With its towering forests, refreshing rivers and glittering lakes, the part of Michigan where we live might be the last place you'd expect to find patches of prairie. But find them you will, if you know where to look.
One fine swath, only a 15-minute drive from our house, is the Michigan Nature Association's Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary. I visited the site last Saturday with a group from the River City Wild Ones native plant organization. Led by Michigan Nature Association regional stewardship organizer John Bagley, we poked around the prairie for a couple of hours, admiring such late-summer bloomers as rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), fern-leaf false foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) and cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea).
High overhead, nighthawks circled. Lovely to watch, but we also had to keep an eye on the ground to look out for prickly pear cactus (yes, cactus in Michigan!) and northern dewberry, also known as untie-your-shoe berry, for its habit of tangling around walkers' feet.
John told us that the Michigan Nature Association purchased the 110-acre sanctuary in 1969. Prairies are considered endangered habitats in Michigan because so much open acreage was converted to farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries. But Newaygo County's hilly topography and sandy soils thwarted agriculture in some areas. Prescribed burns and removal of invasive plants, such as the noxious spotted knapweed, have helped keep the sanctuary in something close to its original state.
"There's no place else in Michigan where you can find this quality of prairie," John said. "What makes it different is the diversity of plants—not only grasses but also forbs." (Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses.)
Like all MNA sanctuaries, Newaygo Prairie depends heavily on volunteer help. John is "exceptionally good at involving local people in local sanctuaries," said Patricia Pennell, a founding member of River City Wild Ones and steward of another MNA sanctuary. Conservation and community: a winning combination, if you ask me.
A few more words about MNA before we venture any farther on our prairie ramble. Founded sixty-five years ago, the nonprofit organization was originally a bird-study group. But as environmental issues became a pressing concern throughout the state, MNA segued into education, converting a house trailer into a nature museum and towing it around to schools.
Before long, members realized they needed to do more, and the group began purchasing sensitive property to set aside as sanctuaries. Today, the organization maintains more than 170 sanctuaries throughout the state.
Newaygo Prairie—one of MNA's oldest sanctuaries—harbors more than a hundred plant species, as well as birds, insects and other animals that depend on those plants for food and shelter. On our walk, I saw several kinds of plants I'd not seen elsewhere, and I picked up some fascinating info-bits to stash in my natural history memory bank.
One highlight of the morning's walk was meeting "Ranger Steve" Mueller. Steve's business card describes him as "Naturalist – Photographer – Butterfly Chaser," and while that probably doesn't cover it all, it's a fair sum-up for a guy who spearheads annual butterfly counts, writes a nature column for local newspapers, operates his own nature sanctuary, and seems to know a heck of a lot about all manner of flora and fauna. I hope to visit Steve's sanctuary near Cedar Springs sometime soon. Stay tuned for that excursion.
Is there a little-known nature preserve or wildlife sanctuary near you? What makes it special?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.