I have been waiting for this for months. Finally the prairie has been burned. I started to doubt it for a while because it hadn’t happened, but we’ve gotten a few considerable rains already this fall. It’s all about timing.
The first place I headed toward was the viewing platform, a large deck off the parking area that overlooks the patch of land sectioned off to be a native wetland prairie at the Finley Wildlife Preserve. The edge of the deck was singed. I wish I could have seen the actual fire event. How high do the flames get? How fast does it spread? Does it spread in a sheet of fire? And how long do the flames last in a given area?
The trail intrigued me. It was still there, meandering through the prairie, it looked untouched as if someone carefully covered it while the grasses burned all around it. As I walked down it, I recognized some places that I had come to know because of the plants and flowers: a slight dip collected water that enabled a bright green patch of Elegant Downingia to remain throughout most of the summer. The dip was still there, but there was no evidence of the bright green that had been. Most of the trail looked vaguely familiar, but not entirely; I was disorganized without my normal markers of plants.
The new deep blacks of the prairie were punctuated by a few bright colors scattered through the prairie. Although the bright green patch in the little depression was gone, bright green was still present. New grasses probably started to sprout up as soon as it began to rain. These were unscathed, defiant grasses springing up from the black char here and there. Orange rose hips hung from leafless rose bush branches like dangling ornaments. Red branches from a bush that I can no longer identify spread across the field in spiky tufts.
Aside from the marked change of the landscape’s color, the new smell was almost as prominent. It was a crisp, cool autumn morning. Woven into the distinctly autumnal smell was the charred grass and dirt, and rain. It smelled old to me.
When on the path surrounded by the black, it’s easy to imagine that it’s a vast area that was burned. But it’s only an illusion. The boundaries of the prairie are clearly delineated. Burn. Green. Even in a nature preserve (maybe even more so in a nature preserve) the land is carefully and deliberately managed. The scrubby, organic landscape is contained within a neat geometric shape with sharp corners.
As I walked through the prairie, I was reminded of the reason that the nature preserve exists: birds. The quiet was frequently punctuated by the cacophony of migrating birds. Many of the trails will be closed at the end of the month to protect their nesting areas. I wanted to see the arriving birds before leaving for the day; I could hear them from the prairie, but not see them except for a lone heron standing on the border of the burned field and the adjacent field of bright green new shoots.
Perhaps a mile from the prairie, a long raised wooden walkway meanders through thick forest with branches covered with long hanging mosses. The bird sounds grew louder as I approached its end at a lake. Coming out of the trees, I could finally see the Canada geese in the sky. Large clouds of them circled above the water like swarms of insects creating ever-changing patterns against the clouds. Eventually one of the flocks flew directly over me as it traced the perimeter of the lake from the sky. And then I felt ready to leave.