In the Doing of It

by | Sep 7, 2018 | Feature, Landscapes, People

Children learning about nature at the Prairie Project (before the author’s time). PHOTOS courtesy of Native American Seed

Children learning about nature at the Prairie Project (before the author’s time). PHOTOS courtesy of Native American Seed

 

was raised on the prairie, or at least what was left of it. In the early 2000s, just northwest of Fort Worth, little remained of the great blackland prairie that once stretched over 12 million acres. Just a fraction of a percent of that habitat has survived the sprawl of cities and railways and farms, and I am fortunate to have spent my childhood on a precious piece of it.

When I was in grade school, my mother signed me up for a day camp at the Prairie Project, a 28-acre parcel of restored blackland prairie. The restoration effort was led by Jane Weaver, a local teacher at Gililland Elementary School in Blue Mound, Texas, who brought students outdoors to teach them about ecological conservation. My memory of her is one of shiny, black, Texas-big hair and a kind voice. She would walk me and other students through the grasses, stopping every few feet to point out a species of wildflower or listen to the sounds of the birds. She taught us how to look at the land, how to notice the life it holds, and how to call each thing by its proper name.

Her knowledge of the landscape seemed fantastical to me then, as though she had some ancient magic, and through her teaching, my own relationship with the landscape was changed. I learned to rub crushed horsemint on my arms when the mosquitoes got bad, to wash my muddied clothes in creek water using soapberries picked that morning, to paint with dyes made from firewheels and huisache daisies. We didn’t take from the landscape but a sliver of what we gave to it. Most of our days were filled with hard work monitoring soil and water quality, indexing plant species, and restoring a rookery for egrets and herons. For the first time, I was not just on the land, but a part of it.

As a child, of course, it is impossible to know what an experience with a place will mean to you later. Many years after my last summer at the Prairie Project, I decided to return one afternoon, feeling nostalgic. When I drove up to the gate, I was dismayed at what I found. It was all gone. One of the last small pockets of blackland prairie in Texas had been sold and returned to what it was before Mrs. Weaver’s project: an industrial waste dump. The flowers we had planted were buried beneath piles of garbage and rubble.

In disbelief, I searched the internet for some kind of explanation. It’s simple: Mrs. Weaver was and is a hero to me, but she is just one person. Over time, community interest in the project waned and eventually so did the support Mrs. Weaver needed to sustain her work — a reality that was compounded by the loss of Composite Technology Inc. as a partner. The former owner of the Prairie Project site (which happened to employ many Gililland students’ parents) moved to a new location in 2008, the final year of the project.

While searching, I also found a short video of the Prairie Project from 2001. In it, I was stunned to see Jane Goodall — yes, the Jane Goodall — standing in the wildflowers alongside Mrs. Weaver and her students. She had come to visit, as did Lady Bird Johnson on a separate occasion. As a child, I had no idea how important this place was. More than a decade later, I can see now what a treasure those 28 acres were to my community.

I am thankful for Mrs. Weaver’s generosity and for all I learned from her. She empowered hundreds of young people to care for the world around them. As Jane Goodall once said while standing in the soil of my little lost patch of prairie: “In the doing of it, it’s taught them the power that they have as individuals to make a difference in the world.” Yes, that and so much more.

Keaton Daniel is a former Wildflower Center intern and recent graduate from College of the Atlantic, where he received a bachelor’s in human ecology with a creative writing emphasis.