Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Manhattan, A Photoessay

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I know you all are wondering what happened to me since I have been so quiet today, and the truth is that I am doing all sorts of amazingly fun things as long as possible until my broken wing makes me exhausted from ignoring the pain. At the moment, I am sitting in my very own office (!!) next to Dave Rintoul’s in the biology department at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. (It might interest you to know that this office is much larger than the first apartment I rented in the other Manhattan). I am uploading something close to 150 images onto my laptop that I took with my digital camera this morning while on the Konza Prairie. The Konza Prairie is an old ranch that now belongs to the Nature Conservancy and is leased to Kansas State University. It is a biological research station whose purpose is the restoration of this land to its native condition; tallgrass prairie. Below the fold are some of the images I took while I was out there;


After entering the Konza Prairie Biological Research Station, which is rented from the Nature Conservancy by KSU, we drove alongside King’s Creek, one of the few natural prairie streams that remains completely on unspoilt lands (such streams are known to dry out in summer, leaving a pattern of shallow water pools in its wake);

King’s Creek, a natural prairie creek
located on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

We drove past a tiny natural spring that feeds into King’s Creek;

Natural spring that feeds into King’s Creek
on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

We saw an old ruin of a spring house, built of stone around a natural spring, for the purpose of keeping fruits and vegetables fresh for months. The stone walls are thick to keep it cool during the summer heat;

Spring house ruin on the Konza Prairie,
near Manhattan, Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

We saw an old stone barn, built in 1925 (1926?), that is currently being renovated into office space on the Konza Prairie;

Old stone barn (currently being renovated into office space by KSU)
on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

We also saw plenty of flooded bison wallows that are favored by the tiny (and so far, elusive) Western chorus frogs, a species of frog that lives and breeds on North American prairies. If you look closely, you can see blackened prairies in the background (and even a little in the foreground). These are due to controlled burns, a management technique that is being developed for preserving North America’s nearly vanished tallgrass prairies;

Bison wallow filled with water
on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

I have been talking about bison a lot, I know. Even though I did see these amazing animals when I was a kid, I have never had the good fortune to have seen live bison as an adult. But this morning, my eye caught something in the distance .. what are those dark dots out there? Is it possible that they are .. bison? American bison??

Bison herd (adult females and yearlings)
on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

Well, let’s see .. yes, indeed! Those dark dots ARE bison!

Bison herd (adult females — nearly all pregnant — and yearlings)
on the Konza Prairie, near Manhattan Kansas. March 2008.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008.

[larger view].

How can I tell you about the majesty, the beauty, of such animals? I took a hundred photos trying to capture the essence of these animals, but that (so far) remains as elusive to my shutter as the Western chorus frogs are to our ears.

But we are going back tomorrow, so there’s hope that I’ll catch the mysterious personality of a bison yet!

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    March 27, 2008

    The only way to capture the bison’s essence on a photo might be to project it onto a big wall.

    I’m not sure this is Kansas though – there aren’t any wheat fields. You must be somewhere else.

  2. #2 Katherine Settle
    March 27, 2008

    I vouch for GrrlScientist! These are indeed scenes of our lovely Flint Hills! Thank goodness the land couldn’t support corn, or by George, it would be all you would see!
    You guys are so lucky–it looks like you were allowed into the research area!
    I will irritate you in person this morning–cheers!
    Kahtherine Settle

  3. #3 fersch
    March 27, 2008

    Greetings,
    I am so happy to see you enjoying your life. You are important to so many people. You are making a real difference for the planet. Keep up the good work.
    Sincerely,
    Frank Scherf

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    March 27, 2008

    bob, one of these days, you are going to have to ditch helsinki for a few days’ vacation in one, or both, of the two manhattans!

    thanks, katherine. it was lovely meeting you today and talking with you!

    thank you, frank, for your kind words. i hope i am making a difference to the planet, little by little, story by story! (bird by bird?)

    i am so lucky to have this experience, i just wish all my readers could be here. but if i write about the joy this place and time has given me, perhaps other people will learn about the lovely tallgrass prairie ecosystem and will hopefully appreciate it (along with all those other precious and vanishing ecosystems, too).

  5. #5 Bob
    March 27, 2008

    It is a biological research station whose purpose is the restoration of this land to its native condition; tallgrass prairie.

    The “native condition” of this land is forest, not tallgrass prairie. The Indians began the process of burning to clear the forests and encourage the growth of pasturage to attract the animals they hunted. Now this deforestation and environmental destruction is being promoted and continued by the Nature Conservancy and KSU.

  6. #6 Zuska
    March 27, 2008

    Thank you for these lovely images of the Konza! I still miss Kansas, three years after moving away. I’m so glad you are getting to spend some time there with Dave Rintoul!

  7. #7 Albatrossity
    March 27, 2008

    Bob wrote The “native condition” of this land is forest, not tallgrass prairie. The Indians began the process of burning to clear the forests and encourage the growth of pasturage to attract the animals they hunted. Now this deforestation and environmental destruction is being promoted and continued by the Nature Conservancy and KSU.

    That is an interesting statement. The “native condition” refers to what, exactly? The boreal forests that were here during the last glaciation? The shallow sea that was here during the Tertiary? Or the grasses that have been here for the last 8,000 years or so?

    And what is the source, exactly, of the notion that anthropogenic fires maintained a prairie ecosystem that once covered 250 million acres? You’ve made some sweeping generalizations that seem to go against the scientific consensus (see here or here for some background). Can you back up these statements with facts or research?

    thanks

  8. #8 Bob
    March 27, 2008

    From http://www.wildlandfire.com/docs/biblio_indianfire.htm

    REFERENCES ON THE AMERICAN INDIAN
    USE OF FIRE IN ECOSYSTEMS

    Gerald W. Williams, Ph.D., Historical Analyst
    USDA Forest Service

    …the modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of Asian immigrants [now called American Indians, Native Americans, or First Nations/People] was the result of repeated, controlled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, broken by occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic conflagrations during times of drought….it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah…

    And from http://www.geospectra.net/kite/ross/fire.htm

    Spring burning of the tallgrass prairie is a ritual in the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas. The practice began by early cattle ranchers follows still older Indian tradition, in which spring burning promoted the growth of new grass to sustain the buffalo.

    The tallgrass prairie is as artificial as plastic.

    The “native condition” refers to what, exactly? The boreal forests that were here during the last glaciation? The shallow sea that was here during the Tertiary? Or the grasses that have been here for the last 8,000 years or so?

    Then why not call the wheat and corn fields that cover the state now the “native condition”? That would save a lot of work–your “restoration” is done for you.

  9. #9 Albatrossity
    March 27, 2008

    Bob

    There is no doubt that the native Americans used fire and understood its uses as a prairie management tool. What is questionable is the EXTENT of this activity. I see nothing in any of the citations that you provide that indicates that the 250 million acres of prairie were solely due to the activity of humans, or if they just understood the utility of this technique and applied it locally.

  10. #10 Bob
    March 28, 2008

    Maybe you can see it better if I emphasize the relevant phrases:

    …the modification of the AMERICAN CONTINENT by FIRE at the hands of Asian immigrants…it may be said that the GENERAL CONSEQUENCE of the INDIAN OCCUPATION of the NEW WORLD was to REPLACE FORESTED LAND with GRASSLAND or savannah…

    Does that help?

  11. #11 Albatrossity
    March 28, 2008

    Bob wrote, with emphasis “…the modification of the AMERICAN CONTINENT by FIRE at the hands of Asian immigrants…it may be said that the GENERAL CONSEQUENCE of the INDIAN OCCUPATION of the NEW WORLD was to REPLACE FORESTED LAND with GRASSLAND or savannah…”

    Thanks for the implication that I can’t read. Unfortunately for you I can read, and even more unfortunately, I did read that already. But it doesn’t answer my question, so I’ll try again.

    Can you back up these statements with facts or research?

    Here are the known facts.

    1) Lightning can set fire to prairies.

    2) Unburned prairies become forested, but the trees are generally not hardwoods in this part of the country. Rather they consist mostly of eastern red-cedar, and the resulting “forest” is biologically unproductive.

    3) Native Americans may have noticed these correlations, so they also set fires, and used these as as game management tools.

    4) There are 250 million acres of the North American continent that previously consisted of tallgrass prairie. This grassland has been in place for at least 8000 years.

    So my question remains, and it is unanswered by anything in those links you provided.

    What facts or research support your assertion that 250 million acres of grassland, existing for the last 8000 years, can solely be attributed to the activities of small bands of Native Americans?

    NOTE that I am not disagreeing with you that historically anthropogenic fires can be documented. NOTE that I am not disagreeing with you that fires can change the community ecology. I am merely asking you to DOCUMENT your assertion that anthropogenic fires are the SOLE reason that 250 million acres of grassland existed for the last 8000 years when it is well established that non-anthropogenic fires AND bison grazing also have significant roles in the maintenance of this community. This documentation should be in the form of peer-reviewed documents, rather than websites.

    thanks in advance

  12. #12 Bob
    March 28, 2008

    Dr. Williams’ monograph, as you might have guessed from the title, REFERENCES ON THE AMERICAN INDIAN USE OF FIRE IN ECOSYSTEMS, contains extensive documentation–several hundred citations, in fact. Happy reading. If you want to argue with his assertion regarding the continental extent and significance of anthropogenic burning, (which I merely repeat), you might be better off contacting him directly, as I’m sure his expertise in this area far exceeds mine.

    Perhaps it’s worth making one more point, though: as you say, “This grassland has been in place for at least 8000 years.” That is also roughly the period of Indian occupation. Coincidence?

  13. #13 Albatrossity
    March 28, 2008

    Bob

    As far as I can tell, the thing that you call “Dr. Williams’ monograph” is a website. Was it peer-reviewed? Was it published? Is it possible that this represents a solitary stand against a broad scientific consensus? If so, it will require more than a website to convince most people, even if it convinces you.

    Re this Perhaps it’s worth making one more point, though: as you say, “This grassland has been in place for at least 8000 years.” That is also roughly the period of Indian occupation. Coincidence?

    here are a couple more facts for you to digest. From the end of the last glaciation about 12K years ago until about 3K years ago, the Great Plains were not continually “occupied”. Bands of hunters from the south were here in the summer, but retreated to more hospitable climes in the fall and winter and spring. The Great Plains were probably the last portion of the continent to be “occupied”, and settlements in the area prior to about 2K years ago are quite rare.

  14. #14 Bob
    March 28, 2008

    Dr. Williams’ “thing” is not a website but a document that is available at several websites, among them the US Forest Service and BLM sites. (Welcome to the internet! Your first day here?) Since it is a compendium of references rather than original research, one would not expect it to be peer reviewed. However, according to Google it is cited hundreds of times by other sites, and a random sampling indicates that none of these are negative. I would regard this as a kind of peer review, and certainly evidence that it is not “a solitary stand against a broad scientific consensus.”

    And indeed a cursory search of this newfangled internet thing indicates that Dr. Williams’ views seem to be quite widespread. The fact that you have never even encountered them before makes me suspect that perhaps your own education in this area may be somewhat lacking. For example, here’s another of many, from http://www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/ew940210.htm:

    UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE
    THE HUMAN DIMENSION HAS PLAYED IN SHAPING
    AMERICA’S FOREST AND GRASSLAND LANDSCAPES

    By Doug MacCleery

    …But frequent forest burning did more than reduce the undergrowth and improve the habitat for preferred species. In many cases it created grasslands in areas where forests otherwise would have existed. Prairies extended into Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York (Anderson 1990; Pyne 1982). In Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley — the area between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleganies — was one vast grass prairie. Native Americans burned the area annually (Van Lear 1989). Anderson (1990) writes that the eastern prairies and grasslands “would mostly have disappeared if it had not been for the nearly annual burning of these grasslands by the North American Indians.” In the West, as well, Indian burning also greatly extended the area of grasslands and reduced the area of forest (Gruell 1983; Boyd 1986).

    The references in that paragraph appear to be in heart-warmingly peer-reviewed publications.

    But actually I suspect nothing short of an arson squad with a time machine is going to convince you of what happened in the past. So why not try a little experiment: just STOP BURNING THE PRAIRIE, and see how long it lasts.

  15. #15 Bob
    March 28, 2008

    …the Great Plains were not continually “occupied”. Bands of hunters from the south were here in the summer, but retreated to more hospitable climes in the fall and winter and spring.

    Well, that’s what bands of hunters do, so for our purposes, that’s what “occupation” means. Obviously you’re not going to place permanent settlements in a landscape you’re always setting on fire.

  16. #16 Albatrossity
    March 28, 2008

    Bob

    1) Actually, I’ve been on the internet since 1980, when I got my first BITNET email address. That userid has been the same ever since. How long have you been here?

    2) Your next assumption (that I have not encountered this set of arguments before) is also erroneous. I’ve heard of it before. I’ve also heard of other borderline notions like cold fusion, intelligent design, and holocaust denial. I don’t believe any of them because they are contrary to the facts and evidence with which I am also familiar. What’s your point here?

    3) Government reports are not peer-reviewed. Approving comments in subsequent citations is also not peer-review. Nice try.

    4) Ohio, Pennsylvania etc. are not part of the Great Plains. Perhaps you could avail yourself of the newfangled internet maps that I’m sure you’ve heard about.

    5) As noted previously, I am not disagreeing that native Americans did burn things. I am disagreeing about the extent of it, a point which still seems to elude you. Burning forests in Ohio to generate grasslands is a lot different from burning grasslands in Kansas to generate a more productive grassland.

    6) You have yet to convince me that small bands of hunters in the Great Plains managed to burn (on a regular basis) 250 million acres of grassland over 8000 years. That’s what none of your citations or notions have managed to address to this point. Can you do better?