We look forward to spring because it’s loaded with signs of rebirth, including sweet-smelling blossoms and moist garden soil under our fingernails.
I think of those things, too, when the season approaches. But what really brings me pleasure in spring is the destruction and rebirth set alight by prairie fires. If you live in a prairie state, you know the skies are hazy and the air smells smoky in March and April, when Midwestern ranchers set their pastures ablaze. We prairie folk expect these prescribed burns and, if we suffer from asthma, we sometimes curse them.
Fire is important to the prairie ecosystem. Burns control nonnative, invasive weeds, trees, and shrubs — such as the Eastern red cedar — which will take over pastures if left unchecked. Flames remove the previous years’ heavy mat of dead grass, making it easier for the reappearance of those delectable green shoots preferred by cattle. And prairie grasses’ root systems — up to 12 feet deep — protect them from the fire’s intense heat.
Grassland fires have occurred naturally for millennia. At first, they were caused by lightning strikes, and later, by wayward campfire sparks. When Europeans first settled these lands, they assumed prairie fires needed to be stopped, and did everything within their power to do so. But, gradually, our ancestors realized that wild bison and domesticated cattle alike preferred eating the fresh spears of grass that sprouted after a spring fire, helping them to gain weight quicker. Maybe these raging fires served a purpose after all, they observed; if only they could be controlled to save houses, barns, livestock, and crops.
Over the years, ranchers have developed specialized tools and techniques to manage their burns. Here in the tallgrass prairie, they use handmade devices called “firesticks” or “firepipes”— long, capped pipes filled with gasoline — whose ends are lit and dragged across patches of pasture. Under favorable wind and moisture conditions, small crews of neighbors work together to light the dormant grasses and keep the flames under control. It’s a thrill to watch them in action. Within a week or two, the blackened patches will be tinged green with new growth.
Today, scientific evidence backs up fire as essential to the prairie. Even foresters, who once believed all fires were detrimental, have embraced controlled burns as an important management tool for forest ecosystems.
Soon, I’ll be driving through the grasslands, and I might get lucky enough to see a rancher on an ATV with a firestick dangling behind, drawing a fiery line on the hills beneath the stars. What’s your favorite spring tradition? Email me your stories at RMartin@Grit.com.
Rebecca Martin is the Group Editor for rural lifestyles at Ogden Publications. You can follow her on Instagram @RebeccaGrasslands.