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|Willa Cather Memorial Prairie|
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. - My Antonia
The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is a botanical treasure consisting of 608 acres of never-been-plowed native prairie. We are returning this land to its pre-1900 conditions, a time before overgrazing and the encroachment of man and foreign plant species.
The area is classified as loess, mixed-grass prairie, which marks several transition points that bring together species at the southern edge of their range as well as those at the northern edge of their range.
We estimate the existence of 250 reliant plant species, including the rare Fremont's evening primrose and Fendler's aster---both potential candidates for "threatened" status by the Nebraska Natural Heritage Program. Also, this transitional location affects the species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as well as invertebrates; included on this list are the rare narrow mouth toad and smooth green snake.
The importance of the prairie in shaping America's art, history, and culture has been lost to much of the world. Of the millions of acres of grasslands that once covered the continent, only a small percentage still remains. Also gone are the strong affections many Americans once held for the prairie landscape and its myriad species of plant and wildlife. Even though several organizations have formed throughout the country with the purpose of conserving the prairie's natural landscape, these organizations can be truly successful only if the general public develops a greater appreciation for prairies.
The Willa Cather Foundation welcomes over 10,000 visitors each year to the largest living memorial to an author in the country. Though much of Cather's work is rooted in the land, our Foundation has long been missing a solid representation of that portion of her legacy. The Prairie fills this gap; we hope to utilize it to the fullest of our abilities by first restoring and then preserving this true ecological gem. We seek to share the beauty and importance of the land with a wide audience of tourists from all over the world.
As the largest, never-been-plowed, native prairie in six counties, the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie serves a multitude of rural communities, including Red Cloud. Many of these communities are economically challenged, so this is a fine opportunity for free, rare education for all economic levels of citizenry. Since the transfer of the land to the Willa Cather Foundation, significant efforts to enhance nature tourism have been made.
First, hiking trails were cut so that visitors can use them for recreation and education. The trails allow for access to the Prairie by humans without the accompanying destruction of large areas of the native grasses. These trails were used by at least 120 people in June of 2008 alone. The removal of over 3,000 non-native trees created the opportunity for visitors to experience a view of the wavy grassland all the way to the horizon---essential to understanding the character of the Nebraska prairie.
The Prairie is the site of an annual Prairie Writers' workshop, first held in June of 2008, which benefited local businesses and augmented our educational outreach mission. These writers spend much time on the Prairie in order to create a myriad of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Writers share these pieces at a public reception. (Click here to read some examples.) Another Prairie program was an afternoon excursion during our Elderhostel. These 30 participants visited the Prairie for an afternoon of education and entertainment. (Click here to read testimonials.)Eco-tourists have been making use of our status as a National Birding Site as listed with the Nebraska Teaming with Wildlife Coalition. Our bird population includes, but is not limited to Meadowlarks, Blue Birds, Upland Pulvers, assorted Sparrows, Turkeys, Orchard Orioles, and more. A partnership with the Chicken Dance Trail website and marketing initiative will help to draw birders to the Prairie.
The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is vested with special plants including purple prairie clover and coneflower, big bluestem, side-oats grama, and more. Signage will educate visitors about the plants, often including interesting facts about how Native Americans used them for medicinal purposes. (See below.) Plant species include, but are not limited to, big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, side-oats grama, redtop, tall or rough dropseed, Canada wildrye, buffalo grass, and blue grama. Examples of the legumes observed are golden dalea, white prairie clover, purple prairie clover, round-headed lespedeza, deer vetch, leadplant, and scurf pea.
We are also working on programming that combines history, science, literature, astronomy, and agriculture for a truly multi-disciplinary experience. The Willa Cather Foundation will develop and distribute educational brochures explaining prairie ecology and animal life; tours with high schools and visiting groups will foster environmental awareness and understanding of indigenous plants and animals with our walking paths and signage efforts; and the tri-cities area can use it regularly for science initiatives.
Additional marketing initiatives include Cather Prairie quote bookmarks, candles, hats, cards, postcards, and tea towels (handmade by our tour guides). Click here to see these items in our gift shop.
Eco-tourism of the Prairie is an extension of the Willa Cather Foundation's mission. It serves to benefit students, teachers, individual citizens, businesses, universities, and many surrounding communities, not limited to Red Cloud, through education and economic development, a promotion of public health through physical activity, and by providing an overall benefit to the general population.
Click here to browse the Cather Prairie section of the online bookstore.
Nebraska Birding SiteThe Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is home to a variety of beautiful bird species, and is recognized as a Nebraska Bird Site by the Nebraska Teaming with Wildlife Coalition. On the Prairie, bird watchers can view meadowlarks, upland plovers, wood ducks, blue-winged teals, blue birds, assorted sparrows, grouse, turkeys, orchard orioles, and more. Visit Nebraska Birding Trails and The Chicken Dance Trail for more information.
Ivar sat down on the floor and tucked his feet under him. "See little brother, they have come from a long way, and they are very tired. From up there where they are flying, our country looks dark and flat. They must have water to drink and to bathe in before they can go on with their journey. They look this way and that, and far below them they see something shining, like a piece of glass set in the dark earth. That is my pond. They come to it and are not disturbed. Maybe I sprinkle a little corn. They tell the other birds, and next year more come this way. They have their roads up there, as we have down here."
--- O Pioneers!
Nearly two miles of walking and hiking trails are now cut and open for the public. Nature lovers can enjoy areas of tall grass, short grass, warm season flowers, shrubbery and more, without venturing into unchartered territory. Here is a list of some of the forbs and native grasses visitors might see (depending on the season).