Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities

Conceptualizing the Prairie: Environmental Studies and Cultural Memory

    Stanley Harpole, Asst. Prof., EEOB
Faculty Participants:
    Julie Courtwright, Asst. Prof., History
    Margaret LaWare, Assoc. Prof., English/ Speech Communications
    James Pritchard, Adj. Asst. Professor, Landscape Architecture

This group works from the premise that in general, the public does not fully understand the history, science, and value of the prairie, making tenuous efforts to conserve and restore the prairie environment. Understanding the prairie means embracing a landscape that has made current land use activities, mainly in the form of agricultural practices, possible and profitable, but not sustainable due to a similar lack of understanding of the biogeographic, geological, and ecological origins of the prairie landscape. The humanities perspective, linked with ecology, helps to provide a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the culture, history, and science of our managed landscape.

The group aims to address the problem of the "invisible" prairie--allowing the hidden to be seen. For example, many people look out at the landscape of the former Tall Grass prairie and see "nothing." They have not been trained to see the nuances in the landscape and, further, lack the language needed to identify flora and fauna. As a result, they have difficulty understanding, for example, the logic and significance of burning the prairie. Much of what is remarkable about the landscape resides below the surface, in the depths of the soil. The soil itself holds a deep and vital history, but because much of the original prairie has been literally turned over and converted to large-scale agricultural uses, the seeds of former prairie grasses and flowers sit in seed banks, only visible to horticulturalists and some devoted gardeners. The richness of the prairie soils derive from centuries-long processes of organic matter accumulation under Tall Grass prairie systems. This soil carbon legacy, which has been rapidly depleted in recent decades through unsustainable agronomic practices, is similarly obscure. And finally, what is likewise invisible is the history of the peoples whose actions created the current landscape and who witnessed, imagined, and wrote about the changes in diaries, memoirs, speeches, poems, novels, and other historical and literary texts. This group will pull together materials that touch on all these aspects of the invisible prairie, making it more accessible to the general public and university educators. Through publications and the development of educational materials, we will provide resources to increase public awareness and understanding of this landscape, which in so many ways connects not only to the region's economic vitality and ability to literally "feed the world," but to our regional and national identity and imagination, to a rich past and an uncertain future.

Suggested Group Activities over the Course of the Next Year:

  • Visiting prairie restoration site: Neil Smith Reserve - Group will consider how prairie restoration is currently presented to the public and what the group could contribute to extend efforts of public education. We will arrange for an opportunity to talk to curators and park rangers as a means to consider next steps for development of academic resources and education on campus.

  • Mini Conference on bringing together diverse disciplines from the sciences and humanities to work towards a more comprehensive understanding of the prairie ecology. This will result also in a collected volume/special issue of a journal.

  • Bring to campus a speaker who could meet with classes, give a public talk, as well as serve as a consultant for the group.

  • Meet a couple of times during the semester for a group reading/ discussion or discussion of a paper to be presented by one of the group participants. The development of website/educational materials that combine resources from different academic perspectives.

  • Grants we are considering: an NEH collaborative research grant on the ecological and cultural aspects of the prairie in the Midwest. Further, we will look into an NSF grant for putting together interdisciplinary educational materials on the prairie.
Contact this group: ceah-prairie

Stanley Harpole Assistant Professor, EEOB
Stanley Harpole

Julie Courtwright Assistant Professor, History
Julie Courtwright

Margaret LaWare Associate Professor, English
Margaret LaWare

James Pritchard
Adj. Assistant Professor,
Landscape Architecture
James Pritchard