Outdoors

A return and a rebirth

The Nature Call: Controlled burn brings new life

A large old oak tree lords over new green growth where a prairie fire recently scorched the land. (John Lawrence Hanson/
A large old oak tree lords over new green growth where a prairie fire recently scorched the land. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
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A pair of crows winged overhead, and I didn’t consider them. As a bird watcher my focus was down on the ground for a change.

Last month I described the workings of a fireteam that set flame to this patch of prairie and savanna to suppress invasive grasses and kill unwanted trees. The oaks, hickories and walnut trees were spared.

The fireteam left a blackened land and a familiar smell. Aside from the hardwoods, they didn’t leave much else. But that was the plan.

I returned to the scene a month later, and I didn’t see much evidence of a fire that was. One month of rain, wind and sun transformed the charred plain to a luscious looking tableau — at least for those driving by.

It took walking the area to see the remaining vestiges of burned vegetation. Only if our bodies would recover so quickly. Upon inspection it was a scene of survival, for desirable and undesirable species alike.

New shoots of Solidago were clustered here and there. Its ambitious green growth can confuse one that its common name is goldenrod. Fields and ditches of goldenrod burst in a flowery announcement that school is about to begin again in the late summer. Aside from aesthetics, the flowers can be brewed as a tea for fever or chewed to relieve sore throats. After such an extended separation from school this year, I know the displays of Solidago will be extra beautiful as the children — and teachers — return to school.

Another survivor was in the shelter of a walnut tree. A garlic mustard was in bloom. It’s an invasive species from Europe. Hopefully Solidago will regain the edge in the struggle to dominate the area. I found a recipe for garlic mustard pesto, you’re welcome to write to me how it was.

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The refuge of soil for roots and seeds was shared by some of our mammalian relatives in active burrows. What was going through their fur-clad brains as the sights, sounds and smells of the conflagration drew near? Panic would be understandable, but so too relief. Yes, relief that the duff and dead ends would be swept away to be replaced by a richer area. With millions of years of evolution they probably hardly paid it any mind.

My tour took me past a particular tree. It was an ash that wasn’t protected from the fire but nevertheless survived. Now this survivor bore a dark mark. The south side of its trunk was blackened. People look for meaning in scars. Tattoos are purposeful scars. But this mark had no meaning and served no purpose.

The only purpose it might serve is as a timepiece. When the next fire rolls through will it regain it’s survivor’s badge? Or will it succumb? My prediction is on the latter but I know the invasive Emerald ash borer is decimating our trees. Time will mean affliction. Afflictions are always fatal. Either way, a new fire will come and a prairie will be restored.

A quartet of brown-headed cowbirds carried on in the bare branches above, and I noticed them. They have a bad rap. As parasitic nesters, they are blamed for harming the young of other birds. Nature doesn’t have time for morals, the birds just have their niche.

A male in glossy spring feathers was displaying and calling, quite the show actually. The fire was a show, high drama. Now the renewal is another.

Nature affords us so much live theatre in contrast to our COVID-19 constraints. The show is available in pocket parks or sprawling refuges, and you already have the ticket.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

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