Prairie Tayles: Mother Nature's Assassians

Jan 5, 2018

Conspiracy theorists need to investigate Mother Nature’s actions against trees in Western Kansas. Yes, she’s conspiring to make this a treeless plain once again.

Western history buffs often read descriptions of the region called the Great American Desert. Explorers Zebulon Pike and Major Stephen Long documented journeys across this landscape, noting its aridity and incompatibility with agriculture. A lack of trees supported their conclusions.

Despite the region’s general absence of foliage, wayfarers noted groves along rivers and streams, naming several camp sites Big Timbers. Clearly, the soil wasn’t insufficient. More was involved. Those who came to stay observed fire’s role in eradicating trees and shrubs.

Great thunderheads built up on the horizon then as they do now. When lightning bolts arced and contacted dried prairie grasses, flames raced unimpeded across the landscape, searing emerging seedlings and delicate saplings.

Some researchers explain that natives utilized fire to encourage tender grasses to sprout, encouraging buffalo migration. Between lightning and manmade fire, trees struggled to survive.

That said, photos of western Kansas communities in the early and mid-1900s reveal flourishing stands of elm, ash, cottonwood, and hackberry. Towering trees shaded neighborhoods, hiding structures and yards from photographers. More recently, property owners have included pines in landscape designs.

If you compare images from earlier times to now, they’ve changed. What happened to the dense greenery shielding rooflines and sidewalks from camera lenses? Not fire, but dastardly, insects! That’s what. Mother Nature doesn’t want western Kansans  to enjoy shady siestas or hear wind soughing through leafy branches.

After settlement, families planted trees and controlled fire. Combining these practices led to aerial shots of shady lanes and sheltered yards.  That is until beetles invaded this continent to wipe out one tree after another.

Once hardy Dutch elms dominated neighborhoods across America. Now healthy ones are impossible to find. Walk through town and note tattered remnants of a once thriving population. It’s hard to think of small insects as assassins, but as their numbers multiplied, elms withered.

While concerned about these striped beetles, western Kansans didn’t panic. Ash trees grew well, providing stunning fall foliage as well as hardwood to warm winter hearths. That is until the emerald ash borer, another Asian invader, arrived. In its native land, its populations didn’t grow out of control. As an uninvited guest, it’s multiplied until most American ash trees risk annihilation. Mother Nature clearly intends to vanquish prairie arbors.

Clever souls tried to outwit her by introducing Scotch and Austrian pines. Initially, it seemed a good strategy. Dense windbreaks protected yards, parks, and cemeteries while beautifying them. Then, (hear the Jaws theme in your mind) pine sawyer beetles arrived to alter the story.  Traveling from tree to tree, this invasive species introduces a nematode that weakens trees. Needles turn from green to tan, signaling a tree’s impending death. It can take only 6 weeks for the disease to destroy a mature evergreen. This killer is efficient.

As the region’s tree numbers dwindle, it’s clear Mother Nature’s killers labor unceasingly. Insects have assumed fire’s role as destroyer. Clearly, it’s going to take more than a desire for shady respite to outwit this gal and her team of wily assassins.