
Trying to end on a positive: native lantana growing near railroad tracks.


  1. Wow, what a shock, and how incredibly sad.

    1. I know! It's like I was writing a eulogy all along, without even realizing it.

  2. I'm shocked! and sad. I was thinking I would be reading about your patch of prairie all through the growing season

  3. That is a bitter pill to swallow Anne. I couldn't help but think about this quote when I was reading your post.

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” ~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

  4. Very nice piece. Sorry for your loss. The longer you live, the more of these events you will experience. That's the way of the world under human domination, given our collective obsession with economic gains at all costs.

    Your friend was right: anything not explicitly protected is under threat.

    Take time to recover, then look for a local land trust or other group engaged in protection, and volunteer with them in your spare time.

  5. Oh, that's heartbreaking to learn about. The entire community has suffered a loss - but so few realize it..... The Aldo Leopold quote that Mike Fitts added came immediately to mind upon reading your news.

  6. Thanks for the condolences, everyone. While I will not be able to continue writing about this prairie, I am determined to document other fragments and preserves that I encounter in the region. I'll be checking out another example of blackland prairie tomorrow.

  7. Anne, To say that I am delighted to make your acquaintance is an understatment. I'm ecstatic! Welcome to NRCS - Central National Technical Support Center. I'm sorry to hear that your (well, not 'your') personal prairie has been destroyed. Perhaps I can help you find a silver lining. Did you know that Friends of Tandy Hills' help educate the public about a 160-acre indigenous prairie remnant right smack in the heart of Cowtown? "Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself." --Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire ~Rosanna~