Burn days at Prairie Crossing

watsonOur new release Prairie Crossing looks at a suburban Chicago housing development founded as an experiment to use access to nature as a means to challenge America’s failed culture of suburban sprawl. Keeping the development up that challenge, however, takes some work, as nature sometimes needs a hand to work its wonders. John Scott Watson takes a look at one of the rituals residents undertake to encourage plant growth on the generous open acreage that helps make Prairie Crossing such a unique living space:

Big bluestem is the dominant grass within the development. Reaching heights of eight feet or more along many of the meandering hiking paths, the grass’s trademark summer-season blue and purple stems take on a golden-brown color in late fall and early winter. Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem, Canada wild rye, and prairie dropseed compete with big bluestem for space and provide the bulk of the fuel for the burn.

On burn days, a half-dozen or more volunteer residents, led by Michael Sands, light the vegetation with a hand-held drip torch. Sands carefully selects burn days on the basis of favorable wind (5-15 mph) and weather. Volunteers control the burn by extinguishing flames with swatters (square rubber mats attached to a pole) and backpack water guns. The fire crackles as billows of gray smoke darken the sky. Left in the fire’s wake is blackened earth. To the uninitiated, the land may look dead or badly scarred, but the fire has actually primed the prairie for the growing season. The group burns several acres at a time, providing residents with a vivid lesson in grassland ecology. Even casual observers notice the dramatic effect that burning has on plant growth the following spring.