Field NoticesDecorah city prairie
from Luther College Chips
December 6, 2007
If you feel overwhelmed by work and worry before Christmas, or underwhelmed in January, when the pace is less hectic, do a little time traveling. Get over your head in grass.
If you are a fan of time travel you may know that portals through the fourth dimension often look ordinary and deceptive to the uninitiated. The TARDIS ship in which Doctor Who careens from one end of the time galaxy to another looks, to the average observer, like a quaint blue just-post-WWII police phone box.
Your portal, should you decide to step through it to another century, is the earthen dike at the bottom end of Ohio Street. On one side are paved sidewalks, garages, satellite dishes and sport utility vehicles. On the other is grass, higher than your head.
A visitor to Decorah in February 1859 described a walk across the hilltop above Ice Cave: “we sought an Indian trail, and pass[ed] westward through prairie grasses higher than our heads.” A century and a half ago, most of the land in this area was covered with that kind of vegetation.
In the City Prairie on the far side of the dike, the tallest grass, most of it Indian grass, grows in a band along the river. This time of year it is dried a rusty tan and makes a papery rattling sound in the December wind.
At the start of the school year the Ohio Street edge of City Prairie is a popular spot for families. A small loop of paved trail there is crowded with flowering prairie plants that attract clouds of monarchs, sulphurs, and swallowtails. By the end of the school year Red-winged Blackbirds ride the tops of long grasses by the river, calling out to stake their stretch of bank. Before that happens, the city will burn the prairie down to blackened nubbins to keep away weeds and trees.
No matter the season, there are few better places for a half-hour walk.
Several elements help take you backwards in time as you walk through City Prairie. It is in a floodplain, cut off from residential Decorah by the dike and bounded to the west and south by the river. The up-close view is grass and more grass. The view in the distance is wooded hillsides.
Maybe the view doesn’t take you so much back in time, as lifting you outside of time.
My favorite spot on the prairie is the southwest corner where the river makes a sharp bend. There, in the little clump of woods, beavers cut down the occasional boxelder. Raccoons leave prints in the silt or snow at the edge of the big pool. Just in from that spot, surrounded by tall grass, is a single, spreading oak.
Standing under that oak, surrounded by prairie grass, you can get the slight buzz of knowing what it felt like for the first settlers of Decorah to follow a deer or Indian trail north from town and find themselves on the bluff where the Union now stands, an oak tree spreading above them, while around them whispered the stems and leaves of big and little bluestem.
That oak, surrounded by City Prairie, is the smallest remnant of something once completely common here, but now almost completely gone: savannah.
The cost for that rare moment? A little welcome exercise. You’ll find no better bargain on either side of Christmas.