The Prairie
"As to the scenery (giving my own thought and feeling) while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape. Even (the prairies’s) simplest statistics are sublime."
-Walt Whitman

Specimen Days (1879)

Prairies occur in the interior of large continental land masses. They are characterized by grass and a lack of trees, except along rivers and streams. They usually occur in flat or gently rolling topography. Prairies are biological systems balanced by climate, fire, rainfall and grazing animals. All of these conditions apply to the tallgrass prairie surrounding Council Grove.

Many travelers along the Santa Fe Trail found the openness of the sun-swept prairie to be alien and unsettling. Most of them had grown up in the forested, hilled, and sometimes mountainous East. The journey from Independence or Westport to Council Grove gave them ten or eleven days of unmitigated exposure to tallgrass prairie. After a respite in "The Grove," they would push west where the prairie landscape would become flatter, the grasses shorter, and the rains more infrequent.

Grasses dominate the tallgrass prairie, and one species, big bluestem, is the predominant plant. This tallgrass habitat is home to many living things including more than four hundred plants, three hundred birds, eighty-five fishes, eighty mammals, fifty reptiles, fifteen amphibians, and thousands of insects and invertebrates.  Historically bison, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears roamed this landscape. Although these species have disappeared, the remaining flora and fauna is equally unique.

The fires that have periodically swept over the prairie are the ally of the grasses and the enemy of woody plants. Today in early Spring most ranchers near Council Grove set fire to their pastures to stimulate the growth of grasses. When the conditions are right in early April, one can drive out to the hills and watch the fires, long orange festoons suspended in the blackness of night, march up and down the hills.

In May the burgeoning grass covers the landscape like a lovely green carpet. In September, when the grasses begin to go dormant, the prairie turns russet and gold. Wet years mean taller grass, which sometimes reaches more than head-high in the valley floors. Often the wind sweeps across the prairie, rippling the grass into wave-like patterns. This impression has been noted by many, hence the most often-used metaphor for the prairie–a sea of grass.

The Indians used hundreds of prairie plants for food, drink, medicine, weapons, smoking, and cordage. This would have required many centuries of careful observations and experimentation. Plant knowledge was passed on from generation to generation through the process we know as culture. In this way the plants and humans of the prairie became intimately connected.

Related Link:  The Konza Prairie
The Prairie
The Flint Hills
The Grove
Prehistoric People

See how the Flint Hills got its name.