Turn on a random nature show and you’re likely to see a rainforest or, perhaps, a mountain range, or a shot of the Arctic tundra. What you most likely will not see is a prairie. That’s too bad, because prairies are truly magnificent landscapes. Walt Whitman knew:
"while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape…they silently and broadly unfolded. Even their simplest statistics are sublime."
They are also some of the most endangered landscapes in all of North America. Prairies--flat, verdant, accessible--have largely been displaced by corn, soybeans, and wheat; by cities and their sprawling suburbs; and all manner of industrial development. In many parts of the Midwest, 98% of native prairies are gone.
As our prairies have disappeared so too have the native grasses and flowers that called them home, along with the birds, buffalo, and insects that used to decorate America’s great, flat, middle. Knitting together these landscapes were armies of pollinators -- native bumble bees, monarchs and other butterflies, hummingbirds -- helping to fertilize the plains and ensure the health of the land. To add insult to injury, the industrial farms that stands where our prairies once did is now planted with genetically modified crops, designed to withstand torrents of pesticides, which kill those pollinators that remain. The vanishing of these pollinating insects is just one reason that NRDC has filed legal action to stop the spread of these pesticides and is partnering with groups like Monarch Watch to plant native milkweed throughout the country.
Still, many beautiful patches of prairies remain, as do the pollinating animals that keep them whole. And some of them, like the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie, just outside of Chicago, offer a glimpse of these magnificent landscapes.
Closer to home, Chicagoans will have a chance to remember the prairie -- and the bees and butterflies that call them home. In A Place of Light and Wind (for Lost Prairies), NRDC Artist-in-Resident, Jenny Kendler, will transform the façade of the Violet Hour, one of Chicago most popular bars, into an urban prairie ecosystem replete with native Illinois flowers. Hidden within the mural are a variety of pollinators embellished with QR codes, which take visitors to a website where they can sign up to receive their own native prairie seeds in the mail, helping to bring a little bit of our lost prairies back to the yards of Chicago, while also creating personal connections to a disappearing ecosystem. That’s the wonderful thing about nature -- restoring it sometimes is as simple as planting a seed.
So, Chicago, stop by the Violet Hour during the months of November and December, hoist a glass, and remember America’s prairies. The rest is up to you.