Prairie Birthday

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This is the text of Leopold's essay "Prairie Birthday" paired with beautiful images. This presentation can be used as a backdrop for public readings of the essay.


  • 1. On this SlideShare page, you will find several Power Point presentations, one for each of themost popular essays to read aloud from A Sand County Almanac at Aldo Leopold Weekendevents. Each presentation has the essay text right on the slides, paired with beautiful images thathelp add a visual element to public readings. Dave Winefske (Aldo Leopold Weekend eventplanner from Argyle, Wisconsin) gets credit for putting these together. Thanks Dave!A note on images within the presentations: we have only received permission to use theseimages within these presentations, as part of this event. You will see a photo credit slide as thelast image in every presentation. Please be sure to show that slide to your audience at leastonce, and if you dont mind leaving it up to show at the end of each essay, that is best. Also pleasenote that we do not have permission to use these images outside of Aldo Leopold Weekendreading event presentations. For example, the images that come from the Aldo LeopoldFoundation archive are not public domain, yet we see unauthorized uses of them all the time onthe internet. So, hopefully thats enough said on this topicif you have any questions, just let usknow. mail@aldoleopold.orgIf you download these presentations to use in your event, feel free to delete this intro slide beforeshowing to your audience.

2. Prairie Birthday 3. During every week from April to September there are, on the average, tenwild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen speciesmay burst their buds on a single day. 4. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all ofthem. 5. He who steps unseeing on May dandelions may be hauled up short byAugust ragweed pollen; 6. he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may skid his caron the fallen corollas of June catalpas. 7. Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you agood deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, & the generallevel of his ecological education. 8. Every July I watch eagerly a certain countrygraveyard that I pass in driving to and from myfarm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in onecorner of this graveyard lives a survivingcelebrant of that once important event. 9. It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usualspruces, and studded with the usual pink graniteor white marble headstones, each with the usualSunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. 10. It is extra-ordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and inharboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of thenative prairie on which the grave-yard was established in the 1840s. 11. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic oforiginal Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compassplant or Cut-leaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow bloomsresembling sunflowers. 12. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps thesole remnant in the western half of our county. 13. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled thebellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, andperhaps not even asked. 14. This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later thanusual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July. 15. When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had beenremoved by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predictthe future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above themowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch. 16. The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over thisroute during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. Inthem must ride at least 100,000 people who have taken what is calledhistory, and perhaps 25,000 who have taken what is called botany. 17. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardlyone will notice its demise. 18. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew hasbeen burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowingweeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weedbe a book? 19. This is one little episodein the funeral of thenative flora, which in turnis one episode in thefuneral of the floras ofthe world. 20. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaningup the landscape on which, willy nilly, he must live out his days. 21. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and realhistory, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price ofhis good life. 22. Thus it comes to pass that farm neighborhoods are good in proportion tothe poverty of their floras. My own farm was selected for its lack ofgoodness and its lack of highway; 23. indeed my whole neighborhood lies in a backwash of the River Progress. 24. My road is the original wagon track ofthe pioneers, innocent of grades orgravel, brushings or bulldozers. 25. My neighbors bring a sigh to the County Agent. Their fencerowsgo unshaven for years on end. Their marshes are neither dykednor drained. 26. As between going fishing andgoing forward, they are proneto prefer fishing. 27. Thus on week ends my floristic standard of living is that of thebackwoods, 28. while on week days Isubsist as best I can onthe flora of the universityfarms, the universitycampus, and theadjoining suburbs. 29. For a decade I have kept, for pastime, a record of the wild plant species infirst bloom on these two diverse areas: 30. Species FirstSuburb and BackwardBlooming In: Campus FarmApril1426May2959June 4370July 2556August914September 0 1Total visual diet:120 226 31. It is apparent that the backward farmers eye is nearly twice as well fed asthe eye of the university student or businessman. 32. Of course neither sees his flora asyet, so we are confronted by the twoalternatives already mentioned: eitherinsure the continued blindness of thepopulace, or examine the questionwhether we cannot have both progressand plants. 33. The shrinkage in the flora is due to a combination of clean-farming,woodlot grazing, & good roads. 34. Each of these necessary changes of course requires a larger reduction inthe acreage available for wild plants, but none of them requires, orbenefits by, the erasure of species from whole farms, townships, orcounties. 35. There are idle spots on every farm, and every highway is bordered by anidle strip as long as it is; keep cow, plow, and mower out of these idlespots, 36. and the full native flora, plus dozens of interesting stow-aways fromforeign parts, could be part of the normal environment of every citizen. 37. The outstanding conservator of the prairie flora, ironicallyenough, knows little and cares less about such frivolities: itis the railroad with its fenced right-of-way. 38. Many of these railroad fences were erected before the prairie had beenplowed. 39. Within these linear reservations, oblivious of cinders, soot, and annualclean-up fires, the prairie flora still splashes its calendar of colors, frompink shooting-star in May 40. to blue aster in October. I have long wished to confront some hard-boiledrailway president with the physical evidence of his soft-heartedness. Ihave not done so because I havent met one. 41. The railroads of course useflame-throwers and chemical sprays toclear the track of weeds, but the cost ofsuch necessary clearance is still too highto extend it much beyond the actual rails. 42. Perhaps further improvements are in the offing. The erasureof a human subspecies is largely painless-to us-if we knowlittle enough about it. 43. A dead Chinaman is of little import to us whose awareness of thingsChinese is bounded by an occasional dish of chow mein. 44. We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from westernDane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in abotany book. 45. Silphium first became a personality to me when I tried to dig one up tomove to my farm. It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour ofhot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock.I got no Silphium, but I learned by what elaborate undergroundstrategems it contrives to weather the prairie drouths. 46. I next planted Silphium seeds, which are large, meaty, & taste likesunflower seeds. 47. They came up promptly, but after five years of waiting the seedlings arestill juvenile, and have not yet borne a flower-stalk. Perhaps it takes adecade for a Silphium to reach flowering age; how old, then, was my petplant in the cemetery? 48. It may have been older thanthe oldesttombstone, which is dated1850. 49. Perhaps it watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreatfrom the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River; itstood on the route of that famous march. 50. Certainly it saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as theyretired, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem. 51. I once saw a power shovel, while digging a roadsideditch, sever the sweet-potato root of a Silphiumplant. The root soon sprouted new leaves, andeventually it again produced a flower stalk. 52. This explains. why this plant, which never invades new ground, isnevertheless sometimes seen on recently graded roadsides. 53. Once established, it apparently withstands almost any kind of mutilationexcept continued grazing, mowing, or plowing. 54. Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas? 55. I once saw a farmer turn his cows into a virgin prairie meadow previouslyused only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped theSilphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. 56. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference forSilphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summerlong to one meadow. 57. In short, the buffalos pasturing was discontinuous, and thereforetolerable to Silphium. It is a kind providence that has withheld a sense ofhistory from the thousands of species of plants and animals that haveexterminated each other to build the present world. The same kindprovidence now withholds it from us. 58. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, 59. and few will grieve when the lastSilphium follows him to the lushprairies of the never-never land. 60. Photo CreditsHistoric photographs: Aldo Leopold Foundation archivesA Sand County Almanac photographs by Michael SewellDavid Wisnefske, Sugar River Valley Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, WisconsinEnvironmental Education Foundation, Argyle Land Ethic Academy (ALEA)UW Stevens Point Freckmann Herbarium, R. Freckmann, V.Kline, E. Judziewicz, K. Kohout, D. Lee, K Sytma, R.Kowal, P. Drobot, D. Woodland, A. Meeks, R. BiermanCurt Meine, (Aldo Leopold Biographer)Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Education for Kids (EEK)Hays Cummins, Miami of Ohio UniversityLeopold Education Project, Ed PembletonBird Pictures by Bill SchmokerPheasants Forever, Roger HillRuffed Grouse SocietyUS Fish and Wildlife Service and US Forest ServiceEric EngbretsonJames KurzOwen Gromme CollectionJohn White & Douglas CooperNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)Ohio State University Extension, Buckeye Yard and Garden OnlineNew Jersey University, John Muir Society,, and Labor Law Talk