On the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, small prairie plantings adorn the edges of the SW Bike Path like a floral necklace. In the summer, prairie grasses and flowers grace the neighborhoods and lift the spirits of commuters and recreational users who bike, walk, or run the path. In the fall, the prairies turn a brilliant autumnal hue, and the winter stalks feed the birds.
Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Prairie
But every spring, on one or two peaceful evenings–for only a few hours–the pungent smell of prairie fire smoke greets the neighborhood and signals the annual renewal of these re-created prairie patches.
These small prairie jewels are planned, managed, planted, weeded, and even burned by groups (or rather teams) of engaged, civic-minded neighbors, just like those one finds doing good works in communities across the country.
The public prairies along the SW Bike Path (like the Odana Prairie, the Glenway Prairie, and the Westmorland Prairie) are managed by people who have the desire to return of bit of native Wisconsin to forgotten and largely uncared for public spaces. These are our friends and neighbors with the time and inclination to get their hands dirty turning the soil, pulling weeds, and collecting and sowing seed.
What we are talking about is ecological restoration of public spaces. The citizen restorationists who tend these prairie plantings are, in fact, engaged in the serious and risky business of intentionally setting fire to grasslands in an urban area–not a task for the faint of heart, or the un-organized person.
The neighborhood burn crews are also engaged in a fun and satisfying exercise but to make sure that their work is done safely, they go to great cost to buy professional burn equipment such as drip torches and back pack water pump sprayers, and some even attend classes to receive burn training and certification.
Westmorland Neighborhood Prairie
The evening after the Odana Prairie burn, the Westmorland and DMNA burn crews assembled at the Westmorland prairie ravine for a management burn of this developing prairie planting. In addition, groups of friends and neighbors and passers-by gathered just to watch and soak up the excitement of a prairie fire. The burns last week in fact turned out to be a great community reinforcing the fact the SouthWest Bike Path is one of the best public spaces on the west side of Madison.
The Glenway Prairie
This was the last burn event of the evening.
The burn was ignited just as dark settled and provided a dramatic end (as shown in the photo below) to a fun, exciting, and satisfying community-building restoration project.
When all the flames and smoke were out the burn crew adjourned to the Village Bar for celebration and a post-burn de-briefing. Ale’s well that ends well!