When my husband David and I hit our 40s, we didn’t experience a midlife crisis, but we did hear the siren song of country life. We started to dream of owning land. And that dream led us to purchase a most lovely patch of Missouri prairie that fulfilled our dream and so much more.
I can’t say what it was that finally pushed us into making the decision that forever changed our lives. Maybe it was being bumped a little too hard in a crowded mall, or sitting in a cloud of exhaust fumes during rush hour. We wondered what it would be like to replace police sirens and booming car stereos with birdsongs and breezes whistling through the trees.
A dream realized
For more than 20 years we’d lived in a suburb of Kansas City. We raised two daughters there, enjoyed the parks, the giant oak trees that lined our streets and the convenient location. I worked in the legal department of a bank at the time, and David was a systems analyst for a telecommunications company.
After months of searching, we found our land, a 105-acre tract in Cass County, Missouri. We fell in love with its wild beauty, towering oak trees, fragrant cedar groves and wildflower-filled meadows.
On a sunny day in April of 2000, with signed paperwork in hand, the car full of camping gear, and our black Lab squeezed in between sleeping bags and a rolled-up tent, we headed to the property. Once there, we hiked across a field of waist-high grasses to an old elm tree with a decrepit deer stand wedged between its branches. Using weathered boards nailed to the trunk, we pulled ourselves up onto the rickety platform and looked out over what we’d just spent a hefty chunk of our life savings on.
“Are we crazy?” I asked my husband.
“Hmmm…yes, probably,” he answered, gazing out over the field, overgrown with tree sprouts and shrubs. “I’m going to need a chain saw, and we’d better upgrade our first aid kit.”
Diamonds in the rough
Shortly after we closed on the property, Missouri Department of Conservation agent Phil Needham contacted us by phone with a curious request. “Would it be all right if I came out and checked your milkweed?” he asked. We were clueless as to what “checking our milkweed” meant, but we invited him to meet us at the land the following weekend.
At that meeting, Phil explained that an endangered plant species known as Mead’s Milkweed (Asclepias meadii) had been discovered on our property some years earlier. He walked with us to the southern edge of our land, pointing out wildflowers and grasses along the way, most now rare in Missouri.
Finally he said, “What you have here is a true native prairie remnant. Only a fraction of a percent still exists. You own a small piece of America’s biological history.”
In that moment, we felt our future change. Phil’s simple statement turned us from landowners into stewards, though we had no idea at the time what that would entail. We didn’t locate any Mead’s Milkweed that day, but we did learn the definition of a “true native prairie remnant.”
For thousands of years, our prairie maintained a delicate ecological balance. Plants, animals, insects and even microorganisms in the soil evolved through a complex process of compatibility and competition.
Plowing and tilling that came with settlement of this country’s vast plains forever altered the midwestern landscape. Prairie remnants that were spared the plow and till are usually found on land too rocky, too wet or too sandy for farming. Our prairie sits on limestone bedrock, and so falls into the category of being too rocky to plow.
Phil put us in touch with the department’s regional biologist, Larry Rizzo. After some research, Larry informed us that our prairie remnant had been documented in Missouri Department of Conservation’s Natural History Database, as South Fork Prairie. Due to the high level of plant diversity found there, the database noted that South Fork “is an area of statewide significance.”
Managing for native plants
Larry explained that despite escaping the plow and till, invasive species were threatening the prairie and would eventually choke out native plants if they were not brought under control.
He helped us secure a grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners For Wildlife program, which enabled us to embark on an aggressive restoration plan. We hired a contractor who used a tree shear (a large, scissor-like attachment that connects to a Bobcat) to remove stands of cedars, hedge and locusts.
In pre-settlement times, fire and grazing animals – deer, elk and buffalo – kept invasive plants in check. But, since buffalo no longer roam and fire cannot be allowed to burn out of control, we’re forced to use other methods to keep the prairie ecosystem in balance.
Mechanical hog eats brush
Our neighbor, Dave Alburty, helped us find a used John Deere and a brush hog-style rotary mower. My husband, though brilliant at resolving complex software issues, hadn’t operated machinery any larger than our lawn mower for at least 20 years.
On a blistering day in July, Dave instructed David on the finer points of tractor operation and brush hogging. Then he sent David out onto an overgrown field to practice his new skills. I stood shading my eyes with one hand, sweat trickling down my face, watching as David made his first attempt at moving the mower evenly over the ground while keeping the tractor on course.
He was slow at first, but picked up speed and soon was going at a rapid pace. The mower made a terrible grinding sound whenever it met with rocky terrain. David adjusted the height to clear rocks and kept going. I winced as he moved the tractor towards a line of trees at the field’s edge.
“He’ll have to be careful when he does that,” Dave said. “Farmers sometimes get knocked right off the tractor when they think they have room to go under low-hanging branches. That’s if they’re lucky”
“What if they’re unlucky?” I asked. Dave, unsmiling, made a quick slashing motion across his throat. Fortunately, David finished mowing the field without injury and after years of practice, he now hops on the tractor as if he’d been doing this sort of thing all his life.
For now, a tent is our only shelter when we stay at South Fork, though David did construct an outhouse. “Mandatory,” I told him. “I’m willing to rough it, but some things are not negotiable.”
I thought of myself as pretty outdoorsy even before we acquired the land, but a snake that made its way into our campsite one day made me realize my appreciation for nature had its limits. I saw David pointing and then heard him call out, “Kathy, do you think that’s a copperhead?”
I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw the snake, probably 18 inches long. It was stretched out on a path in front of our tent, head raised and body motionless. Sunlight glinted off coppery splotches on its skin. It seemed to know it had been spotted and stayed perfectly still as we tried to decide what to do.
David looked at me. “Shall I kill it?”
I hesitated. The snake was still frozen, unmoving. Until that moment, I had embraced our land with complete enthusiasm, willing to respect even the lowliest creatures that inhabited the prairie. But, we walked that path dozens of times a day. What if the next time we encountered the snake, it decided to strike?
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I think you have to kill it.” As the blade of David’s machete came down on the snake, I realized it was a mistake. I still regret that decision, and now know that copperheads are extremely shy, avoid contact with humans and only strike if they feel under attack.
At times in the last eight years, we have considered that a sports car might have been a much simpler way to scratch our midlife itch. We certainly had no idea the amount of money, physical effort and dedication the land would require of us. But we didn’t understand the magnitude of the rewards either.
Flowers blanket areas once dominated by invasive trees. Songbirds serenade us in the mornings. Barred owls and whippoorwills call to one another as we drift off to sleep at night. Quail, rabbits, turkey and other wildlife have increased in number each year since we started restoration work. A healthy population of the endangered Mead’s Milkweed is thriving.
We now understand what it means to feel connected to the soil beneath our feet, the tree branches above our heads and the stars that take our breath away on moonless nights.
We don’t know who will come after us, or whether they will see the importance of preserving this prairie in the same way. We can only hope that as people become educated about places like South Fork, awareness of how precious America’s diminishing natural areas truly are will increase. It’s our big hope for this little prairie, and for all the places where nature needs our help.
To visit South Fork Prairie online, go to www.SouthForkPrairie.com.Kathleen McKenzie Winn lives in Prairie Village, Kansas, with husband David and two spoiled cats. She and David spend as much time at South Fork as possible, and plan to build a house there. Kathleen is a little tired of camping.