Thursday, September 9, 2010

Prairie State Park

Late-summer prairie flecked with color

Not far from the rugged hills and valleys of the Ozark Mountain region, the state maintains a stretch of prairie. In late August, we visited Prairie State Park in western Missouri, about 30 miles north of Joplin (Google map).

One of the staff members at the park warned us that we were in an in-between time for flowering plants. The late-summer bloomers were burning out in the heat, and the plants that were waiting for cooler weather were still waiting.

An impatient observer might sink into boredom at the prospect of the prairie's freeform flatland expanse. Just a field of weeds, right?

Well, no. The closer we looked, the more we saw.

Flecks of color made their appearances as we approached ...

... along with exciting geometric patterns!

Even things that were rotting created interesting shapes and muted colors.

We saw this smear of white from far away. Close up, it revealed its bushy texture.

Small herds of elk and bison roam in sections of Prairie State Park. We saw a lone bison grazing in the distance (brown dot, left of center).

I remember reading Annie Dillard’s advice for nature lovers in Teaching a Stone to Talk or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: Find a good spot, sit still, and wait for nature to come to you. As I recall, she was writing about critters. However, to discover the details of the prairie, you can’t wait for it to come to you; you have to go to it. Could this dynamic have been a factor in charging the current of the American westward movement? Just a thought ...

Considering that this is what we found during an in-between time, what could we possibly expect during peak times?

Blue is one color to expect in the fall, an expert in plants and animals at the park said. Blue asters will bloom in plain sight, and, tucked down in the grasses, blue bottle gentians will flourish. Feathery plumes of Indian grass will shoot up in autumn as the tallgrass prairie reaches its peak.

Into winter, wildlife, including deer, bison and short-eared owls, is more visible with less cover, the expert said.

After your visit, eat at the Bulldog Cafe in Liberal, about 5 miles to the northeast.