I walk daily on a path through a virgin prairie near where I live. The blooms change week by week, and I photographed some of them, to preserve their image before they withered and stepped aside for the next wave of blossoms.
I was listening to the sound track of “Forrest Gump”, which has songs from the late 60’s and early 70’s, the music of my childhood and teen years. “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane was playing:
“Come on now we’re marching to the sea
got a revolution got to revolution… “
I thought about the flower children of the 60’s, calling for revolution, and the reference to “marching to the sea”, which calls up Sherman’s march to the sea, from the Civil War. I am currently reading Sick From Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During The Civil War and Reconstruction, by Jim Downs. Mr. Downs revises the glossy view of the emancipation of the African slaves in the United States, and documents the catastrophic wave of privation and disease which met the newly emancipated bondsmen and women, because of medical ignorance and administrative incapacity. Thousands upon thousands of former slaves died of exposure, starvation and disease following emancipation. Which is obviously not to say that they were better off in slavery; in fact, the fear of that argument kept the grim facts from coming to light for generations. It is important that this story is finally being told.
It may seem odd to make a jump from beautiful wildflowers to catastrophic demographic displacement, while in the midst of a gorgeous meadow on a summer day, but that’s how my mind runs. Tearing down, I thought, is quick and easy; building up is slow and torturous. As I listened to the song calling for political change, I felt glad that the cultural revolution of my youth did not escalate to a violent overthrow of the U.S. government. This sounds simplistic; but as I watch social/political upheavals around the world, and see our country use “shock and awe” as a “defense” policy, I worry. Change is essential; people are suffering under cruel dictatorships, but as with the prairie, the return of life following a scorched-earth policy takes generations; the cost is terrible and the results are always mixed.
My little photographic record (which led to this line of thought) began with seeing a flower I’d never seen before, a few days earlier. Since I didn’t have my cellphone/camera that day, I took a mental photo and did a little sketch in watercolor while I was at my teaching job at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Fay, an avid gardener in my class, didn’t recognize it, either, and suggested that I take it to Plant Information, where they were able to identify it for me: Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea). The description in the book said it requires a “rich, well-developed environment.” In other words, it only grows where generations of untouched prairie plants have been able to flourish and propogate and create the right conditions; it’s not just going to pop up on a foreclosed subdivision where people stopped mowing the grass for a year or two. Which explains why I’ve never seen it before; it doesn’t grow just anywhere.
The custodians of Gallery Park, the beautiful jewel which contains patches of untouched prairie, utilize controlled burns to maintain the natural cycle of destruction and rebirth that allows the prairie to flourish. How do we replicate a “controlled” burn in the world of politics and nation building? Now, there’s the challenge.