Agate picks up on its occasional series featuring the writings of Paul Gruchow, this time traveling with Gruchow to Felton Prairie Scientific & Natural Area (SNA). This protected prairie is located northwest of Detroit Lakes, MN, about 20 miles from the MN-ND border.
I arrived at Felton Prairie SNA, a 410-acre preserve in northwestern Minnesota’s Clay County, on a brilliantly sunlit August day and immediately felt disoriented. A prairie is the most deceptive of landscapes. Its geometry is relentlessly horizontal, two-thirds of it filled in fair weather by a faintly blue and trackless sky. A prairie landscape offers no obvious point of reference, nothing for the wandering eye to seize upon as a starting point. As a result, a prairie at first impresses you as empty, featureless, barren.
Overwhelmed by this impression, O.E. Rolvaag asserted in his novel Giants in the Earth, the great literary evocation of the prairie landscape, that the unplowed prairie was utterly soundless. While this could not have been literally so, it has the ring of poetic truth. Even the mighty bison of the prairie grunts softly like a pig.
A prairie, for all of its openness, is in many ways a subterranean community. I once heard it likened to a forest in which the canopy opens underground. Indeed, the greater part of the biomass of a prairie is tied up in its massive, deep, and labyrinthine network of roots. There in the sod or just beneath it, most prairie mammals are found.
Blanketed with grasses and forbs, the surface of a prairie looks flat. In the aftermath of a fire, it is revealed to be honeycombed with mounds thrown up by its burrowing creatures, as thoroughly worked as if it had been plowed. Even the prairie’s diminutive burrowing owl nests underground.
While I was wandering aimlessly, searching for a way into Felton Prairie SNA, Richard Pemble, a biologist at Moorhead State University, happened by. Several permanent research quadrants have been established on the preserve, and he had come, he explained to census the plants in them.
“Hop into the car,” he said. “I’ll show you where to begin.”
A few minutes later, he stopped to let me out at the highest point on the prairie, a place where three aspects of its past visibly converge. There was, for one thing, a truck-sized granite boulder, shaped like a mountain in miniature, which was carried down out of the north by one of the glaciers that scoured this landscape during the last ice age. There was the wave-shaped swell on which the rock was perched, one of the several fossil shorelines of Glacial Lake Agassiz, which was formed by an ice dam as the glacial ice began to melt. Agassiz lasted for two thousand years, at its maximum extent burying what is now Felton Prairie in fifty feet of water. And there was the depression in the earth around the rock, trampled out by the generations of bison that used it as a rubbing stone, a place to satisfy their itches.
With the buffalo rock to steer by, I set out across the prairie anew, pausing here to admire an ivory-colored leafhopper, there for a closer look at the delicate flowers of a lobelia, the palest hue of blue. I saw yellow sunflowers, goldenrods, and cinquefoils; white daisy-fleabanes and northern bedstraws; the blue flowers of wild lettuce and harebells; the gray leaves of leadplants and sages; the glistening leaves of the silverleaf scurf-pea; the bronzes of the ripening grasses; the shocking purples of the elegant Flodman’s thistle and the blazing stars. Felton Prairie in full bloom at mid-August is the equal, to my eye, of a high mountain meadow.
I circled in every direction from the buffalo rock, my mood growing merrier with each new vista. When I got around to the quadrat that Pemble was surveying, I found him in a merry mood too. He pointed out the grape-fern that he had just spotted. The tiny, feathery fern grows in dry places in the shade of the comparatively towering grasses. Pemble said seventy plant species grow in that one twenty-meter-square plot.
When I got back to the buffalo rock, I encountered a delegation of natural resource managers from Ohio, also in high spirits. Eager to get a first-hand look at plants they knew only from books, the botanists in the group dashed, almost like children at an amusement park, from one natural attraction to the next.
“A walk on a prairie always puts me in a good mood,” I said to one of them.
“Well, of course,” he replied. “The diversity of a place like this is simply intoxicating.”
I wandered until long after the other visitors had left. I was finally surprised to realize that I was hungry, parched, and badly sunburned. I went off in search of something to eat.
At sunset I returned to the prairie for one last look around. The day’s work had ended in the gravel pits that ring the preserve, and the trucks had stopped running. It was almost preternaturally quiet, except for the lowing of cattle a mile away. From my vantage near the buffalo rock, I could see the land north and west for many miles—the quilt work of farm country, which has its own beauty, a mosaic of green sugar beet fields, yellow sunflower fields, golden patches of small grains, swatches of gray-green grass.
On the horizon, along a country road, a pickup truck passed, too distant to be heard, visible as a pair of lights with a tail of dust rising into the air like a cloud of smoke, brilliantly backlit by the long rays of the setting sun. In the east the moon had already risen and hung in the still-blue sky. Pewter colored and luminescent, the moon looked as if it were a glass globe lit from within, big enough and close enough so that you might leap up and touch it.
Perched on the tall stem of a purple coneflower, a grasshopper sparrow sang its thin, buzzing song. From the thick grass arose a chorus of crickets, as evocative of quiet summer evenings in the American heartland as the sound of surf pounding is of the sea.
In the deep shadows of the last light, the air was already noticeably cooler. A slight breeze swept like a caress across my sunburned brow.
Just at dusk a swarm of mosquitoes arose from the grass and circled my head. The sound of their wings sawing air made a nasty snarl, but only a few of them, mercifully, were in the mood for dinner. A hatch of mayflies, looking ghostly in the crosslight of the setting sun and the rising moon, made their brief acquaintance with the world. Here and there a moth lit upon a flower to take nourishment under the protective cover of dusk. Swallows and dragonflies swept past, making a feast of the gathering insects.
The sky turned mauve and rosy at the horizon as I followed my long shadow across the prairie, which took on a golden glow in the last low sunbeams. The blue of the sky deepened to cobalt and then turned gray. The plants lost their color and turned gray, too, then vanished into the shadows. The keening of a mourning dove in the distance and the lowing of the cattle in their pasture brought down the day. Overhead, the first stars began to flicker. With the fall of night, the cloud of mosquitoes hovering above me dissipated. In the gentle light of the full moon, the gray leaves of the sages and the leadplants shone like silver.
It was so utterly peaceful then that I thought of a body of still water, that most tranquil of all natural landscapes. It was the kind of light and the kind of silence that deep-water divers know. Glacial Lake Agassiz, from the unriled depths of which this great flatness emerged, seemed, for a brief moment, to have risen again, to be lapping against its ancient shoreline once more, and I had the sensation of being submerged in it. I stood for a long time, bathed in the watery light of the moon.
Then I got into my car, started the engine, and not bothering to turn on the headlights, drove slowly away.
This essay was published in Paul Gruchow’s book Worlds within a World, © 1999, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Reprinted with permission. Find a wealth of archived stories, including more by Paul Gruchow, at Minnesota Conservation Volunteer . Photographs of Felton Prairie and other nearby prairie SNAs provided by SNA Outreach Coordinator Kelly Randall. Find out more about these special natural areas and how to explore them yourself on the SNA website.
Minnesota-based author, editor and conservationist Paul Gruchow passed away in 2004, but his voice lives on in his writings. We hope you’ll seek out his books at your local bookstore.