When I was growing up, we lived on the edge of the Red River Valley. From our farmstead to the west stretched miles and miles of farmland. Looking east, the dark line of Minnesota’s famed “northwoods” defined the horizon. We lived in an area that was once oak savanna, where the woods and the prairie met. Before white men came, clumps of oak woods dotted the prairies here, waging a ceaseless battle for territory against waves of grass, a fight arbitrated by wildfire. When the area was settled these woodlands were felled to build homesteader cabins, provide firewood and to clear more land for farming. Only remnants of the wood islands remain near my childhood home, clinging to the steep banks of the Buffalo River or other hillsides too steep to farm.
These wood patches drew me in whenever I ventured out from the farm to explore the natural world. I had little interest in exploring the open country, which was a monotony of wheat and barley. In my mind, even the smallest patch of woods could still hold beauty and mystery. I wanted to find the wild places. Little wonder that, when I came back to Minnesota ten years ago, I settled in a place in the woods.
About the time I was an exploring farm kid, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources established the Scientific and Natural Area program to save remnants of the wild places. Today there are over 160 SNAs scattered across the state, preserving “natural features of exceptional scientific or educational value.” The program uses volunteers to monitor conditions on these sites and report any vandalism or other activities that would harm the resource.
When I decided to become a volunteer for the SNA program, I looked to serve as a site steward for an SNA near my home. I imagined having responsibility for a rare woodland habitat or a bog. But the nearest SNAs that did not have stewards assigned were out in the Red River Valley, at least an hour from my home. These were remnants of the tallgrass prairie that somehow avoided the plow over the past 140 years. What little knowledge of prairies I had came from books – I had never visited one before. I decided it was time to do some on-the-ground learning and signed up as a steward for Santee Prairie SNA, located near Mahnomen.
Santee Prairie is a 440-acre parcel originally purchased by The Nature Conservancy, an organization that specializes in acquiring neglected parcels of habitat. Santee includes upland prairie, cattail marshes and patches of shrubs and small trees. Attempts were made to drain and farm the land years ago; old ditches criss-cross the site. The SNA adjoins a state wildlife management area providing habitat for deer and small game, raptors, waterfowl and songbirds. Large areas of the SNA are wet much of the year, supporting not only cattail marshes but lush meadows. Upwelling groundwater at Santee creates conditions favorable to certain rare plants.
Spending time at Santee was intimidating at first. Being used to the woods, standing out there on the wide, flat land I felt vulnerable. Other than some scrubby aspen stands, there was no place to shelter. I grew up hating the wind that never seemed to quit blowing out on the farm and at Santee I was exposed again to its force. I did the perfunctory checks on the access points and signs, but did not spend much time exploring.
I was also intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the native plants I found there. I had taken every botany and plant ecology course I could in college, but that was over 30 years ago. I never really got to use or expand that knowledge during my desk-bound career. On top of that, what little I did know about grasslands pertained to places like Montana and Idaho. I had to brush up on my plant identification skills to begin identifying the myriad wildflowers I encountered.
During my first few trips out (we are asked by the DNR to visit once a month, if possible) I was mystified by the lack of grass. The ground was densely covered with forbs (leafy plants) and woody species like like willow and aspen. Grass seemed to be only a minor component of the plant community, which went against my idea of what prairie should look like. Finally, when I visited in August I encountered the “sea of grass” I had imagined. Big bluestem and Indian grass stood shoulder-high, towering over the other plants. These are called “warm season” grasses, which don’t even begin growing until July. I realized I had been looking in May and June for the “cool season” grasses I was used to seeing in drier grasslands out west.
Wandering through the tall grass, I can experience what this place looked and felt and sounded like some 140 years ago when my ancestors came to homestead. I can get a sense of the wild land that greeted them and challenged them to make their home here. My great-great grandparents (see the Minnesota History page on this blog) relocated here when the White Earth reservation was established, homesteading about 30 miles south of Santee. They tucked their home into a stand of oaks above the Buffalo River, with a view of the tallgrass prairie stretching to the western horizon.
I learn something every time I visit Santee and look forward to my next visit. On my last couple visits I spent hours wandering the prairie, identifying plants I had never seen before, spotting sandhill cranes, hawks and owls. I find myself staying almost until sunset, when I run out of daylight to see and explore. I am not only learning about the prairie, I am learning about myself. I realize I can experience that sense of wonder I felt as a kid in the woods now out on this open and windblown, wild place.