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"The Prairie Peninsula" showcases Midwest prairies


August 6, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

In last week’s column on a rare Ohio orchid, I lamented the nearly complete destruction of the state’s prairie. The day after that column published, I received a brand new book: “The Prairie Peninsula” by Gary Meszaros and Guy L. Denny.

The title comes from a description that Ohio State University ecologist Edgar Transeau coined for a landmark paper in 1935. His premise was that the expansive prairies of the Great Plains progressively diminished eastward, terminating in a pointed “peninsula” that covered parts of Indiana and Ohio.

Although natural succession had allowed forests to reclaim prairie, scattered remnants persisted well to the east of the major prairie states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and surrounding states, Transeau said.

In their new book, Meszaros and Denny showcase the treasured prairie remnants that survive in Ohio and other Midwestern states, which have lost around 99 percent of their pre-settlement prairies — and an accompanying trove of biodiversity — to croplands.

The authors’ prairie pedigrees are beyond reproach. Meszaros, a Cleveland resident, has studied natural history in North America for decades, and he has become legendary for his gorgeous nature photographs. More than 140 of them, in full color, appear in the book.

Denny is one of the best-known naturalists in the Midwest. He served as chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ division that manages the state’s nature preserves and personally manages what must be the finest prairie creation in Ohio on his Knox County property.

Their book is divided into easy-to-understand sections covering prairies’ history, ecology, plants, birds, insects and other flora and fauna. Peppered throughout are Meszaros’ gorgeous images. Especially fetching photos might cover parts of two pages; others are thumbnails of a dizzying array of animals and plants.

Because the book is so richly illustrated, interesting and easily digested, it should be of great interest to kids, not just adults.

Intrepid explorers will appreciate the book’s last chapter, titled “Remnants.” It offers brief descriptions of many of the best prairie patches in five states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. The vast prairies of Walpole Island in Ontario, Canada, are also covered.

For adventurers wishing to stay closer to home, the book describes five of Ohio’s best remaining prairies. All are must-sees, and the descriptions of each give a thumbnail of the highlights.
“The Prairie Peninsula” is a visual feast. It also serves as an important history book about our prairie heritage. I highly recommend it.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for the Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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