How do you connect with the land?

I really enjoy the work we do here at the Arboretum.  I am deeply rooted in the Kansas landscape. Having grown up on a farm, connecting with the land seemed like an easy thing for me. However, I never really noticed the small details and intricacies of the plants that grow here until I started working at the Arboretum.

Butterfly Milkweed and Compass Plant

The Arboretum is almost 40 years old.  From our founding, building relationships with the land was our foremost charge.  The 1981 mission was to “foster and appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas”. Our growth since those humble beginnings is linked to the timelessness of our mission and connecting people to the Kansas landscape.   

As you know, connecting to the land has never been more important. With concerns of habitat loss, declining bird populations, fewer pollinators, or decreasing biodiversity, your connection will have a powerful impact as you learn more about your role in making positive changes. What you do will make a difference.     

Yellow Coneflowers, Giant Blackeyed Susan and Prairie Dropseed

Knowledge is powerful. Whether in personal or work relationships, in working with plants, or anything else, the more you know the deeper the connection grows. Relationships grow as we learn, relate and spend time interacting with each other or with the elements of nature that surround us. The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains’ mission to ‘cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land’ is all about building relationships through continuous learning.

It is my wish that each of you find a personal connection with the land that makes your life better. As you develop this connection, other positive impacts will naturally happen. Stewardship, conservation, appreciation, enjoyment and reflection are personal responses to a profound connection to the land. 

In the coming year, we invite each of you to share in experiences that inspire you and deepen your own connection to the land and with the Arboretum. It is our desire to make your lives richer as you find solace, comfort, joy, anticipation, and discovery in the events and activities centered around our mission. 

The stunning tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills

Whether you support the Arboretum by giving financially, attending events, sharing about our work with your friends and family, or providing your expertise and energy through volunteering, your participation makes this place better. Your commitment to this shared mission deepens our relationships not only with each other, but also with the land. 

Fire: A Link Between People and the Prairie

Over the last week, I have been helping conduct prescribed burns on the prairies at Dyck Arboretum as well as for some area landowners. This annual spring ritual for me is one of the most engaging examples of our mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.

A prescribed burn in process at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

For thousands of years since the last ice age, prairie has evolved with fire, an essential element of disturbance that maintains prairie as prairie. Without fire, readily available seeds of trees and shrubs will invade and turn prairie into forest within decades. Gone are the days when lightning or Native American-set fires regularly kept this element of maintenance in place every few years. Today, landowners, ranchers, and land managers must regularly be the starters of fire. A few years ago, I blogged more in depth about why we should Embrace Prairie Burning.

Conducting A Safe Burn

I cannot sufficiently instruct one to conduct a prescribed burn in a short blog post, but I will summarize the important elements to be considered when making fire go where you want it go. Conducting a safe prescribed burn is in actuality a simple process, but one MUST adhere to strict guidelines regarding 1) relative humidity, and 2) wind speed. When relative humidity (RH) is at 80%, fire is very difficult to start and when it is at 20%, fire is very difficult to put out. Making sure that the start and end time of the burn stay within those parameters is paramount, and sunlight and temperature have a profound effect on RH. With every 20-degree F increase, RH drops in half.

Wind speeds between 5-15 miles per hour (mph) are important too. Below 5 mph, winds can be shifty, unpredictable and dangerous when trying to control fire. And it probably goes without saying, but winds over 15 mph can easily carry flames where you don’t want them to go. A 911 dispatcher will not allow a burn to start if wind gusts are above 15 mph, anyway.

There are three types of fire we regularly refer to in prescribed burning. A back fire works directly against the wind, a flank fire works perpendicular to the wind, and a head fire is pushed with the wind.

A back fire working against the wind is the most easily controlled fire type.
A flank fire, is the second most controllable fire and it is only lit once a back fire has safely established the downwind portion of the burn unit.
A head fire that roars with the wind is only lit after the back and flank fires have safely secured all areas of the burn unit.

The intensity of these three fire types is from low to high, respectively, as is their ease of control. To most easily contain a fire within a particular burn unit, we start with downwind back fires until a sufficient black line is established, work around to flank fires until those flanks are made safe, and then finish with a head fire to most quickly finish the burn once all the boundaries have been sufficiently secured. The following diagram, shows the general progression of a prescribed burn, otherwise known as the ring fire technique.

Graphic from fact sheet on Planning and Conducting a Prescribed Burn, provided by Kansas State University Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Important tools in managing fire include those that help you quickly move fire and those that help you quickly put it out. In the past, I used a drip torch full of a diesel/gas mixture, but have more recently relied on the much simpler (and lighter) tool of a garden rake for dragging fire. My favorite water carrying device is a water backpack and hand pump with support of extra water in a larger water tank carried by our new Hustler MDV. The backpack with a 5-gallon capacity can get heavy and cumbersome, but it sprays a reliable 10-15′ stream of water and is easily the most mobile and useful tool I know for carrying water and putting out fire.

Prescribed burning water backpack with hand pump.

Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land

The act of burning a prairie brings together the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water). The earth produces prairie vegetation, and in spring time, the prairie is renewed after it combusts when brought together with air and fire. We use water to bring this process to a conclusion. As I stated above, people are essential to keeping this positive feedback loop going today.

The people who are essential to this stewardship process of prescribed burning include my colleagues, volunteers willing to lend a hand, and the landowners themselves who initiate the process. All of these individuals make up an important community of people strengthening a connection to the land.

Dyck Arboretum staff, student interns, and faithful volunteers are prepared to conduct a prescribed burn on a parcel of our Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction.
Landowners Ryan (far right) and Audrey Magill (second from left) are the current stewards of a 17-acre parcel of prairie near Hesston and engaged their family, friends, and neighbors to conduct a burn last week.
Naomi Rutschman, the former land steward of the Magill property, came out to observe the prescribed burn. I was able to burn this same parcel with Naomi and her husband Orville 13 years earlier.
During a burn at Bethel College earlier this week, I was able to greet a friend and mentor who inspired me over 30 years ago to pursue a career in prairie management and education. Emeritus professor, Dwight Platt, in his late 80s still mows and hand rakes acres of prairie hay for mulch on his vegetable garden.

The identity of Kansas is built around the native landscape of the prairie and fire will always be a part of that identity. While the implementation of prescribed burns may be a laborious task that can make my body feel old, it is an important ritual that keeps my spirit young.

One of my favorite experiences of conducting a prescribed burn is often found in the final moments of such an event. Once the final head fire has been lit and the hard work is complete, there are a few moments to enjoy the sounds of crackling flames of moisture-laden grasses and the happy sounds of mating boreal chorus frogs in the background.

In the video below, I leave you with the magical sights and sounds of this experience.