Independence and community: How the Fort Worth Prairie reflects the city | Opinion

I’m a Blackland Prairie gal. I fell in love with it the moment I saw a small patch of brushy bluestem grass asserting itself in a pasture of Bermuda. But it wasn’t until I walked Clymer Meadow, a Nature Conservancy Blackland Prairie property in northeast Texas, that I was fully hooked.

I lost myself in native grasses taller than my head and summer sunflowers proclaiming their yellow, the tatters of spring wildflowers at their base. Dickcissels and field sparrows, freed from their breeding burden, sang more for joy than territory.

Jim Eidson, then Clymer’s manager, strode across the meadow, thin lanky legs knowing how to step between clumps of prairie grass without looking. He spoke of biomes in the unplowed soil, existing unchanged for centuries upon centuries, unseen ancient history.

This, he said, was our history, our heritage, something older and greater than ourselves. His scuffed and faded boot gently kicked the proaxes of a massive eastern gamagrass clump, the gnarly rhizome knotted and bare like a skeleton. It was as old as any tree in the region — old growth grass. It was Texas land as it was meant to be.

This prairie sang to me, stripped me of hubris, forced the perspective of time with such clarity that I cried. This is our story, built from roots and leaves, minerals and microbes, a witness to all man’s doings that came long before us and will continue ever on.

Rusty little bluestem seedstalks assert their dominance of the Fort Worth Prairie. Chris Emory/Courtesy of Amy Martin
Rusty little bluestem seedstalks assert their dominance of the Fort Worth Prairie. Chris Emory/Courtesy of Amy Martin

So I bought that property with the bushy bluestems, destroyed the Bermuda, and brought the prairie back again. With less than 1% of it left, restoration is key to its survival. I didn’t think anything could match it.

Then, I met the Fort Worth prairie, and now, I’m torn between two loves. These grasses were short, discrete bunches of slender blades, often faded by hard western sunlight into a pale sage green by fall.

This Fort Worth prairie boasted bunches of little bluestem, laying the infrastructure with their dominance. Modest bunches of sideoats grama grasses and ones whose names I didn’t yet know, taunted little bluestem with their chiseled petite beauty.

With their need for generous personal space, Fort Worth prairie grasses assert their independence, their singular strength. Just like Fort Worthians. A wise strategy as well. Spaced-apart plants allow the erratic rainfall to seep between them and be absorbed, ensuring all plants had enough.

And what of these small and tough wildflowers, such as Drummond’s skullcap and Engelmann’s sage, with brilliant color and tenacious roots. Finding their prime spot between the native grass bunches, they’re dressed up and dandy, claiming the center of the dance floor. You know, like Fort Worthians.

Sometimes, though, the wildflowers are all about community. Again, so like Fort Worth. Covering entire swaths with delicate mounds of small white flowers of prairie bishop or Barbara’s buttons, they make the Fort Worth prairie look like a starry sky, sparkling like diamonds when misted in the morning dew.

Barbara’s buttons adorn a limestone seep. Chris Emory/Courtesy of Amy Martin
Barbara’s buttons adorn a limestone seep. Chris Emory/Courtesy of Amy Martin

Contrasting with the gentle wildflowers are plants with leaves as pointy and hard as cowboy boots—the pale yucca and rattlesnake master, with their muted colors of sage green and soft silver. Their skyscraper seedstalks soar above it all, the yucca’s cream-colored waxy bells with their unique little moths, and rattlesnake’s bristly pewter balls, always in groups of three. It’s a contrast worthy of Fort Worth.

The rich dark soil of Dallas’s Blackland Prairie generates from the soft, slick Austin Chalk bedrock. Fertile soil and plentiful rain engendered a farming industry that forged the city’s fortunes through commerce. It was born to make money, not community.

But Fort Worth, with its thin soil and modest rain, had no such easy way. Its fortunes were self-made, first with cattle, a hardscrabble business, then with oil, a rough and tumble trade. At times, all Fort Worth folk had was each other.

The Fort Worth limestone is harder, older and full of shells. It erodes slowly but precisely, leading to a dry angular landscape that boasts that the West begins here. The limestone fractures on the slopes, and groundwater oozes into life-sustaining seeps that implore: Treat this land well and it will save you.

How could I not love this prairie, and more to the point, its people, who find joy in its landscape, labor for its restoration and plead for its preservation. The Blackland Prairie may have my soul, but the Fort Worth Prairie claimed my heart.

Amy Martin is the author of “Wild DFW: Explore the Amazing Nature Around Dallas-Fort Worth” on Timber Press, which includes chapters on the Fort Worth prairie and places that preserve it. For more on the prairie, contact the Fort Worth chapter of Native Prairies Association of Texas.

Amy Martin
Amy Martin