by Mimi Hedl

Late last summer Jeremy told me they wouldn’t need hay anymore. The price of cattle had gone way down and they would focus on raising sheep. He said he’d help me find someone to take care of the pasture, and he would cut the hay until I found someone. A dormant light exploded, spontaneously, I said, “How about if we turn the field into a short grass prairie?” (Secretly, I had waited for a moment like this. For the last fifteen years, I’ve thought about establishing a short grass prairie on our pasture.) Jeremy felt ecstatic. He hunts. He knows how the prairies attract quail, turkey, deer and other critters. He told me to go for it, “awesome” and other happy words.

–Photo courtesy of Missouri Prairie Foundation

I contacted one of the state’s private land conservationists. Sure enough, they still had funding. Seth said he’d write up a contract and we’d start the process. We’d have to have the first spraying done by 1 June. That would give Jeremy time to fix his sprayer over the winter and get organized for the project in the spring. Oh yeah, spraying…

For those of you not acquainted with establishing a short- or tallgrass prairie, once so common all over the Midwest, you have to eliminate all vegetation. You have to have a clean slate, an empty canvas. You can’t do this by mowing, burning only sets the grasses back for awhile, then they grow with renewed vigor. You can’t overgraze the land, weeds will simply appear. That leaves spraying. With poisons. Like Round-up. Yes, I know…

For native grass and flower seeds to germinate, they need bare earth without competition. The growth takes place underground for the first few years, just the opposite of how we grow domesticated plants, with all the growth on top, and not such a rich root system. A two-year old seedling can have a 3-foot root system, explaining why native plants can survive droughts.

After this initial spraying, you spray one more time before you sow the seed. Then in the winter, because native seed mostly needs to go through a cold/wet period, you drill or broadcast the seed into your bare canvas. And seed costs a great deal. For my 25 acres, it will cost almost four thousand dollars. I’ll have a minimal out of pocket expense, the Conservation Department will pay the lion’s share. Still, you want to ensure good germination by eliminating as much competition as possible.

People in the conservation world who I respect convinced me that killing off the fescue made our only choice. They encouraged me. We had serious philosophical conversations: “Does the end justify the means?” I couldn’t reckon using poisons when I called myself an organic gardener. How could I say I could use poisons, but not the fellow spraying his driveway to keep down his weeds? I kept listening, reading and talking. Whenever I attended an event hosted by the native plant folks, I asked this question. People shook their heads, even hung them, and said, “We have no choice.”

Jeremy sprayed the 25-acre pasture on the 6th of April with a chemical like Round-up. I’ve accepted my decision. wherever you see a tall- or shortgrass prairie, established in the last hundred years, poisons made it possible.

Right and wrong, good and evil, don’t fit easily into categories. Maybe in our youth we made moral judgments easily. Now every situation demands close attention and thought. Situational ethics have never made more sense. I have no idea how future environmentalists will view the movement to take grasslands out of hay production and into prairies. They may judge us harshly. They may say the creation of the prairies did not mitigate against the use of chemicals.

I wish we had better rules and regulations for dealing with our land. When people own land, they think they can do whatever they choose with the land. A good steward sees the land as something humanity holds in common, to share, to take care of, to pass on in better shape.

We have serious problems in central Missouri with invasives: Bradford pears, bush and vine honeysuckle, autumn olive, multi-flora rose, Hollis’ thistle…Every part of the country has its list. We cannot own a piece of land without having responsibility to maintain its health, to keep the invasives under control.

So many of our land practices have created monsters. Every time we turn over a piece of earth, we have accepted responsibility for that piece of earth. Once we interfere in the system, it becomes wild no more, but another part of man’s tampering with the environment. We reintroduce weeds long dormant, we disrupt the ecosystem. How do we teach this to young gardeners with stars in their eyes, who simply want something pretty or good to eat and have no idea about the ramifications of their actions?

I’ve done my soul-searching, using more poison in 3 hours than we ever thought of using in the thirty-five years on this piece of earth. I feel responsible for the future of this land. I want to see more insects, more birds, more critters of all kinds making it their home.

Over the next week, I’ll watch the pasture turn from an emerald-green to a brown. Jeremy insists it’ll just look like a plowed field. In a way, it’ll be my shame. Instead of wearing the scarlet letter A across my chest, the brown field, barren of life, will follow me until next spring, when the native seedlings begin to appear.

I dressed Our Lady of the Flowers in her spring gown. Later she’ll have a hat, for now, she wanted the wind to blow through her, loosening the cobwebs from her soul. At least she looks pure and innocent. I bow to her for direction.