Red Buffalo, Black Butterflies
“Honk on around,” says Gene on the radio. It dangles from my neck so I can hear what’s happening on the other side of the hill where Myron will or will not get the truck stuck in the mud. I listen, and try to figure out just how this complicated mixture of choreography and improvisation—a controlled burn—is moving across the early-spring prairie. Once, dry lightning might have ignited these senescent stalks and seedheads; once, Plains peoples might have set the flames. But today our work is planned, plotted, and recorded in the long-term data set gathered at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research Station. We’re in the moment, but we imagine our efforts casting a shadow into next year, and the year after that.
It’s just past noon. Both crews set out from the same point on the map: the northeast corner of a particular grassland parcel labeled 1B. The entire 8,600 acres of Konza Prairie is divided into 57 distinct treatment units—sections defined by topography, watersheds around which wide firebreaks have been mowed. The watersheds defy the usual survey pattern of the west, the grid. They all look like versions of West Virginia to me, dog-leggy borders defined by high and low points in the land. Some hold damp spots where cottonwoods shiver, the slower, low-country cousins of aspen trees. Some have patches of aromatic sumac that look like low welts in the landscape—chigger bites, maybe, itching in the heat. All of them ripple with grass.
Primary productivity, scientists call the start of the food chain where carbon dioxide and light transmute into organic compounds and animate the Earth. And for some 32 million years, warm-season grasses, the phylogenetic kinfolk of these stands of tallgrass, have been translating sunlight into sugar through C4 photosynthesis. This is an evolutionarily younger metabolic process than the more widespread C3 pathway. The C4 photosynthetic plants have built tiny cellular vestibules in their leaves, where oxygen is rebuffed like muddy boots never, ever allowed past the slate-tiled mudroom. From air that enters through each storm-doored stoma, only carbon dioxide is ushered into the leaf’s deeper recesses, chugging along through what’s called the Calvin cycle, spinning gold into straw, light into grass. This is an especially effective mode of photosynthesis, especially in warm climates.
Ohhh, it has a long legacy, the grasslands’ adaptive strategy to repurpose sunlight’s diurnal fuel. The oldest fossilized grass leaf whose cellular structure could string together carbohydrates without the distraction of photorespiration—that’s what C4 photosynthesis does—is 12.5 million years old. Nineteen million-year-old phytolithic remnants from such grasses have been found like tiny quartzite bone shards in the planet’s soil. In the grasslands of Africa, even our own ancient cousins, Paranthropus boisei, grazed on just such plants: two million years ago, these robust hominids were grazers, grinding C4 grasses in their muscular jaws, metabolizing carbon-from-grass into carbon-in-teeth.
These days about a quarter of the Earth’s primary productivity takes place through C4 photosynthesis, even though grasses—Poaceae—make up just 3 percent or so of all terrestrial plant species. And grasslands are heavily threatened ecosystems—more so than the old-growth forests of the Northwest. State by state across the Great Plains, anywhere from 82 to 99 percent of the original tallgrass is gone. And since fire is an essential part of a prairie ecosystem, I like to think that my own metabolism, working all day out among the grass, isn’t just part of data collection. I’m helping the Earth to still say “grass” instead of “wheat” (with all due apologies to Thoreau).
Photo by Dave Rintoul.
Down in the boggy part of the watershed, we don’t even have a tractor: just a hefty flat-bed pickup loaded with water tank, pump, hoses, drip torches, and in the side compartments yellow helmets with cloth neck flaps and plexiglass face shields, fire-proof gloves, jackets, smoke masks. Gary’s the driver. He’s a gentle man wearing blue denim from cap to pants, and he hands me the paper cup I tossed into the truck cab back at the last stop. “Sorry,” he says, “I think I crunched it some.” But it still holds water, and I draw a cupful from the galvanized cask in the back and drink. Greg radios Gene: “We’re paused at the southeast corner of watershed 1B. Will wait till we see you reach the top of the hill.”
We “moseyed” down the eastern edge of 1B while Gene’s team was “honking on” along the northern edge. They have farther to go than we do now, and harder work, “stripping” with drip torches, setting tight, close switchbacks of flame that will leave a selvage of black across which the fire can’t jump into the adjacent watershed. You strip into the wind, setting flank fire or back fire, which means you’re working in your own smoke, eyes wincing shut even if you wear a mask to protect your lungs. This particular watershed must be burned every year (that’s what the “1” signifies in the name—one year since it was burned last, B because there is a replicate watershed “A” elsewhere on the grid) so it’s all plushy tallgrass except for the damp spots where shrubs huddle, toes stuck in the mud. An intermittent stream cuts through the grass, delivering rainfall or snowmelt to a miniature pool the size of a gilded-age bathtub. During dry years the pool is rarely full, but for the last three years it’s been wet and Eva says she’s trying to survey the chorus frogs that have gathered, as if in recitation of a poem by Bashō, at the bison wallows pocking the uplands.
Most members of the burn crew are scientists and graduate students (plus a few volunteers like Myron and me). The range of the research always amazes me, and at slow moments I like to chat with them about their work, hoping I will remember some of the details later. Effects of climate change on bunchgrass productivity, grasshopper reproduction, growth of eastern redcedar. Female selectivity in prairie chicken mating. Nesting dynamics of dickcissels and parasitic cowbirds. Pollen accumulation patterns as indices for Pleistocene plant communities. As the tractor low-gears the little burn crew caravan to our next appointed spot, we can talk about the research implications—carbon sequestration in the warming world—or maybe the politics of commuters in Kansas City unhappy with the smoke that blows eastward with the plains’ prevailing winds. Then the truck doors creak open and it’s time to start again.
When there is no wind the fire is introspective, musing its slow way along, burning the tall stalks at their base so they fall as if they’ve been gently scythed. The stems fall delicately, golden across the black fluff of ash only seconds old. I have never seen anything so thoroughly, yet so softly, black: a drape of velutinous carbon ready for recombinant change as the world breathes and greens. Sometimes thin trails of smoke lift from the charred surface after the fire has swept through, like little geysers issuing steam from somewhere far below. That’s where you know there’s something still smoldering: a bit of bison dung, maybe, or a fist of tightly-packed bunchgrass. Once I saw a conical packrat nest smoking like a knee-high volcano. If holdouts like these lie along the watershed’s perimeter, you need to kick them apart, spray them with the hose, or they may spark, hours later, and ignite an adjacent watershed not scheduled for a burn.
Stripping the tallgrass.
Photo courtesy Eva Horne.
But when the wind picks back up, the fire makes the sound of crumpling metal, of innumerable breaking sticks—of a headfire racing through tinder-dry grass. The blood races, too, and I pull the plexiglass shield of my helmet down across my face.
“Gene to Greg. We’re up on top now. You can honk on around.”
“Greg to Gene. We see you. Understood.”
That means we need to hustle our butts uphill, up from the wet seep where aromatic sumac and rough-leafed dogwood show their earliest fingers of foliage; along the edge of the firebreak, where in the almost-ankle-high grass, blue false indigo already opens its bruise-colored blooms. I walk fast now, setting fire. The wind has died and the flame lags, so I turn back the way I’ve come, stripping a new layer while the flames jump beside me, so hot through my jeans I couldn’t bear to stand still, even if we had the time. The grass here—mostly switchgrass and Indian grass, I think, though the seedheads are long since battered by months’ worth of wind—is maybe four feet high, nowhere near the tallest growth but it’s thick and it’s dry and it’s burning fast.
“Get out of there,” Greg hollers, and I do.
Greg and I work together without the radio. I walk behind him, torching, while he strides on ahead trying to see where Gene’s crew has got to. They’re the encumbered bunch: two tractors and Myron in the truck, everyone fighting the smoke as they burn their way west along the north edge of the watershed. Gene talks Myron through it while we all listen on the radio: “You’re gonna have to keep up your speed. You can make it up the hill, but you can’t stop. You gotta just push right on.” Last month when the truck was stuck the tractor had to pull it clear so of course now everyone refers to the place as Myron’s Crossing. There: we can see the truck crawling uphill, maybe a mile away, and he makes it. On the radio, somebody cheers.
“Elizabeth, get out of there,” said Gene last month, when I was striding through six-foot high grasses, stripping my way uphill in one of the Native Grazer watersheds. I’d left the oak gallery forest along King’s Creek and crested the hill: there were bison ahead, watching with what could have been interest, or boredom, or contempt. A few were lounging, resting on the upper slope. They heaved themselves to their feet, then took off in a muscled rumble while I gasped. I think I must have disappeared then, at least for a moment, my body metamorphosed into ephemeral attention at the drumfire of their hooves.
Bison and fire.
Photo courtesy Eva Horne.
Now Jim walks out front with the hose, spraying the black perimeter till the fire’s stopped in its tracks. Occasionally he sprays the shins of his pants, too, and his gloves. Where he walks, he kicks up ash like a swarm of black butterflies lifting from the ground. Gary drives the truck slowly along the firebreak, trailing two yellow hoses from the water tank, Jim and Sheena putting out the backfire while Greg hurries away on some errand of his own. A minute ago, he held up one gloved hand like an iconic traffic cop waiting for ducklings to cross the street, so I stopped, blew out my torch. I don’t know what he’s planning. Did the fire fizzle out in that boggy spot? Does he just need to go pee? Who makes sure that Greg is okay? Flames shimmy along the hillside. I want to click on the radio, ask “Greg, where are you?” but instead I walk quickly back along the firebreak until I can see his yellow helmet. Okay. He’s setting an aromatic sumac bush aflame.
“Honk on around,” said Gene, so we do. Now I’m walking as fast as I can without stumbling, dragging the stem of the drip torch along the dry ground, its head like some angular, Bauhaus orchid dropping, each moment, a stamen of flame. The drip torch is heavy. I’m walking as fast as I can. I turn to look back where I’ve been, and the flames lean eagerly northward, a vivid bright line of thoughtless intention. I pass a tiny redcedar tree, only shin-high, a single season’s growth, but I don’t have time to stop and watch it burn. We’re blazing away the idea of shade.
Now Greg runs northward, holding his torch a few inches above the dry grasses, laying down fire in a liquid line. The smoke races him straight uphill, roiling and wooly and chasing him down. Matter, dressed in one of its myriad masks.
The radio squawks into sound and it’s Greg.
“Hey Gary, Gene, I got fire halfway across this fireguard—”
That’s all I hear though I think he says more, and the truck comes on around the corner and Sheena is running to keep up, spraying the ground as she goes, and I’m running, too, the drip torch dangling useless from my tired arm. Get the big hose, the big one, somebody yells—and then Gary and Jim throw open the valve and I’ve just barely set my torch into its slot on the truckbed before we’re all in motion again. Sheena is yelling and I look back to see some low flames are still moving west. If they cross the firebreak they’ll be in the tallgrass and we’ll have another whole watershed in a headfire, the wind at its back. At first I can’t find the flapper but then there it is, a tool like a cross between a mudflap and a mophead with a long, wooden handle, and I grab it and run a hard hundred-yard dash to the rear guard of flame. By the time the truck comes creeping back, I’ve got most of it smothered and we all stop for a while, drink water, and watch.
Line of horns.
Photo courtesy Eva Horne.
Fire’s kinesis sweeps over the landscape and leaves the rampant biomass reduced to ash on the ground, ash in the air, atoms set free for bloom and growth. For a few days only will the black-velvet-stippled-with-limestone-and-flint present that stark, dark aspect skyward. Another week and grass will effloresce; another month and the midsummer flowers will blossom, pointillist renditions of the sun’s full spectrum.
Red buffalo, some of the indigenous plains peoples called grassfires, and it’s a metaphor that works on many levels. Individual flames might look like tongues licking the landscape, grazing the dead grass down to dry nubs. But once the fire gets the wind at its back, the burn thunders and runs, too fast to keep up with, panting its hot, impersonal breath, the watershed squeezing oxygen out of the springtime air. Shut your eyes for a moment, and you hear those pummeling hoofbeats; open them and you see the rushing flames transformed into a line of bright horns.
Without grazing and fire, this prairie biome would be overrun with woody growth. In the unburned watersheds, redcedars dot the slopes like piñon pines in New Mexico, dropping their acidic needles, shading the sun-loving grass into submission. In less than forty years, redcedars can close their spiny canopy over a hillside of grass. But burn every year, and you get almost pure grass; burn every few years and you get a mixture of grasses and forbs. Burn every three to four years and there’s nesting habitat for Henslow’s sparrows. Burn late in the summer and there’s the cover prairie chickens need for raising young.
So little of the prairies that once stretched from Manitoba to Texas remain. Even remnant grasslands, like those in the Flint Hills, are managed in ways that are changing the habitat character of prairie landscape. Starting in the early 1980s, cattle ranchers adopted a management program called early intensive stocking, which requires annual burns. I once heard a lecture by one of the researchers who championed this method of beef production. Burn by April 15 every year and you can stock up to three times as many steers as you could using the older, season-long stocking method where the animals stay on the land all summer, until autumn slaughter. “Best of all,” he explained, “the system’s sustainable.” But it’s a “system” with very few components: grass and cattle, ranchers and dollars; his argument is easily presented with a few graphs and simple tables. Despite the fact that the landscape is not converted to row crops, it’s managed so that primary productivity in the form of grass converts to a single outcome: beef.
When the two lines of flame meet something happens to my depth perception: the landscape seems to lengthen while the smoke rises up and up. Suddenly shorn of the tallgrass, the hillside looks stark and I feel as though I’m gazing across a great distance as I follow the serrated movement of the flames. I could be gazing across eons, as well: time seems to lift free from the linear sense of the days unfolding, one after another, and I feel as though I’m staring through a moment ripped from another century, or another millennium. After the frenzy of motion, I’m a body in stasis, still breathing hard, but standing still, watching the elemental, wild convergence.
Photo courtesy Eva Horne.
Burned in scattered patterns across thousands of square miles, the world once murmured unnumbered prairie dialects, wind breathing in feather and stem, riffling pool and pelt. My life is one sentence—no, maybe just a single, intransitive verb—in the story that started, here, deep in the Pleistocene. Or was it clear back in Africa and the Miocene, maybe, with the metamorphosis of sunlight to grass, grass to grazer? My soot-spattered hair blows into my eyes.
Above, a redtail circles, tiny in the overwhelming smoke, disappearing, re-emerging. Then we all gasp. A cyclone begins to spin in the ash and smoke, the way wall clouds turn ominously in summer thunderstorms. Another funnel forms, like a very slender pillar or, I think suddenly, a hose pumping hot air and ash skywards. Helix, circle, spiral; cyclone, whirlwind, funnel. Each word carries connotative inflection, nuance I wonder over while I stare, silent, as the wind whorls along. Bits of burned tallgrass lift and scatter. They will float miles through the spring air, drifting past the honey locust trees, the fountaining spirea, the open-mouthed iris all over town.
I’m all honked out. I sit on one side of the truck bed while Gary drives slowly back toward headquarters, then hop off and walk when we hit the steepest part of the hill. Soot rings the ankles of my jeans. Bits of ash the size of my finger float past. Gloves off, I hold out my hand, hoping that one will light on my palm. Back behind us, the fire’s still burning, moving from all sides toward the center while wing-wisps of carbon rise from the recombinant soil.
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