sand prairie

Folklorist Mary Hufford describes the sand prairie country along the upper Mississippi River as a place once “bursting with goat’s rue, fragrant sumac, horsemint, and the charming pink fruiting bodies of wolf milk’s slime mold.” With the arrival of early settlers, this habitat was significantly degraded, and the bursting quality abrogated. Sand prairies—small but growing over defined sheets of sand and found most famously in the sand counties of Wisconsin, but also along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in northwest Illinois—were founded on glacial outwash. This outwash is almost pure sand, deposited by streams carrying sediment and meltwater away from a deteriorating glacier. Sand prairie soils are droughty and support vegetation that tends to burn easily—the repeated fires keep out woody vegetation such as shrubs and trees. One rare Iowa ecosystem, the Cedar Hills Sand Prairie, has growing in its drier sites bluestem, switchgrass, sand dropseed, and purple lovegrass, while its wet areas are dominated by sedges. This prairie also supports hundreds of species of native plants, over fifty species of birds and butterflies, and over ninety species of indigenous leafhoppers. Willa Cather, in My Ántonia, describes such a landscape in the Midwest: “More than anything else I felt emotion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of buffalo were galloping, galloping.” In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, describes a life of restoration at his Wisconsin farm, caring for the precious swamps, savannas, and sand prairies there. Eloquent pleas have been made recently in the service of protecting similar regions still in existence—urging that steps be taken to help the sand prairie and its system of plants and animals heal itself.

Elizabeth Cox