A DIVERSITY OF DISTURBANCE

Near gale force winds threaten to topple me from a limestone ridge I traverse on the Konza Prairie, an 8,700 acre Flint Hills tallgrass prairie preserve east of Manhattan KS, cooperatively managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy.[i]  Not-so-distant rumbles of thunder advise me to descend, but I push forward, buffeted by twin forces of weather and curiosity.  From every vista flow strong currents of open space, bursting stretches of sharpened light, and the ceaseless murmuring of tall grasses.

I remember back to my first experiences of tallgrass prairie at Hayden Reserve in northeast Iowa.  There I’d diligently screened out my immediate surround in order to imagine the vastness of America’s historical prairies.  Here I can open my eyes, my senses, my mind, and my heart, with every vista as wide open as the others.  It’s the external antithesis to my internal intellectual and emotional terrain, which more closely mirrors the intensely cultivated farms blanketing the rest of the state than this spacious expanse that radiates out from where I stand.

Dark rain-swollen clouds boil upwards and blow in from the west.  I take in the patterns swirling through the bluestem and switch grass.  If this were dance, I would be stunned by the masterful choreography.  Shafts of sun snaking through torn rents in the cumulonimbus add to the kaleidoscopic effect.  Outcrops of limestone and chert thrust from the thin soil.  Some, weathered and hollowed by time, hold ephemeral pools lined with a community of mosses and tiny ferns. 

The trail bends towards the north, descends for a bit, then joins the winds again at another crest.  I discern a small numbered sign to my right.  Digging out the keyed guide from my day pack, I read of an ancestral bison wallow further to the right.  I kneel down, out of the brunt of the wind, and let my eyes wander over the surface of the ridge, tracing fold and curve of the wallow which has not felt the roll and sway of any native beast for at least two hundred years.  Yet the imprint of this wallow still readily shows, writ by bison’s elemental disturbance.

Later, I read a passage from O.J. Reichmann’s Konza Prairie about the fierce competitiveness of plant life on the prairie.  A single glancing footprint might subtly compress the soil or crush some existing plant, and alter the profile of those few square inches in such a way that a new plant (or set of plants), latent in that place or nearby, might spring into being.[ii]  Where a bison’s wallow persists beyond its bones, and a ranging cow’s footfalls might change the course of natural history, is it any wonder why Konza Prairie contains upwards of 600 unique plant species? 

Consider each landscape as having a language; a lexicon and syntax unique to that place.  Say that species are the nouns.  Do these alone tell the story of a place?  I could recite a litany of prairie species yet it would be as meaningless to you as my weekly grocery list.  I choose not to read my dictionary when I’m in the mood for a good story.  Meaning is made through complete sentences awash in verbs, adverbs, prepositions and adjectives as well as nouns, joined in ways that evoke or provoke, compel or repel, expire or inspire thought, emotion and reflection.

If species are nouns, then perhaps disturbances and other biotic and abiotic processes constitute the lexicon of verbs with which a place tells its story.  Wind, lightning, bison, beef cow, human; each wields a force that acts upon the curved prairie earth, and yields a subtly altered organic syntax.  If certain landscapes hold more biodiversity than others, then perhaps a diversity of disturbance verbiage contributes as much as an extent glossary of species.

Contrast Konza with other regions due west of here where one could count the different species on the fingers of both hands held firmly to the wheel of the John Deere tractor plowing under the remnant stubble of corn, sorghum, wheat or soybean.  The compacting wheels of a tractor as well as the actions of various towed implements, represents one kind of disturbance.  The application of petrochemical based pesticides, herbicides and fungicides provide others.  The tungsten steel blade of a farmer’s plow is every bit the disturbance of a bison’s hoof or a meadow vole’s chew, and then some.  This factor of active disturbance doesn’t account for the differences in species diversity between areas such as Konza with those where modern agriculture is practiced.

While the actions and dynamics of climate, geology, and an evolving cast of organisms evoke various stories of place, humans seem to yield a disproportionate effect.  One of many possible nouns in such places, we also act as divisive prepositions as well as hyperactive verbs in each place narrative, capable of silencing a landscape’s other voices.  For a meaningful dialectics of place-based paradox, there may need to be a much more nuanced lexicon of processes as well as of species.   In examining various landscapes across the North American continent, I infer that each disturbance creates a particular and unique kind of opportunity.  But not all prospects reflect equal quality to opportunistic species, nor does each interruption in the ecological status-quo welcome the same quality of guests. 

Each variety of disturbance acts as a verb, but these may also be taken to be temporal and spatial adverbs.  As such, characteristics of the plant and animal community might well be seen as adjectives.  A richly textured language possesses an extravagance of words with uniquely distinctive qualities.  Imagine if we only had four or five nouns, a dozen or so adjectives and adverbs, a handful of verbs, and one dominant pronoun.  What meaning is a landscape able to utter, what tales does it birth, when it’s reduced to a small set of genetically manipulated nouns of increasingly homogenized character, an intrusive ordering of low quality verbs, often diverted by a single fundamentally arrogant and largely ignorant preposition?

While some of our human stories may be rendered flat on the page or screen, those told by the land carry dimensions far beyond any syntactical metaphor.  In profligate prairie and productive farm field alike, there’s always more than one storyteller, even though the number of available tales may vary considerably.  Humans are not the only agent of disturbance, though we seem to corner the market on a number of those that create lower quality opportunity.  Find me an organism which can survive massive applications of 2,4-D and diuron and I will bargain that that species that might one day rule the planet in our stead, and I will guess also that it may currently be but a bit player in the cast of a native grassland.  For now, I propose that quality of disturbance be measured by the yield of desirable species that arise from its capacious opportunity.

However we define quality, it is a matter of course that all organisms disturb their habitats, even at infinitesimally small scales.  What’s the acceptable level of disturbance?  That which reduces the likelihood for one species may indeed be an opportunity for another, but some disturbances open the floodgate to wholesale changes that rend the integrity of a landscape, while others pave the way for incremental opportunities promoting resilience.  If diversity of disturbances conjures bio-diverse ecological integrity and place persistence, then measures of quality and scale must be taken into account too.

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Out of the wind for now, I watch an exodus of crows my presence has disturbed sluice out of the cottonwoods and sycamores lining the valley streambed and fight the tempest of air making their way to their next station.  Across from me, on the other descending ridge, half a dozen wild turkeys disappear into dense shrubs that follow the course of an old stone wall.  Konza was not always home to wild species alone.  For the better part of a century the land was homesteaded and improved for agriculture.  Remains of the farm, its springs, fencerows, and outbuildings, are now managed as part of the Konza cooperative preservation and research venture.  From the numbers of skittish birds and scuffling mammals that spirit away as I approach, I would guess that the original settler Andrew Hokanson and those that followed till the land was ultimately procured for preservation offered high enough quality of disturbance on small enough scale to leave this place more enriched than impoverished.[iii]

As storm approaches, this valley looks like a cathedral sanctuary with a congregation of crows and choirboy turkeys.  I’m the acolyte here, seeking the inherent wisdom from a well-versed prairie sermon.  As with all good churchly homilies, the challenge is not just to hear the message, but to embody it as well.

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[i] Reichman, Konza Prairie: A Tallgrass Natural History  2.

[ii] Ibid.  51-52.

[iii] Ibid. "Konza Prairie Trail Guide,"  (Manhattan, KS: Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University, 2004).