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Story behind Soaring Eagle Prairie

by Glinda Crawford, Ph.D.

 

A Gift: Soaring Eagle Statue

Colonel Eugene E. Myers, University of North Dakota (UND) alumnus and benefactor, commissioned the Soaring Eagle Statue by Turtle Mountain Chippewa artist Bennett Brien. The statue was installed fall 2000 along the University's busiest sidewalks and under the watchful eyes of two bald eagles soaring overhead. The statue, which depicts an eagle lifting off a dead tree, was a gift from Colonel Meyers to UND students. It was a gift becoming many gifts in return.

Kristy Berger: A Spark Who Got It Started

Many people were deeply moved by the statue. One of those was Kristy Berger, 2000-01 Vice President of the Student Body and senior in Communications. Kristy had taken a Sociology course called "Knowing Nature" the spring before, where she learned about the fundamental relationship of humans to the landscape. She discovered the significance to her life of her North Dakota prairie home and the reality that this connection gave her peace during some pretty stressed times. Her class was involve in planting the first prairie garden on campus at the Lotus Meditation Center. Something magical happened when Kristy and her classmates put their hands into the soil. Kristy became committed to putting a prairie garden in the middle of the University campus. She too wanted to give a gift back to UND.

Kristy knew as she passed the statue that the Soaring Eagle should be surrounded by prairie grasses and flowers. She carried that vision to others. And quite magically, others were thinking the same, including faculty members Glinda Crawford (environmental studies/sociology, who was her “Knowing Nature” teacher) and Kathleen Brokke (prairie horticulturist and environmental historian). Both had been instrumental in establishing the garden at the Lotus Meditation Center. Those first conversations were a “go”. As a result, the seeds for the idea of Soaring Eagle Prairie were planted and had begun to grow.

Soaring Eagle Prairie Planners

Soaring Eagle Prairie Planners was formed to organize the project, including designing, planting and maintaining the plants in the soil and in the hearts of those who are ready to connect with prairie. This eclectic group had experience and/or desire for learning about prairie restoration, prairie gardening, environmental history, indigenous peoples and prairie landscapes, connection to place, communicating this initiative to others.

Ivy Arnesen (senior, graduating in Communications in 2002), from the lakes and trees of Warroad, Minnesota, also has a prairie connection. She had an image close to her heart of a photo taken when she was a child of her family amidst prairie grasses and flowers. She along with Jana, Jason, and technical consultant Cindy Grabe were instrumental in the development of the web site. She and Jana helped us begin consideration for public relations of the dedication event.

Kristy Berger (alumna, graduating in Communications in 2001), from Center, North Dakota, was Vice President of the Student Body in 2000-2001. She took the class “Knowing Nature” where she came to recognize the significance of her home on the Great Plains to who she is. She wanted to give something back to UND and worked toward gaining administrative clearances for initiating the prairie garden on central campus.

Kathleen Brokke (Integrated Studies/Women Studies) is a prairie horticultural designer. The work of her hand and heart is evidenced in public and private gardens around Grand Forks. An environmental historian, she studies and performs in Chatauqua the life of Grand Forks native Fanny Mahood Heath, a national leader in horticulture who brought the stories of prairie plants to national and international levels in the early 1900s.

Glinda Crawford
(Environmental Studies/Sociology) studies and teaches on the connection of humans to landscapes, and brings people home to the prairie. She is a gardener who once sought to have an English cottage garden in Grand Forks; after much labor and continual replanting of sick and dead plants, she finally got it that prairie plants were the ones who were supposed to be here. She chairs Soaring Eagle Prairie Planners and teaches “Knowing Nature”.

Richard Crawford (Biology) comes from a wildlife biology background and has moved into the study of prairie as an ecosystem and prairie restoration. As a naturalist, he has helped humans throughout his professional career to see the preciousness of the plants and animals on prairie landscapes. He and his wife Glinda combine their long term partnership bringing people home to place.

Jana Erickson (major in Communications) grew up in the city (Eden Prairie). Yet, she thinks fondly of the connections her family has to prairie. Her grandfather, from Hannaford, North Dakota, has taught her to love prairie and prairie stories. She along with Jason, Ivy and technical consultant Cindy Grabe were instrumental in the development of the web site. She and Ivy helped us begin consideration for public relations of the dedication. She wonders how Eden Prairie got its name.

Della Kapocius (Center for Innovation/College of Business Administration) has a great interest in gardening and learning about prairie plants and prairie gardening. She just popped out of the blue with hoe in hand indicating her interest in Soaring Eagle Prairie and volunteering to help in any way that she could.

Jason Schaefer (junior, majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies: Environmental Studies) was born and reared in Grand Forks. He has recently lived in Spain and Missoula, Montana, where he pondered the deep connection of the people to their landscapes: “Why can’t we have that here?” He is interested in recovering his own story on the Great Plains. He, Ivy, Jana, and technical consultant Cindy Grabe were largely responsible for launching the web site. Jason gave tireless support to his peers in launching their grass and flower web pages on this site.

Fred Schneider (Anthropology) has an interest in uses of prairie plants by indigenous people of the region. He is an avid vegetable gardener with interest in Native American gardens and protecting heritage seeds. He was eager to learn about prairie gardening and plants of the prairie region. And, he noted, “I have a pickup.”

Dorreen Yellow Bird
(Community Journalist) is a Sahnish elder concerned about restoring prairie knowledge of her people, particularly children. She writes a regular column for the Grand Forks Herald where she often shares her observations and experiences on prairie landscapes. Her words are helping many people awaken to prairie landscapes.

Support from UND Finance & Operations and Facilities

From the get-go, essential and supportive links were established with key individuals from Finance & Operations, and Facilities:

Bob Gallager (Vice President, Finance & Operations) had just arrived on the University campus in 2000. He had seen success in native planting at his previous institution and through the "butterfly gardening" work with children of his wife Marian. He knew its potential and was very excited to see something similar happening here.

Paul Clark (Associate Director, Facilities) was central during key times of decision making "on the ground". He helped us consider logistics, smoothing the way for our work. Glinda Crawford commented to him that the work of Facilities staff was largely invisible (like "back stage", supporting "front stage"). Paul replied: "That's the way it is supposed to be."

Dale Kadelbach (Supervisor, Landscaping) with three fulltime staff and 15-20 student assistants in the summer have responsibility for grounds on a 550 acre university, which is no small job. This includes planting 43,000 annual flowers, care of 5200 trees. Dale orchestrated the background details for Soaring Eagle Prairie, including: sod cutting, equipment availability, hoses and access to water, posting markers for snowplows.

We intended that garden would be primarily the work of committed and caring volunteers; we would not add to the already stretched Finance & Operations/Facilities workloads, plus we wanted to give space for our own caring of the University community. At every step a close and supportive working relationship with friends in Finance and Operations and Facilities was necessary for the garden to take root and flourish. In academic settings, a disconnection often exists between faculty/students and the personnel who keep the institution running smoothly. This experience offered a bridge and community across those invisible boundaries.

Facing Disconnection with Prairie and Nature of our Human Family

In planning Soaring Eagle Prairie, the Planners needed to reflect on the surrounding community’s support for prairies. Just .1% of the tallgrass prairie remains in the Red River Valley on the North Dakota side with less than 1% remaining nationally. While it is easy to point fingers as to who is responsible for the loss of prairie, the answer is not so simple. In fact, the answer may very well be “all of us”.

Three factors figure dominantly in the loss of prairie: urban sprawl, asphalt, and industrial farming. Yet, underneath is a major disconnect of western (industrial) culture with nature. Since humans are creatures who are part of nature, the loss of nature becomes a deep spiritual loss. We become separated from who we were meant to be. A deep lack of understanding and respect for the “sacredness of life” results. That is the big picture, the context out of which our community and our lives are set.

As for the "small picture" or local context, the University campus and Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area represent carefully manicured landscapes on a European tradition. That means mown lawns, annual flowers, non-native trees and plants in generally orderly rows. Historically, this style of landscaping was accomplished in Europe by aristocrats who had money and human resources to create a carefully controlled look. In this country today, this style of landscaping means heavy inputs of energy (human, mechanical, fuel), chemicals, water, money, and continual replacement of plants.

The Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area is surrounded by enormous fields of industrial agriculture where there is zero-tolerance toward anything other than the planted row crop. In fact, there is zero-tolerance toward plants native to this continent.

One local situation illustrated the lack of understanding and acceptance of some people toward prairies. Recently, the Grand Forks City Council decided to “remove” a Native prairie planting (established in 1991) at the Columbia and Demers overpass, a high visibility area within the community. This planting was not without its difficulties, but was for the most part a mature prairie planting after 9 years; it just needed a little more care. The prairie was shoulder on either side to a busy 4 lane thoroughfare, where sand and salt, exhaust and oil from roadways choked prairie plants along the edge; this small strip of edge was almost impossible to groom as you stood three feet from cars whizzing by at 35 miles per hour. As a result, the weeds came in along the edge and was all that some people saw.

Regardless, the interior was lush, showing signs of an established prairie. To walk that prairie was to see plants forming communities, new plants appearing which had never been planted, new butterflies and birds appearing and making their homes there. Unfortunately, its location amidst heavy traffic prohibited gentle walks on the prairie and prairie/human interaction. However, teachers and students in the public schools were using the prairie planting for education. Regardless, the voices against this patch of prairie became louder than those who loved it (and had not recognized that it was at risk). But perhaps, that prairie planting had been before its time and we could learn from that experience. And just perhaps, many in our midst were soon ready to hear and experience the story of prairie that had been denied them.

Another Look: Prairie Initiatives Growing Around Us

At the same time, we watched prairie initiatives being planted and flourishing all around us. Many people were recognizing the great loss of tallgrass prairie. A movement across the Great Plains was arising to save and protect the little that remained, to restore, and to celebrate our connection to prairie landscapes. The evidences close to home were compelling:

The Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota were becoming an object of great pride and identity. They (along with many other initiatives across the Great Plains) were also becoming an example of the compatibility of ranching and ecology.

Visionaries in northwestern Minnesota have worked to create a mosaic of native prairie areas protected by various public and private agencies along the Lake Agassiz Beach Ridge. “Glacial Ridge” east of Crookston was just formed and at 25,000 acres is the largest prairie restoration effort on the North American Continent.

“Prairie Passages” was underway to create a national tallgrass prairie highway corridor along designated routes extending from south Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. This pioneering partnership between these six states is funded by the National Highway Administration. This highway corridor will extend just east of us in northwestern Minnesota.

Add to that the interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and curiosity about the interior of the continent prior to European settlement.

The long standing North American Prairie Conference was providing a vital link between restoration efforts on the Great Plains.

The Greenway along the Red River between Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, and from Lake Traverse (South Dakota) through Minnesota/North Dakota ending at Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba) was attracting energy and imagination for transformation in our region. Nature (the River) could become a central thread of the fabric and a friend in our lives. For those who live in Greater Grand Forks, this would be like living next to a park.

Initiatives in the public schools were arising . Some schools in the area have initiated their own prairie plantings with great success and often good coverage in the local news: South Middle School, Valley Middle School, East Grand Forks Middle School. Moorhead (Minnesota) third graders focus on a prairie year, including planting seedlings and transplanting them to a restored prairie area (Buffalo River State Park).

Nature-based tourism was big news with events large and small; the first Sully’s Hill Birding Festival (Ft. Totten) in 2000 brought in 1500 visitors from 19 states and 5 Canadian provinces). In 2002, the planning committee for the Annual Festival of Birds at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, describes those first 5 years as so much fun they added another day (http://www.detroitlakes.com/). Prairie Days in North Dakota were just beginning to be scheduled; for the first official Prairie Day in 2002, 150 people descended upon tiny McLeod, North Dakota, in the Sheyenne National Grasslands to learn about prairie. This summer initiative is likely to move about the state featuring prairies in our midst. In 2001, the International Prairie Tour (between North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba) scheduled its long running 3 day tour bringing together people with long-standing commitments to prairie as well as newcomers to the fold. The Dakota Science Center scheduled regular monthly prairie tours through the summer and fall season in 2001 (http://www.dakota-science.org/). The ambitious Pine to Prairie Birding Trail (which includes prairies) in Minnesota extends 230 miles from Lake of the Woods (Warroad) through Roseau, Thief River Falls, Detroit Lakes, and Fergus Falls. This trail’s bird checklist includes 275 regular and 26 casual species. (http://www.mnbirdtrail.com/)

Cooperative experiences on prairie education and wisdom between Native Americans and folks of European descent were emerging in magical ways, indicating promise of potential to come. The work of the Dakota Science Center with the Sahnish (Arikara) people is exemplary. (http://www.natureshift.org/Whawk/wh_index.html)

The North Dakota Humanities Council gave two Larry Remele Memorial Fellowships to study notable figures in the history of the region. Anne Kelsch (History) studied Alexander Henry, an explorer in northeastern North Dakota during the early 1800s whose documentation of the natural world prior to settlement gives us food for thought and helps us grasp the significance of what has been lost. Kathleen Brokke studied Fannie Mahood Heath, a national leader in horticulture whose advocacy for prairie plants became internationally known. Fannie Mahood Heath lived in Brenna Township of Grand Forks County from 1881-1931 on what would now be 3 miles past I-29 on 32nd Avenue South. Kathleen has performed Fannie Heath in Chatauqua across the state.

King’s Walk, Grand Forks’ Arnold Palmer signature golf course, features native grasses and flowers. Even the contour of the golf course simulates western North Dakota rolling prairie hills at a scale of 1:10. A movement in golf course design incorporates native plantings.

Most of the Planners had had significant experiences with the public which showed a deep yearning of many for prairie knowledge and need to celebrate the place that is home. The time was right for a prairie planting and educational effort at the center of the University campus.

Prairies: Essential for Learning

Regardless of age, many folks in our times are experiencing a deep yearning for a simple and fundamental connection to landscape, or connection to place. University students and others ask questions like:

“Just what does tallgrass prairie look like?”

“What does it feel like to be on a prairie?”

“You mean most of it is gone; yet that was all that was here before?”

“Why did (and do) people try to take it all away?”

“Where can I see prairie now?”

“What would it take to bring some back?”

“How could I help bring back prairie so my children will experience it?”

“Can I grow prairie plants in my yard?”

We have vast libraries telling the human story at the intersection of book, virtual reality, and human mind/imagination. Yet, we need gardens and prairies where we can see and experience nature as nature is. The hard reality is that much of the tallgrass prairie has been removed. So where do we go to learn about it?

While the library and Internet provide significant ways to learn about prairies, they are only a part of our educational solution. Glinda Crawford remembers her former Dean Henry J. Tomasek telling a story from early in his educational career. Adolescents were taught to type in a rural school without typewriters; they were taught on a "tablecloth" where the keyboard was displayed. This example is almost humorous in the context of our times. We know that "real" is almost always a better and more meaningful educational experience. Yet because so much of the tallgrass has been taken away (particularly in our area), we too are limited to something other than real. While books and web sites (including this one) add to the fullness of our prairie learning experiences, they are no substitute for the real thing.

Through those real experiences, the land speaks and has innumerable lessons for us. While standing in tallgrass, we observe the dynamics of prairie communities. We see ourselves “as part of nature” rather than separate from it, essential teachings for our times. Anyone who has worked with prairie knows this land wants to be prairie. The teachings unfold as we see individual plants, watch a butterfly settling into the garden, touch the plants, hear bees buzz through the garden, smell monarda (a mint), witness a squirrel feverishly store food for the winter, sit next to the garden and soak in the experience, see how prairie plants hug the snow and soil in the fury of a blizzard while bare annual beds do not. The teachings are innumerable and every day is a different.

The prairie garden becomes a library, a major educational tool: teaching about prairie soils, plants and creatures who reside there, knowing intimately the story of this place and our place within it, pondering and connecting with our own stories, coming to know and celebrate the stories of our families and those who came before, soaking in and celebrating that intimate bond of nature in our lives. We come to question our place in these things. For many, we study and experience restoration as we roll up our sleeves to take our place in an historic movement helping us to connect with the Great American Plains. We are restoring some of the damage done. We begin to see prairie gardens around our homes, businesses, and parks.

Prairie and Health

Soaring Eagle Prairie has direct potential to maximize and teach about health. The University’s current wellness initiative recognizes seven components: physical, emotional/psychological, spiritual, occupational, social, intellectual, environmental. The prairie garden at UND connects with all seven.

The following is a beginning discussion of what prairies teach humans about health. Many of these are “deep” and fundamental concepts which place nature in an age-old position of teacher and healer. This is often outside the box of conventional modern Western thinking, which views humans as separate from nature. These thoughts and images represent a way to reconnect with these important teachings:

As we develop the prairie garden, we learn about “sense of place”. That is the place where we come from or the place where we live. It is the place to which we are intimately bound in ways that may or may not be known to us. In western culture, we live as separate from the landscape. Our people do not know where they are from and as a consequence do not know completely who they are. Glinda Crawford tells the story of two Native American students in her class who introduced themselves in their traditional way: "First, I will tell you about the land that I come from; second: I will tell you about my family; and third, I will tell you about myself. But, when you know the land and my family, then you will know who I am.” In our times, we are learning the significance of the grasslands interior of the Great North American Continent: the Great Plains as it exists in its own right and in our lives. This is a story that has been long denied to many of us. We are coming home to place. A greater sense of meaning of the prairie and the people should result.

The more integrated we are with the landscape, the more we live with nature (and our true nature), and the more peaceful and centered our lives typically become. We gain that quiet center that is so needed in our fast-paced industrial society.

As we garden, we learn about nature’s rhythms. Quietly but persistently, the Earth Mother teaches us what it takes to survive and thrive. The garden can become a great teacher, as we learn to listen.

Prairie plants need clean air, clean water, warm sun, rich nutrients of the soil to survive. Prairie plants do not thrive (or survive) with the use of toxic chemicals. We live in an increasingly polluted world. These toxins (poisons) are not good for humans either.

We are learning about humans as part of (rather than over) the circle of life. We find we are surrounded by the infinite wonder of a family of beings, many of whom have been waiting patiently for our return. We are finding our way humbly toward our place in the scheme of things.

Gardening is good physical exercise if done within one’s limits and with a caring teacher.

Restoring prairie can be healing, both to the Earth and to humans. We bring back the prairie plants; other critters (like birds and butterflies) will arrive soon after because their homes are being restored after long absence. We are healing the Earth in our own limited way but also healing the split of humans toward the Earth. We are coming home.

We live at a time period of massive human alteration of natural landscapes on a worldwide level. Evidence supports the fact that our practices put our survival as a species at risk. Arising around the world and particularly in Western culture is a powerful and many faceted movement where humans seek to live as part of nature rather than as separate. Thomas Berry believes that for us to survive, we need to move into an ecological age. Our own small steps are in that direction. Many who do this work see themselves in an historical role of great service. Our grandchildren will be glad that we did.

Many in Western culture have forgotten the sacredness of life itself. The prairie experience gives us a gift of seeing and feeling the exquisiteness of life. We are part of that web. To have this experience and to feel this sacredness alters the footprints of humans on the Earth.

Garden Designed to Maximize Success

Soaring Eagle Prairie was designed to maximize success and potential acceptance. We cannot make everyone come to know and love prairie, but we can extend a bridge. We considered the tension between many people and prairie. We tried to understand it, exploring its roots. Our intent was to work with others as much as they were willing. We considered the growing openness in our midst toward prairie and its story. These elements were integral to the physical design of the garden and the planned activities around it. The following elements were designed to meet these ends:

Kathleen Brokke designed the garden as more of a landscaped garden with specimen plants rather than a wild flowing native prairie look. We did not believe everyone was quite ready to accept this more natural look. In addition, this approach seemed more respectful of the tradition in our community toward controlled gardens. Further, the garden is next to showy annual beds. We needed a garden which would hold its own with controlled beds high on constant color.

During the growing season (that first year), we kept fairly regular traffic in the garden, including volunteers to tend it, classes, discussions with significant publics telling the story of the prairie. Our belief is that the more people are seen in the garden tending it, enjoying it, learning from it, the more it will belong there. As we come into that second year, "use" is happening on its own.

We pay attention to litter in the area. We live in a windy place and our people don’t pick up after themselves very well. The plants become homing sites for litter in wind. We make routine visits to the garden to tidy up and encourage anyone visiting there to do the same.

We keep after weeds. Most people show no tolerance for weeds in public gardens, although some would not recognize the difference between a weed and a native prairie plant. In fact that is precisely the problem. Native prairie plants have been labeled weeds. The weeds we keep after are those that are invasive exotic species which would take over a bed if we would let it. We won’t.

We planted a few more Black-eyed Susans that first year than we will have over time. A lot of folks have attachments to this showy flower. "Susans" are easy to grow and put good fairly long lasting color over the summer season.

We have planned various activities around the garden, including “opening the soil” (April 16, 2001) and dedication (April 23, 2002).

We have invited the press to help tell the story and spread the word.

The plants will be marked for identification.

This web site is being used to interpret the garden, to encourage people’s connection with it, to summarize questions and comments that Soaring Eagle Prairie Planners have received. We intend that people visiting the garden will be able to note names of plants and connect with the web site for their stories.

In the early stages, the garden may include more flowers than grasses simply because our people are more accepting of flowers and not quite as understanding of grasses. This, however, is a grassland region, and the grasses made the region what it is. Fewer varieties of grasses were found on the prairie and far greater numbers of varieties of flowers were present, yet grasses were the dominant "bio-mass". More and more grasses will be added over time, although the majority of the plants are likely to be flowers (forbs).

We are listening to the comments and questions of the garden. And in some cases, we are acting on comments and recommendations. Richard Crawford has asked administrators to direct negative comments to him. So far none have been received. In fact, the response has been more positive than we had ever dreamed it would be in the initial stages. Some have had suggestions which would insure the success of the garden; for example, several individuals suggested that benches near the garden would be nice. That plan is in the works and should be completed sometime soon.

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Glinda Crawford, Professor, Environmental Studies, Dept. of Sociology & Criminal Justice, Box 7136, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND 58202. e-mail: glinda_crawford@und.nodak.edu