A Prairie in Pieces
Remnants of Blackland Prairie - with head-high grasses and rolling meadows - shed light on a vanishing part of Texas heritage.
By Henry Chappell
Matt White speaks in paragraphs, pausing often as if to compose and polish. His manner invites careful reply, for when he's in virgin prairie, his element, he is inclined to stop in midstride - on his way to point out the crawdad-shaped root clumps of red gamma, say - to address in detail something you said in passing an hour earlier.
Perhaps this habit stems from his calling as an educator; he teaches history at Paris Junior College. Just as likely, it reflects his position as a student of his home ground, the Blackland Prairie of north central Texas - or what's left of it.
I have lived in the Blacklands, in the Dallas area, for the past 25 years. I know parts of other regions of Texas better than I know my home county in Kentucky, where I was born and raised. Yet I had never seen a piece of untilled Blackland Prairie until I stood with White on a cool mid-September morning in a 100-acre remnant in central Hunt County, near Greenville.
Notwithstanding the summer heat, I would have rather seen the meadow in June or July, the peak wildflower season. I had expected the deep greens and straw browns of late summer, and indeed those hues were present in abundance. But I was unprepared for the magenta of fall-flowering gayfeather, the azure blooms of blue sage, the deep red fruit of prairie rose.
"I've always heard about head-high big bluestem," White said. "But I had never seen it until this year."
Neither had I. Nor chest-high Maximilian's sunflower, waist-high Indian grass, switch grass, eastern gama, knee-high little bluestem and sideoats grama, layered like a climax forest, laid out in a mosaic of communities suited to varying soil moisture.
Over the course of a long life, even residents - those who care to notice - can expect to see the prairie at its most glorious during only a few summers. I was fortunate. After a long drought, record spring and early summer rains had found the tough prairie rootage protected, healthy and waiting. The Blacklands have known periodic drought for thousands of years.
This tiny parcel of prairie had been a hay meadow set aside like money in a savings account, a hedge against drought, hail, pestilence and worn-out soil. A healthy patch of Blackland Prairie, unplowed and used with care, will feed grazing stock when the vagaries of nature lay waste to cotton, corn and sorghum.
"The best of the old farmers had a practical conservation ethic that's rare today," White said. "They knew that they had to plan for every contingency. They couldn't just go buy whatever they needed like we can."
White lives with his wife, Kristin, and four daughters on the Hunt County farm where he was raised. In his book Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait (TAMU Press, 2006), he writes, "I come from prairie people. Therefore it is with mixed emotion that I write about these people, the world they inhabited, and the way they treated the land around them. I may not agree with the choices they made, but I realize that those choices were often desperate ones meant to ensure their survival."
The Blackland Prairie Region is an extension of the Tallgrass Prairie that runs through the eastern portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, most of Iowa, and parts of Missouri, Indiana and Minnesota.
In Texas, the Blacklands, bounded on the west by the Cross Timbers and Prairies Region and in the east by the Post Oak Savannah Region, extend from the Red River, in Grayson, Fannin and Lamar counties and the eastern half of Red River County, about 300 miles southward in a gradually narrowing band, through Dallas and Waco, terminating just north of San Antonio - about 12 million acres in all. Except for river breaks, the Blacklands are gently rolling, ranging in elevation from 300 to 800 feet.
The region takes its name from the rich, black, waxy, alkaline, calciferous soil that has long delighted and vexed nearly everyone who has ever worked it, from 19th century yeomen to modern weekend gardeners. Pioneers called Blackland soil "nooner" soil because it was often too gummy to plow on wet mornings, then hard as concrete by mid-afternoon. Even today, a brief shower can make unpaved farm roads treacherously slick or impassible, even to farm machinery and vehicles with four-wheel drive.
As with the Tallgrass Prairie in the plains states to the north, big bluestem and Indian grass dominate most of Blackland Prairie, while midgrasses such as little bluestem, sideoats grama and switch grass are common as well. Ancient root systems, equal in biomass to the richest tropical forests, anchor the prairie soil.
"Unlike the forests in the east, these prairies were ready for settlement," White says. "You didn't have to clear land. Just show up with your milk cow and a few hogs, and build a cabin. You might not have much, but you wouldn't starve."
In 1848, upon arriving at the edge of the Blackland Prairie, John Brooke, an emigrant from England, wrote: "It was the finest sight I ever saw; immense meadows 2 or 3 feet deep of fine grass and flowers. Such beautiful colours I never saw."
Later, after settling in Grayson County near the northern edge of the Blackland Prairie, he wrote: "I can sit on my porch before my door and see miles of the most beautiful Prairie interwoven with groves of timber, surpassing, in my idea, the beauties of the sea. Think of seeing a tract of land on a slight incline covered with flowers and rich meadow grass for 12 to 20 miles."
Another Englishman, Edward Smith, who visited the Dallas area shortly after Texas joined the Union, wrote of the rich, black soil: "It is universally admitted to be the finest soil in the country, equaling in fertility the rich alluvial bottoms of the great Mississippi Valley."
Black bears foraged in the river bottoms and along the wooded creeks. Greater prairie chickens boomed on their leks in the open spaces amid the tallgrass. Pronghorn antelope ranged as far east as Fannin County. Packs of prairie wolves shadowed bands of that most emblematic prairie species, the bison. Most likely these were small resident bands joined by migrating herds from the Great Plains north of the Red River. Early Dallas settlers reported abundant buffalo bones on the Trinity River floodplain.
Constant, often violent change characterized the Blacklands. Migrating bison herds grazed and trampled the prairie, killing encroaching brush and creating a soil disturbance favorable to germination of sunflower, ragweed, croton and other forbs. Frequent wildfire, caused by lightning or started by American Indians, burned dead grass and killed even well-established brush and trees. The heat stimulated germination of long-dormant seeds and invigorated root systems. Burned plant matter provided soil nutrients.
But settlers could ill afford conflagrations. Wildfire was something to be feared and suppressed. Today, brush and trees cover hundreds of thousands of acres of former prairie. Contrary to popular perception, trees are not always the answer.
From the late 1830s, when pioneers first began trickling into the Blacklands, through the Civil War, farming was primarily a subsistence enterprise, though there are early reports of large herds of longhorn cattle and wild horses, and cattle drives from Dallas to St. Louis. Small settlements, stocked with goods hauled overland from Jefferson and other East Texas towns with riverboat access, provided modest markets for area farmers. In 1860, just prior to secession, the population of Dallas County stood at only 8,665.
But the coming of the railroad in 1872 provided access to distant markets. The rich Blackland soil produced tremendous cotton crops, and the prairie went under the plow at an unprecedented rate. For the next 70 years, by some accounts, the Blacklands produced more cotton than any other region in the world. Agronomists considered Blackland soil the most fertile west of the Mississippi River. The region's human population swelled. By 1915, more people lived in Blacklands than any other region of comparable size in the United States.
Today, the Blackland Prairie may be the most tamed and degraded of Texas' 10 ecological regions, though it remains very productive agriculturally. Estimates of the destruction range from 98 percent to more than 99.9 percent. Small differences aside, true Blackland Prairie is the most rare and endangered habitat in Texas, if not in all of North America.
Matt White describes the loss: "If we think of the Blackland Prairie as a person, all that we have left is a sliver of fingernail."
In a region so altered and dominated by Dallas and the surrounding suburbs, even the most sentimental nature lover may have trouble imagining wildness worth fighting for. Nowadays, visitors and even longtime Blackland residents describe the region as monotonous, bleak, unmercifully hot, a place best suited for freeways, unending commercial expansion and hermetic, air-conditioned travel.
So why bother? Practically speaking, the true Blackland Prairie is gone. Would we really miss those last few thousand acres? Would anyone other than a few naturalists or nostalgic local historians even notice? Who really cares whether it's imported Johnson Grass or big bluestem growing along the road to more scenic country? We're talking about grass, not mountains or giant redwoods. You can always plant some wildflowers.
Matt White stopped his examination of a prairie petunia, a delicate flower with five pale violet petals, and pointed to the sky.
A soft fffttt, fffttt.
"A migrating dickcissel."
Something else caught his eye. "This is what I've been looking for," he said. He parted the grass to expose a low-growing forb with dagger-shaped leaves. "Wide leaf false aloe. Very rare. Probably the rarest plant on any of these prairie remnants. It doesn't get pollinated or set seed, but burning seems to propagate it."
He stepped back and let the grass reform a canopy over his rare find. As we walked toward the truck, he said, "You plow this up and it just doesn't come back. Even with 50 years and an unlimited budget, it's not the same. This is our heritage, and it's just about gone."
Visiting Blackland remnants
Most of Texas' remaining Blackland Prairie survives in small patches on private property.
The Nature Conservancy owns or manages several tracts for the purposes of preservation, research and public education. Clymer Meadow Preserve, a 1,068-acre remnant in northwestern Hunt County, near Greenville, is one of the largest and most scenic Blackland Prairie remnants in Texas. Access is by appointment only. For information, call the preserve manager at (903) 568-4139 or visit the Nature Conservancy Web site at <www.nature.org>.
Parkhill Prairie, a 436-acre preserve in northeast Collin County, features a 52-acre remnant prairie and walking trail: <www.co.collin.tx.us/parks/parkhill_prairie.jsp>.
Cedar Hill State Park is refuge to five small prairie remnants: <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/cedarhill>.
Rosehill Park is a 75-acre prairie preserve in Garland: <www.ci.garland.tx.us>.