In 2014, I ran for Councillor of the Rural Municipality of Morris. I wanted to get elected in order to initiate a process of succession. On my campaign handbill I called it PRIDE OF PLACE under which I said:

We really need to do something about introduced weeds on roadsides, railways, and undeveloped fields. Starting a process of succession is the way to go. Native plants are much better neighbours. ...

I also suggested that the RM of Morris form a Conservation District with neighbouring RMs of Roland, Rhineland, and Montcalm.

While campaigning, I drove around much of the RM, hand delivering handbills, and shaking hands with and speaking to people. It was an interesting experience; I learned a lot, met some fascinating people.

It was also a painful experience. Everywhere I went, I saw a religious dedication to mowing and Landscape Gardening. It’s worth observing here that rural “yards” are generally much larger than urban counterparts; around homes attached to farms, yards are 5 - 20 acres (all or most of which is usually mowed). As well, the RM Works Department mows things like both banks of the Morris River (all 20 kms of it), both sides of the 6 km long by 500 m wide drainage ditch just west of Rosenort, and the sides and tops of enormous ring dikes around both Rosenort and Aubigny, not to mention all Municipal Road ditches.

When I had a chance to deliver it, my message was categorized — in the minds of most listeners — as environmentalist. Unbeknownst to me, “environment” is considered a dirty word among a predominantly blue-striped electorate. (The majority of voters in the RM of Morris are capital “C” Conservative.) As a result, my atypical platform fell on mostly deaf ears.

Several days after the election I was informed that mowing ditches, ring dikes, and riverbanks is seen to be beautification. And, because I apparently challenged some people’s notion of what is beautiful, it’s been decided that I’m eccentric. I suppose I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt.

truth be told

I didn’t pitch what I had to say from an environmentalist perspective. I pointed out that Native plants make better neighbours; they keep out troublesome weeds and they don’t encroach on farm fields. Keep in mind, the Province of Manitoba’s ban on domestic herbicide use comes into effect in 2015. I presented a practical solution to a pending problem.

I suspect many rural folk will be able to syphon a little chemical from commercial containers (which are still legal) for home use or obtain it from farmer friends. Still, at some point in the near future, using chemical to control weeds on yards and such will not be an option. The remarkably perfect lawns in Rosenort and elsewhere are going to be a challenge to maintain especially since mowing — the current alternate weed control method — doesn’t eradicate weeds; it hardly suppresses them (only makes them seem to be gone). My long term solution of initiating a process of succession to Native flora is, in fact, the best option.

To be sure, it troubles me that most people are inadvertently married to something which harms other species with whom we share the biosphere. They are doing what they are doing because it’s what their parents did, as did their parents’ parents, and so on. It’s a behavioural pattern called shifting baseline:

What each of us is born into is perceived as being normal.

This particular “normal” can be traced back to the introduction of an idiosyncratic domestic form started in the mid-1800s which was based on a specious perception:

Taming the wilderness and all that dubious Victorian era thinking.

But, I didn’t talk about this concern while campaigning. I didn’t, for the most part, mention:

A lawn may as well be paved and painted green or covered with astroturf for all the ecological good it does.

Most exotic flowers stay in bloom so long because they don’t get pollinated; local insects and/or birds leave them alone.

Ecological devastation, which follows from not keeping invasive introduced weeds in check, leads to species extinctions.

I didn’t talk about what scientists have labelled the Sixth Extinction:

The only mass extinction event caused by a lifeform: humans.

I didn’t say this is not a good thing to have on our species resume.

Instead I mostly talked about the benefits which would accrue to us as humans were we to bring back the Native vegetation which once grew in this region. I told people who would listen to me:

once established patches of Native plants keep out introduced weeds

For example:

Writing about the spring of 1903 — on land in southeastern Manitoba — Frederick P. Grove says:

Abe had lived through one spring flood. ... One trouble was that the water had spread the seeds of foul weeds all over his land. Where the prairie remained unbroken, the grass had held its own, apart from small patches where skunk-tail* had gained a foothold. But on the breaking where his crop was seeded, a damnable mixture of charlock (wild mustard), thistle, and tumbling mustard (tumbleweed) had sprung up with the wheat.
[emphasis added] [*foxtail barley which is Native] #Frederick P. Grove, Fruits of the Earth, 1933; P. 30

I crossed paths with one landowner, who lives in Rosenort. He told me about a 40 acre tract of prairie which had never seen the plough which he acquired in 1964. “There were no weeds growing in it,” he said.

A few years back, Coleen and I visited a couple who own 40 acres of virgin prairie north of Stonewall, Manitoba. There were almost no introduced weeds growing in the prairie remnant even though it had not been maintained (grazed or burned) in many years and in spite of a dense stand of creeping thistle nearby.

In a 20 acre prairie remnant alongside PTH 75 just north of the intersection with PR 201 (which goes by Letellier) there are very few introduced weeds the closer one gets to the railway tracks.

Prairie Shore Trail and Agassiz Interpretive Trail are almost completely free of introduced weeds (except in the mowed areas for parking cars and events). And, as one approaches either of these two preserves the numbers of Native plants growing in the ditches alongside the highways increases.

Native plants do not encroach on farmers’ fields

Coleen and I share a 650 foot property line with a farm field. There are a number of Native grasses and forbs (flowers) on our side and not one of them on our neighbour’s side of the line. Having Native plants growing around farm fields could lead to less chemical use.

Native plants transpire more moisture from the ground than introduced plants

Having Native plants growing in ditches and undeveloped fields would mean less soil saturation during periods of flooding; the ground could absorb more water.

Native plants are better at preventing soil erosion than introduced plants used specifically for that purpose

The Natives have denser and deeper roots.

Native plants are adapted to extremes of climate and moisture levels

After the 2009 flood, during which part of PR 330 was washed out, the Native plants growing on the highway’s shoulders had a banner year. Many Native plants are listed as drought tolerant.

Native bulrushes, rushes, and spikerushes extract Nitrogen and Phosphorus from soil, which helps to reduce eutrophicationEutrophication is the term for excess nutrients in water.
It usually leads to algae blooms which are dead zones where nothing but algae grows; no plants, no insects, no amphibians or fish, no micro-organisms.
, the cause of algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg

Restoring wetlands is presently on the agenda outside of the RM of Morris and the Province of Manitoba has a ban on filling in remaining existing wetlands.

Once I got through some of the preceding points (with the occasional person who would listen) there wasn’t time left to mention:

The States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Arizona, Mississippi, and Texas (among others) have roadside planting/replanting programs using Native plants.

So does the U. S. Federal Government. In fact, replanting to Native is a big deal south of the border.

pride of place

I did, however, tell people that where we are is the northern extent of the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem. It is as much a part of the heritage of this place as we are. To me at least, it would be great if this region looked different than every other region in Canada, if only to relieve the unrelenting boredom of a drive across the country.

As, Peggy Olwell, of the U.S. National Park Service, says in her article Roadside Use of Native Plants:

Lately, a common refrain we hear is how every place we go in this country looks just the same.

I pointed out to a few people that the same can be said of Canada. From Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, the roadways all look the same. And almost none of the vegetation hails from North America.

But, as far as I know, you can count on one hand the number of people living in the RM of Morris who have visited the Tallgrass Prairie preserves over by Gardenton (an hour’s drive away). Most have never heard of them. According to the RM’s website, the history of this place kicked into gear with Mennonite settlement in the 1800s.

It came out, after the election, that some people seemed to think I was talking about returning farmland to Native or Natural prairie. While out on the campaign trail a couple of farmers had muttered under their breath — as they left one coffee shop where I hung out — that I want to bring back the buffalo. But, I never said anything of the sort, never even thought it. I only ever mentioned replanting communal land:

highway ditches

railway edges

ring dikes

river banks and drainage ditches

unused fields

I also said, a few times, that instead of mowing acre upon acre people would do better to replant portions of large yards to Native, to eradicate unwanted introduced weeds and to give something back to the Natural world. And, I suggested planting red-tailed hawk habitat beside the Rosenort landfill to keep the rat population in check; an entirely practical solution to an ever present problem. (Don’t talk about rats when visiting Rosenort.)

(Now that they mention it, though, it would be great to see bison on the Prairie again. Maybe they can be used to graze ditches and ring dikes instead of mowing — artificially grazing — them.)

how then?

I was asked if I know how to do this, how to start the process of succession? Yes, I do. Sort of. This activity is in its infancy across North America. In a general sense altering the numbers game is the objective:

At present introduced weeds vastly outnumber Native plants. Every year the numbers of the latter are increased would bring the region closer to tipping the scale in their favour.

Changing several things would begin the process:

adjust fall mowing schedules so as not to cut down warm season Native plants before they’ve set seed

wait until introduced biennial plants, like sweet clover, Melilotus officinalis, are starting to set seed before mid-summer mowing

even better, abandon “aesthetic” mowing completely during the summer and use weed eaters to target invasive plants; cutting off flowers will prevent most of them from re-seeding

ban the sale and planting of:

smooth brome, Bromus inermis (also known as brome grass)

quackgrass, Elymus repens

creeping white clover, Trifolium repens (sometimes used in lawn seed mixes)

burning specifically to eradicate creeping thistle, Cirsium arvense; a very troublesome introduced weed which no one I spoke with wants around

Add to this ...

seed to Native disturbed soil along highway projects and in ditches when eroded soil is put back on farmers’ fields

get some dense patches of Native plants going here and there by seeding or planting them

prescribed burning of replanted areas

STOP MOWING, except where absolutely necessary (like highway shoulders prior to snow falling)

... and we would be on our way.

In my view, this would be best approached as an old-fashioned barn raising, where the whole community pitches in. This could involve junior and senior high school students, both in collecting and sowing or germinating seed, maybe some planting out of seedlings and some hand weeding. The only difference is this proposed eco-raising will require a lot of patience, persistence, and perseverance. Fortunately, these are qualities one can attribute to the residents of the RM of Morris.

The other main item on my election handbill is one way to facilitate this:

Start a Conservation District.

CDs are non-profit corporations established for the purpose of land and water stewardship. They can set up and manage community-based initiatives.

it would take a while, obviously

I told people this process of succession may take a couple of generations to accomplish. Meanwhile most people running for elected office have much shorter term goals; goals which can be achieved in a few years, things they can point to for re-election or as part of their legacy. In everyday political terms, my platform didn’t stand a chance. Even still, I managed to get 16.25% of the votes as a virtual unknown with a never heard of before proposition.

On a positive note, at least in terms of my main plank, I saw a couple of bunches each of little bluestem and big bluestem in gardens in Sperling. Residents there had actually heard of Native plants. I met a farm couple on the west side of the Red River who are aware that Native plants are weed resistant and a woman, a couple of yards over, who was planning to plant some Natives in her garden, just hadn’t got to it yet. Plus a couple we are getting to know, from Rosenort, have a dozen or so Native forbs and shrubs growing in their garden. We traded an indigo bush for some prickly pear cactus (which we have wanted for some time). And, one person, who signed my nomination form, has been dabbling with getting a patch of big bluestem going on his property over by Kane, not far from where I hear there is a three acre patch of virgin prairie left.

Another person, who signed my nomination form, asked how long it would take for the Natural world to restore itself if humans were absent from the landscape. ‘About 100 years,’ I said.

It would be 25-40 years if we have a hand in it. Less if we take it seriously.

And, come to think of it, a small herd of bison, in the drainage ditch west of Rosenort, would be a tourist attraction. Especially if they were grazing Tallgrass Prairie flora!

Robert G Mears

November 2014

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