Don’t look for a sign; there isn’t one. It’s a small prairie, about an acre, surrounded on three sides by conifers. Long-time residents of Elba, MN may remember it as a Winona County sand pit. It might seem an unlikely place to be dedicated as the Paul Gruchow Memorial Prairie. By all accounts, Paul has never been here. But he would have found plenty to like.
A scholar, essayist, teacher, thinker, Paul Gruchow’s writings often turned to wild places, and prairies in particular. His books Grass Roots, Journal of a Prairie Year and Worlds within a World (the latter on Minnesota’s Scientific and Natural Areas) drew from his own experiences in the field: sometimes alone, sometimes with ecologists who helped him to better understand the landscape and how it worked so that he could translate it for the rest of us.
Paul would be able to point out the big and little bluestem grasses here, the delicate sideoats grama. He would note the last blooms of the butterfly weed. He would appreciate hearing the story of this place, the work it took to make it what it is.
It’s a story Chuck Kernler would love to tell him. The Kernlers owned this land for many years as part of a 7-acre parcel, moving to the area from Minneapolis in the 1970s. As Chuck relates, they had noticed scattered native prairie plants on the site. When a 1997 storm with straight-line winds downed many of their trees, a logger who came to take the jack pine for pulp got stuck in the old sand pit, burying the wheels and tearing up the surface in his efforts to extricate the rig. Says Chuck, “I thought, this is an opportunity.” With the help of friends and family, seeds and seedlings were planted to restore the site, using a combination of purchased and harvested native seed of local eco-type.
The result, these many years later, is a sweet little piece of restored prairie. It was after Paul Gruchow’s death in 2004 that his friend, Lou Martinelli (now director of the Paul Gruchow Foundation) suggested to Chuck that the prairie be dedicated in Paul’s name. Says Chuck, “I asked, shouldn’t it be something public? Something bigger? Lou said it was good as it was.”
The land has since changed hands, but is still privately owned. The new owners—a family with five children—have taken up its care with periodic burning and clearing of sumac and oak. On occasion, Chuck has led a field trip to the site. It’s also one of the places where he periodically gathers butterfly weed seed to grow seedlings for the annual Prairie Butterfly Garden program at nearby Whitewater State Park. Those who participate go home with a seedling or two to plant their own native gardens.
It is this, as much as the Elba prairie itself, that would seem to honor Paul Gruchow’s legacy. In his poem Reasons for Living (published in full on the Gruchow Foundation’s website), he compares the work of a life to the work of a bluestem, most of it below ground, out of sight. He writes:
What is done cannot be seen,
for the most part, or known either.
And what is done well is hardest
of all to see.
The work of a life
is like the work of the bluestem,
which sends up a few blades of grass
and a three-pronged florescence,
its tiny red and yellow blossoms looking
royally purple only from some distance,
its flowers and blades conspiring
to conceal the hundreds of miles
of vital roots in fertile darkness.
A prairie, it has been said,
is like a forest whose canopy
A life is like that
too. What it produces is buried
in the hearts of others and lies
hidden there, still alive, still working,
not in its own name, but in names
unknown, which may not call upon
or welcome or know their influence,
but which nevertheless do the work
implanted in them, and not in vain.
Find selected essays by Paul Gruchow in Agate’s archives. Please also visit the Paul Gruchow Foundation website for more of his work, including a full listing of his books and many unpublished writings. Agate wishes to thank Lou Martinelli for permission to print part of Reasons for Living. Thanks also to Chuck Kernler, for the photographs of the prairie and his generosity in sharing his time in relating this story.