The Sand Prairie of the Bootheel

Some things just don’t seem to fit in at first glance, showing up unexpectedly where one wouldn’t expect them to be.  However, having been accused of that type of behavior myself, I have grown increasingly tolerant of it in other things.  It can lead to fascinating discoveries.

I still remember being startled during an undergraduate botany field trip to Giant City State Park in deep Southern Illinois, when the instructor pointed out some scraggly-looking cacti growing on a sunny rock outcropping in the humid Shawnee National Forest.  “Prickly pear”, he said.

“Surely that can’t be native,” I responded, to which he replied, “Why not?” and proceeded to introduce us to the concept of microhabitats.  At least he introduced me to it, since I suspect many of my fellow seekers already had an inkling about it.  He explained that, even though the overall climate of the area was moderately wet, this-rock-right-here might as well be a desert as far as its inhabitants were concerned—-very hot and very dry.

Well, we now have a few prickly pears in our own little micohabitat and some recently bloomed.

Opuntia flowers in our backyard

Prickly Pear flowers in our backyard.

Although they grow around here, these particular specimens of Opuntia humifusa came from the Missouri Bootheel, itself seeming a bit out of place in the overall scheme of our state.  A mostly flat region of intensive agriculture that sometimes feels deeper south than midwest, there are areas of very sandy soils and one protected specimen of a rare ecosystem called a “sand prairie”.

Sand Prairie Conservation Area

Hard to find, but worth the search.

Sand Prairie Conservation Area can be tricky to find.  This is partly on purpose, I suspect, since it is a vulnerable spot and hosts endangered and threatened species, such as a beleaguered  hognose snake.

Snake trail in the sand

Snake (hognose?) trail in the sand

But it is well worth the search.  Exploring it was a little like being back in southern New Mexico, minus the ubiquitous cattle wandering everywhere on public lands, where Nadia and I spent a brief interlude of our lives years back.  Sand, dunes, desert-like vegetation (including lots of prickly pear!), and heat, at least the day we were there.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus at Sand Prairie Conservation Area

Right next to the tiny parking lot, it was clear that somebody was using the area as a shooting-range: pieces of clay pigeons and spent shotgun shells littered the area.  A few steps farther on and most signs of people disappeared, and it would be easy to convince yourself that you were far, far away from Missouri and the midwest.  It just doesn’t seem to fit, somehow, this odd child of glaciers and the Father of Waters, even though it is a tiny remnant of a once widespread ecosystem.

And something even more odd—-just beneath our feet was water.  Lots of it, in this year of flooding.  A friendly family right next to the prairie sold fresh eggs, so we stopped in to buy some, and the husband showed us a hole he had dug to see how far down the water really was.  He had hardly broken a sweat.  It was about 14 inches below the surface of the sand.

Remember the song “A Horse with No Name” by the group America?  Part of it went,  “The ocean is a desert, with its life underground, and a perfect disguise above.”.  Well, what do we have here, but a desert on top with a veritable ocean beneath, an ocean that popped out frequently in the landscape as standing water in fields along the country roads. There’s a microhabitat for you:  a blend of aridity with an abundance of water.  I’d guess sometimes the water table is high enough to make life a little uncomfortable for the plants that love dryness and at other times it’s out of the reach of plants that prefer a more hydrated life.  Between these extremes, or because of them, survives this remnant ecosystem.  I decided I really liked this hot, little oddball prairie.

Sand prairie landscape

Sand prairie in the spring

I don’t know why, but I have always been drawn to the dry places of the world.  For some reason, I never feel out of place in them, like I sometimes do in other places.  They often appear austere and stark, but that’s mostly illusion upon looking more closely.  There is plenty there to engage with, but little that clamors loudly for attention.  I think it is no coincidence that at least three of the worlds greatest religions were desert-born.  These are places where you can get down to basics.  These are places where quiet and simplicity are the rule, not things to be desperately avoided. These are places where misfits can retreat.  And thrive.

Patterns in the sand

Patterns in the sand

Note: The prickly pears in our backyard came from the sandy front yard of a friend in Haywood City, not far away from the sand prairie.  She was happy to give us some, and they seem happy here with us.  Out of place?  I guess no more so than our little patch of wildness in the land of lawn services.


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