Environmental News: OnEarth Magazine
OnEarth: Fall 2001: Feature Story
In the midst of the corn belt, Ivan Dozier's seven wild acres of tallgrass are bringing back history.
by Kimbre Chapman
Illustrations by Dean W. Biechler
Ivan with his sons, Alex (center) and Wyatt, among tickseed sunflowers.
Ivan Dozier is walking barefoot along a path he has cut through a prairie and, apparently, through time. Tawny, feathered Indian grass reaches high over his head, the late summer air is warm and wet, meadowlarks sing and grasshoppers buzz, and if it weren't for Ivan's shorts and sleeveless T-shirt, this could be a day on the Illinois prairie of 1820 -- the tall grass sighing for miles and miles across a state where even travelers on horseback could get lost in a tumbling ocean of grass and flowers, orange, purple, and green.
But if we were on horseback, the horizon would come back and the illusion would disappear. This is only 7 acres of prairie, a scrap of ecological history that Ivan has re-created, to the best of his ability, on land he bought for the purpose. With him are his black dog -- "Birdie's been over every inch of the prairie and knows it better than I," Ivan says -- and two young sons. Alex, the nine-year-old, brown-haired like his father, emerges abruptly from the wall of grass to hand me a tough, bluish blade of grass attached to a wide seed stem. His blond brother, Wyatt, five, is right behind him. "It's big bluestem," Alex says, and he and Wyatt quickly find and name for me little bluestem, sideoats gramma, and switchgrass, while their father listens silently, smiling. Then the two boys dart off, looking for a nest of fledgling birds they discovered a few days ago.
Ivan takes over the ecology lesson, showing me tickseed sunflowers, whose brilliant gold blossoms grow in moist areas; purple coneflower -- "you can buy it in the store to boost the immune system"; and Illinois bundle flower, a legume. He is no romanticizer of the nineteenth-century prairie. He talks about the devastating midcontinental cold in the winter, with no shelter or windblock from storms that could easily send the wind chill to sixty below; and in the summer, maddening heat, swarms of biting insects that would envelop people and horses, and dangerous thirst in a landscape mostly devoid of streams and lakes. There was also fire, started by lightning or set by Native Americans to drive game. "When I do my burns, the flames can get 30 feet high," Ivan says. "But theirs were uncontrolled burns. Back then, you could get trapped."
Ivan, forty, is half Cherokee, and he wears his hair in two long, neat braids down his back. He is neither a tall nor a burly man, but his composed, broad face and self-possession give him an imposing presence. His voice is low, pleasant, and cultivated, like the voice of a public radio announcer. Its easy authority has served him well in his work for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a small federal agency that works with farmers and other private landowners, helping them primarily with soil conservation. In his work for the NRCS, Ivan has shown many a farmer agricultural methods for curbing topsoil erosion, and helped communities to protect their watersheds and even fix their roads and sewers. But he has also expanded the job to embrace two of his own passions. One of these is Native American culture; Ivan was recently appointed the NRCS's first Native American liaison for the state of Illinois. The other is the tallgrass prairie.
After he graduated from the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1982, Ivan planned to go home to work on his father's small farm in southeastern Illinois. But the farming economy was depressed, and when a soil conservationist in nearby Fairfield died, Ivan applied for the position. From there he was appointed to progressively larger counties. He started taking night classes in environmental planning at Sangamon State University during the late 1980s (completing his master's in 1992).
"It was during that time I saw my first prairie remnant," Ivan recalls. "It was by a cemetery, and there it was! Big bluestem, Indian grass -- all growing up over your head. I had never seen grass that tall." He started collecting books on the prairie, reading everything he could find about the plants, the animals, the geology and ecology and history of the tallgrass landscape.
In 1989, Ivan became the district conservationist for Macoupin County, a large area of small farming communities. He bought a house in a largely rural area, along with the 7 acres behind it that would become his planned wildness. In 1990, he planted the first seeds. He has continued adding new species to his prairie ever since, sometimes with purchased seeds, sometimes with plants gathered from remnant prairies at roadsides and railroads. In 1991 he married his wife, Michelle, whom he had dated off and on for eight years while he moved around Illinois for the NRCS.
It was also around this time that Ivan started teaching. He found that few local people had any idea their county had been named for a native plant -- the macoupin, or duck potato, an edible tuber that grows in wetlands -- and he decided it was time that changed. He started contacting public schools, junior colleges, scouting organizations, garden clubs, conservationists, and any other group he thought might be interested in hearing a lecture on the prairie. Out of that effort grew a demand for seeds and help, as some of his audiences decided they wanted to start their own prairies. Today, Ivan is a one-man evangelical movement for tallgrass in southern Illinois, teaching frequently and supplying seeds and technical advice on how to keep prairie plants healthy and invasive weeds out. He has been involved in the planting of sixty to seventy pieces of prairie in the state, from a few square yards at schools to plots of 25 to 30 acres.
Ivan is part of a movement. Across the Midwest, more and more people are coming together to protect the last vestiges of tallgrass and replant new areas. The North American Prairie Conference brings together academics and professionals every two years. In 1996, the nearly 20,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was created in Illinois -- the first federal land designated specifically for conservation as tallgrass. Volunteer restoration and conservation groups in Illinois alone include the Grand Prairie Friends, Illinois Native Plant Society, Prairie Enthusiasts, and Save the Prairie Society.
To be sure, it is impossible to re-create the true prairie on a tiny plot of land; by one count, Illinois prairie included more than 800 plant species, and there are twenty-three different varieties of prairie in the state, classified according to soil type and moisture content. But a hundred species can grow successfully on less than 5 acres, and according to Ken Robertson of the Illinois Natural History Survey, just over 10 acres is enough to re-create most of the local biodiversity of a particular area. And in Ivan's view, even the smallest prairie planting brings something valuable to those who tend it.
As a farmer's son, the sixth of seven children, Ivan grew up picking berries, helping in the garden, taking care of the livestock. His father's farm was in a sparsely populated county, and farm life was all Ivan knew when he was young. "I grew up not knowing how poor we were," he said. "We had plenty to do and plenty to eat. The first time we talked about money, I said something about us being rich and my mom said, 'My heavens! No, honey -- my heavens, no!'"
Both of Ivan's parents were half Cherokee. His father taught his children to balance farming with the needs of nature; parts of his own farm were set aside for animals, trees, and native plants. His mother took him for long walks in the woods and taught him about sacred plants and the constellations. Once she woke him before daybreak to see an early-morning grosbeak. From his grandmother he heard stories of the Trail of Tears, the deadly forced march of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in the Southeast. Although his own family escaped the ordeal -- they have lived in Illinois since the 1700s -- the stories had a strong impact on the young Ivan, who confused them with the stories he learned in church about Moses and the Exodus.
"I see all issues from two cultures," Ivan says. "I grew up in farming, and see its importance to our economy. Certainly I'm not advocating that we return everything to prairie. But you have to approach issues from both sides. Farmers, for instance, don't always understand how the runoff of their chemicals affects local water supplies."
For Ivan, the prairie has particular resonance as a landscape created in part by Native Americans. The grasslands began forming about 8,300 years ago, after glaciers had flattened the land, when a warmer, drier climate favored grasses over trees. But even when conditions grew wetter, the trees never returned -- because of the fires. "The fires would burn off whatever trees there were," Ivan says. "If it weren't for those fires, we wouldn't have this kind of soil: dark, rich, and productive. The soil is this way today because of this unique relationship of people and time."
Ivan has brought together a network of growers to cultivate prairie plants in greenhouses, as well as ceremonial plants sacred to Native Americans, such as sweetgrass, tobacco, sage, and cedar. The plants will be given to tribal elders identified by the Chicago-based group Midwest SOARRING (Save Our Ancestors' Remains and Resources Indigenous Network Group) Foundation. Ivan's knowledge of traditional plants is invaluable, says the group's president, Joseph Standing Bear Schranz: "He is one of those people our next generation is going to depend on."
Alex comes running barefoot along the prairie path, his white shirt billowing like a sail. "Father, I ran all the way out here," he gasps.
"Well, catch your breath." Ivan smiles. "Do you know what grass this is?"
"Very good." Ivan caresses his son's shoulder. He gazes down the path toward a nearby cornfield. "Just this weekend, I was out with my boys to see the butterflies that were being attracted to the swamp milkweed. It's hard to describe what it's like to go out with the boys -- to let your kids watch the changes in the land..."
Ivan's voice drops off. He stands silent for a moment, hands loose by his side. It's too bad, he says, that the European settlers plowed under a natural legacy before its value was appreciated, or even understood. He has taught his sons that their world will gain if they take the time to respect the fact that life is interconnected -- the plants and animals, the humans and their communities. "We need to learn about and understand these connections in order to use our resources wisely," he says. "That's what conservation means. I try to teach that human beings have a great responsibility, because we are able to destroy or protect."
Kimbre Chapman is an Iowa City-based freelance writer. She previously lived in Illinois for thirteen years, where she was a reporter for the State Journal-Register.
OnEarth. Fall 2001
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council
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