Interleaving Ways of Knowing a Prairie: Drawing, Data, and Plants

May 20, 2021

Welcome to the second of three guest posts on "The Arts of Noticing", edited by PPEH Graduate Fellow Pooja Nayak, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and South Asia Studies at Penn. This piece by Liz Anna Kozik, a PhD candidate at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, runs an experiment for the reader: what aspects of the Mesic prairie histories, remnants, and their restorations become visible when the same dataset is presented through a formal, journal style abstract, and then explored through drawing?

For other posts in this series, see Pooja's introduction, and Part 1.


Author's abstract, titled Mesic Tallgrass Prairie Observations in South Wisconsin and Northern Illinois: Historic, Remnant, and Restoration. Next to it, a table listing percentages of observed and most observed plant species in these prairies.

Long lists of species names and corresponding numbers make up the backbone of ecological research. Yet the living world is complex, varied across space and time in ways that numbers in spreadsheets struggle to express.

Figure C: Example Remnant Site. A remnant prairie in North Eastern Illinois, at a distance showing a hard-to-discern variety of species, one prominent linden tree, and distant tree line. Below, marker rendering of a prairie landscape of indistinct species, with two trees in the middle ground and distant tree line
Figure D: Example Restoration Site. A restored fall prairie that fills the view. A variety of species are identifiable. Below, Marker rendering of a prairie landscape full of different, very distinct plants layers on top of each other.
an exploded view of a prairie, where every single species is clearly, individually depicted instead of obscured by the plants around it. Around 25 species are depicted.
Another exploded rendering of a prairie in it’s diversity, depicting about 40 plants, with repeat appearances by species that Curtis listed as more common. Most prairies near me are gone. Much of the region was “mesic” prairies, flat, goldilocks-perfect between wet and dry. AKA perfect for farming, roots ripped from soil. The prairies that survive, “remnant prairies,” are the odd places that dodged the plow: railways, pioneer cemeteries, & hillsides.
Another exploded rendering of a prairie in it’s diversity based on citizen reported species observations with community sourced IDs, depicting about 40 plants, with repeat appearances by species that observations listed as more common, reflected by statistics.  But remnant prairies aren’t static.  No one is outside of time, including ecosystems. Remnants are still around, if rare.  It’s been 65 years of extinctions, weeds, and species jockeying for position since Curtis.
We want restorations like remnants, but issues of land, weeds, soil, and difficult plants make it near impossible to recreate prairie. Prairie restorations near me, the result of up to sixty years of work, clearly show the struggle. Some of the big, showy prairie-synonymous plants are there, but the variety is more limited. Instead, 20% of the plants are weedy non-native species. Prairie restoration is an act of hope, but it can also be a source of despair with data like these.
A restored prairie. A variety of species are identifiable, including milkweed, goldenrod, rudbeckia, rosinweed, brome grass, big bluestem grass, and more. An endless texture of diversity, regardless of the fact that it’s a restoration.

Liz Anna Kozik is an interdisciplinary scholar who works at the intersection of science communication, environmental humanities, and art. Her research focuses on the myriad culturo-scientific facets of ecological restoration in the American Midwest. Through comics and an active social media presence, she shares stories of the practices, people, and history of prairie restoration.