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North Tama students explore prairie heritage

Irvine Prairie field trip

Students from North Tama Middle School use their cellphones as a timer while observing a saturation rate experiment at Irvine Prairie while on a field trip recently to the northeast Tama County preserve. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

North Tama eighth graders took a trip back in time on Wednesday, September 15 by exploring a piece of their heritage — a prairie.

Iowa’s landscape was once dominated by prairie grasses — roughly 80 percent, the largest percentage in the nation — but today Iowa’s children have little access to that key part of their heritage.

Through a 77 acre pocket of restored prairie in northeast Tama County, the Tallgrass Prairie Center (TPC) is doing their part to restore such access.

“This was Cathy Irvine’s family land that she donated to the University of Northern Iowa to turn it into a prairie,” Laura Walter, Plant Materials Program Manager with TPC, told the North Tama school group shortly after 9 a.m. on September 15.

The group of about 30 students had gathered just across the road from Cathy Irvine’s rural Dysart farm on the edge of what is now a reconstructed prairie-in-progress — corn and bean fields surrounding it on every side.

North Tama eighth grade students answer questions posed by scientist Laura Walter (foreground, green hat) with the Tallgrass Prairie Center while on a field trip to Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart on Wednesday, September 15. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“This was Cathy’s dream and vision,” Walter continued before posing the question, “What is a prairie?”

“Wheat,” a student replied with sincerity as Irvine herself stood off to the side, listening, her dog Duckie at her feet.

Irvine donated the land for the prairie reconstruction to TPC after her husband David Irvine passed away.

“We loved the whole idea of Iowa having prairie,” Irvine told the students later in the morning, “but we didn’t see any around here. When Dave died, I thought, what could I do?”

“Now [the prairie] belongs to you as well as everybody else.”

North Tama eighth graders set off down a path while visiting Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart as part of a school field trip. The 77 acre preserve in northeast Tama County is open to the public with a mission of providing Iowans with the opportunity to experience their prairie heritage. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

The North Tama students were the third group to visit Irvine Prairie this year, Walter said in an email interview following the field trip — Oelwein and Union high schools being the other two.

“Irvine Prairie allows students to experience prairie on a larger scale than is possible across most of this part of Iowa,” Walter said.

“The size of the prairie and the mowed paths give students room to roam and explore. … They can observe how a planted prairie changes as it matures and witness the wildlife that’s attracted to a highly diverse native plant community.”

The crickets were a constant buzz of noise that morning as the students set off down the prairie paths to parts unknown within the 60 acres of prairie that have been replanted thus far.

Silly shouts of “I’m lost!” could be heard from the grasses.

Cathy Irvine (left) and Laura Walter (right) speak with a group of North Tama Middle School students during their field trip to Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart. Irvine donated the land for the 77 acre reconstructed prairie preserve, while Walter helps manage the preserve. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

An occasional adolescent mop of hair popped up every now and then above the towering big bluestem.

The students were asked to spread out across the preserve, use their senses to observe for about 30 minutes, and collect up to four “treasurers” strategically placed in old coffee containers at various points along the trail system.

When they regrouped, Walters asked what they saw, what they heard, what they observed.

“We all benefit from [the prairie] today. We farm in the prairie soils,” Walter said. “We want to see what you see out here. What is there to observe about Irvine Prairie? It’s too big for us.”

The eighth graders also conducted an experiment that morning comparing the saturation rates between three different habitats — long grass by the road, prairie grass, and manicured lawn.

North Tama eighth grade students answer questions posed by scientist Laura Walter (foreground, green hat) with the Tallgrass Prairie Center while on a field trip to Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart on Wednesday, September 15. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

In real time the students were able to see the benefit of a prairie ecosystem.

“Prairie keeps soil in place and helps water move into the ground,” Walter said. “If we could put prairie in places where the fields don’t produce as much corn and soybeans, we could address a lot of the problems that we have [with flooding].”

Later in the morning, Irvine, a retired teacher, told the students, “I wanted something to help everybody feel as attached to the prairie as I did.”

“There’s a lot of diversity out there. A lot of insects,” Walter said. “A prairie supports the things that live there.”

Irvine is hoping through the Irvine Prairie, the children of Tama County begin to realize they are a part of the prairie, too.

Coreopsis blooming at Irvine Prairie in rural northeast Tama County. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

The Tallgrass Prairie Center is limited in its ability to provide guided tours due to the demands of field work, but encourages school groups to visit Irvine Prairie on their own any time.

Ideas for activities, background information, as well as a form to fill out for large groups planning to visit can be found on the TPC website https://tallgrassprairiecenter.org/irvine-prairie.