It’s just before dawn in Southwest Missouri, and the outermost rays of the sun are just starting to reach across a dazzling array of wildflowers carpeting the shallow valley that runs along County Road 2120 near Mount Vernon. Crickets and cicadas are in full voice, interrupted only by the piercing call of dickcissels who nest in the thickets of sumac that dot the grassland.
It’s a misty August morning and I’m watching the sun rise over one of Missouri’s last remaining prairies – Linden’s Prairie, in Lawrence County. Linden’s Prairie is one of almost two dozen tracts owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation, which manages and maintains more than 3,300 acres of prairie across the state. Along with some 60,000 acres managed by the Department of Conservation and other groups, these scattered plots are the only surviving pockets of an ecosystem that once covered more than 15 million acres of Missouri.
Even immersed in the majesty of the sunrise over Linden’s Prairie, there are
reminders – the constant drone of Interstate 44, the ever-present tree line – that this is a fragmented landscape. Preserving these fragments is why the Prairie Foundation first came into existence more than 50 years ago, just as prairie was vanishing at an alarming rate.
Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation explains, "After World War II, we had an acceleration of tools to accelerate agricultural development – it became easier to convert land, original habitat, into cropland." And in response, she added, "Biologists were noticing this and it felt like there wasn’t enough being done, and it felt like we needed an independent organization to really elevate the cause of prairie conservation."
The foundation set about buying remnant prairie all over the state, and has since expanded its mission to include educating private landowners about prairie management, and native plants. It’s important work, Davit stresses, with a number of benefits both economic and psychological.
"We know that natural habitats are really important to our mental and emotional health and well-being," Davit said, "and native plants are integral to sustaining those kinds of habitats.
With the hum of music in the background, I caught up with Davit at the second ever Missouri Prairie Festival, a benefit concert to raise money for the foundation. The concert was organized by a group called EMAP, which Davit explained, "stands for Environmental Music and Arts Project, and it is the brainchild of some folks here in St. Louis."
Specifically, it’s the brainchild of Kevin Koehler, a musician, sound engineer and self-described environmental activist. Koehler has been a part of the St. Louis music scene for more than a decade as a member of the band Illphonics. He says a couple years ago he realized his musical experience and connections could help serve his passion for the environment.
"I just decided, let’s put together concerts that raise money for environmental causes," Koehler said. And so EMAP was born. The Prairie Festival was one of its first projects.
"It just so happened that I had already done one event for the Missouri Prairie Foundation back in June of 2016," Koehler explained. "And I was like, well, conserving prairie land is probably one of the most important things we can do to even save the earth as we know it."
On top of the eight different musical groups on the bill for the festival, there were also panel discussions of environmental issues, as well as workshops on conservation and sustainable food. Last year’s festival brought in $2,000 for the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and Koehler plans to grow the festival in the future. "My goal for the next year is to get a more solid group, like a board together and we’re going to organize a lot sooner and a lot better," Koehler said.
The money from the festival will add to the Prairie Foundation’s budget which Davit hopes to use to acquire more land in the coming year. "We’re very fortunate to receive a fairly large grant to purchase prairie so we’re hoping to purchase some more land in southwestern Missouri," she said.