Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Explorations: Relict Prairie

IMG_5320I remember once a few years ago hearing that there was some prairie land in Pennsylvania, and thinking that there must be some mistake.  Prairie and Appalachia do not seem to go together.  When I think prairie, I think Laura Ingalls Wilder, I think North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas, I think bison.  So, with all these thoughts about what and where a prairie might be running through my mind, imagine my surprise to find that not only is there prairieland in Pennsylvania, but that it is only about 45 minutes from my home.

The Jennings Environmental Center, near Slippery Rock, is a state park that allows preservation of and education about the ecosystem of its relict prairie.  "Relict" simply means it is what now survives of what was once a much larger ecosystem, meaning the prairie land was once much more expansive than it is today.  The  prairie is only about 20 acres, and it is the only protected prairie in Pennsylvania.  It helps protect some rare, and in a couple of cases endangered, species of plants and animals, including the blazing star flower.  In short, this land is a real treasure, and it is practically in our backyards.  We simply had to go visit it.


A few days ago, when I began to look into the details of the prairie, I learned that it was in full bloom, and would only be in full bloom for a short period of time.  So, off we went.  When we arrived, it seemed as if we were just going to any old wooded park. We found the entrance to the trails, and off we headed.  The majority of the trails are woodland trails, but the do lead to and connect with 2 trails through the prairie.  And there was no mistaking when we hit the prairie portion of the trails.  It was, in a word, dazzling.


The area opened up from trees into wide open fields, with the blue sky above.  The fields were ablaze with the vivid colors of many different plants and flowers, and several different types of butterflies were floating about.  Immediately, I began wishing I had a better camera.  But as it was, I did get to capture some truly gorgeous photos.



We walked the two trails through the prairie, which was about half a mile total.  Then, we ended up on the woodland trails.  I actually found the trails a little confusing, one constantly leading to another, to another, to another.  We had no map, so after walking in the woods for about an hour, I started getting a little nervous that we were walking in circles.  I pulled the map of the trails up on my phone, and we then found our way back to where we needed to be, and got to walk back through the prairie before returning to our car.

A few times in my life, I have experienced nature in a way that is so pure, and serene, that it cannot help to bring me joy.  In graduate school, I had a place where I could go, enjoy nature, and think about life.  I often find myself missing that place a lot.  In Celtic spirituality, there is a reference to a "thin place", a place where heaven and earth are most thinly divided, where man can easily experience the divine, where God and His majesty are most evident.  To me, I often find thin places in nature, and I feel certain that, in this beautifully preserved prairieland, I have found another.