The Center for Prairie Studies and the Grinnell College Libraries have collaborated in the installation of two dramatic photographs of prairie plants that have been hung on the first floor of Burling Library, on the east and west brick walls (south side). Created by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, these photographs portray the plants with their astonishing root systems that help the prairie survive fire, cold, and severe droughts like the one this year. We want to thank Milton Severe of Faulconer Gallery and the Facilities Management staff for their help with this project.
In 1840, tallgrass prairie dominated Iowa's landscape. The arrival of European settlers in the middle of the 19th century brought dramatic changes to the region. Europeans removed nearly all of the native peoples, extirpated most of the larger game animals, introduced large numbers of domesticated animals, and, using a new kind of plow, "broke the prairie" and converted the land to agriculture. It is estimated that 99.9 percent of the original tallgrass prairie in Iowa has been destroyed.
Libraries have also long had a close connection with plants. Etymologically, the word "library" derives from "liber" meaning "book," "paper," "parchment" and, originally, "the inner bark of a tree." The paper in the books that fill Burling Library was all once plant material. And just as plants carry genetic information that documents the myriad ecological adaptations of their ancestors, libraries – whether they are based on paper or digital bits – are our culture's common repository of observation, thought, and expression over hundreds of years and the field from which new ideas and expressions grow.
The two photographs depict:
Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
One of the signature grasses of the tallgrass prairie, Big Bluestem typically grows 3 to 6 feet tall but occasionally reaches heights of 9 feet. Its extensive root system helped build the deep, rich soils of the prairie region and hold the soil through heavy rainfalls.
Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum
A widely distributed member of the aster family, compass plant is found throughout Iowa and the Midwest. The flower-bearing stalks can attain a height of 10 feet or more, and the deep roots have been known to reach down 18 feet. Compass Plant is named for the tendency of its leathery leaves to face east and west, possibly as a way of reducing heat absorption on hot summer days.