Emily Dickinson Offers Advice on Prairie Restoration in “To Make A Prairie”

Rock outcrops on Picnic Hill, Swamplovers Foundation

Rock outcrops on Picnic Hill, a prairie restoration at The Swamplovers Foundation.

Yes, that Emily Dickinson.

As it turns out, Emily Dickinson, the American poet (1830-1886) addressed the subject of making a prairie more than 130 years ago.   In a short, and wonderfully futuristic poem that anticipated the practice of ecological restoration, she boiled  the process down to its fundamental essence and described the basic ingredients that go into making a prairie in her poem, “To Make A Prairie”.

Those of us who restore prairies, or plant new ones from scratch, continue to debate, research, and discuss the proper way to go about it.

What are our goals? Should we strive for complete restoration that matches, species-by-species, our image of virgin prairie or should we be content with a much simpler version that provides wildlife habitat and urban beautification?  We wonder about the appropriate species mix, the best time to plant, and the preferred methods, tools and techniques that yield the desired outcomes.

Whether we are working on restoring prairie—or any other kind of ecosystem—our answers have as much to do with science, and the history, and circumstances of the restoration site as it does with our visions and dreams, art and desires.

The Poem

Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1800 poems, most of them hidden away, unpublished, and little known–except to close family–until after her death.  Because Dickinson did not date her poems it is not known in what year Dickinson wrote To Make A Prairie.   In lieu of a date written, Dickinson’s poems are assigned numbers, in alphabetical order of the first line.   “To Make a Prairie” is # 1755

 “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.”

What is Dickinson saying here? Her recipe sounds too simple to be true. Is she confused about what it takes to restore, or make a prairie from scratch? Those of us, who toil in this field know that restoration requires much effort over many years. The job includes lots of hard work that is both tedious and backbreaking: collecting seeds, eradicating weeds, preparing the soil, and working under the hot prairie sun.

No, Dickinson was probably not confused about what might go into such an effort.

Dickinson did not, as far as we know, visit a prairie but, as a life-long gardener and a student of botany, she was quite familiar with the effort required to create and tend a garden—which utilizes some of the same methods and tools that a prairie restoration does. In her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts—which she rarely traveled beyond—she was famed both for her beautiful garden that she tended with dedication and for the lavish bouquets she shared with friends. Her poems, that accompanied the bouquets, received less attention at the time.


Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)

I believe she was speaking of ecological restoration (or other restorative acts such as native plant gardening) as distinguished from traditional perennial gardening.   In traditional perennial gardening the focus is on the individual plant and does not require, or necessarily encourage, ecological relationships of the type that exist between a clover and a bee in a prairie.   In a traditional perennial garden one can have a clover without a bee.

What is Ecological Restoration?

According to the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) “Ecological Restoration is he process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.”  In my view, this includes an attempt to provide the conditions under which the products of history—plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems—can continue to thrive.

In this poem she captures the mechanics and magic of ecological restoration and evokes the imagery and imagination that inspires and energizes those of us who work to repair the damaged earth. Although Dickinson wrote about making prairies long ago, I think her words speak to restoration ecologists today, everywhere, no matter whether their work is in tall grass prairies, the boreal forest, or coral reefs.

But Dickinson was onto something else in this poem. In addition to science, ecological restoration requires art, imagination, and desire. Dickinson could see this. Thus, the key to understanding “To Make a Prairie” is “reverie.”   But first, let’s go through the poem line-by-line.

A Closer Look

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee” Dickinson is referring both to the species and the species relationships that comprise an existing prairie, and of course suggests that if a human wanted to make a prairie, these co-dependent species must be included in the mix.

“It takes a clover and one bee” To emphasize the point, Dickinson repeats herself.

The clover and the bee are important parts of the prairie and the two go together: the clover needs the bee for pollination and the bee needs the clover’s pollen. She was saying that the prairie is an ecosystem—decades before scientists in the early 1900’s even developed the concept of ecology, let alone what we have come to understand as its underlying principles.

In these two lines Dickinson demonstrates first a sophisticated understanding of ecological relationships and ecosystem functioning (mutualistic relationships between species, critical ecosystem functions like wildlife habitat, and ecological services such as pollination and provisioning of food.) Insights she probably gained from working in and observing her garden. As I said, it is not known if she ever visited an eastern prairie but because scattered prairie remnants occur throughout the east it is possible that she did.  Certainly Dickinson could have received first-hand accounts of the prairie from friends and discussed them with explorers who had seen the prairie.

Secondly, she is suggesting that the prairie needs both the clover and the bee to make it a prairie.

And thirdly, by repeating the first line she indicates that to make a prairie the step must be repeated over and over and also with other species pairs as well.

These are ecological concepts that represent current thinking but were visions, only in the minds of poets, when Dickinson was working.

“And revery” The modern spelling of the word is “reverie”.   Reverie unlocks the poem and is the key to my understanding of what Dickinson was talking about and provides modern readers with a new insight into the fantastic—perhaps delusional—notion of ecological restoration.

Reverie has several meanings.  In one sense it means   “A state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream.” In the Oxford American Dictionary Reverie: n. 1 A fit of abstracted musing (was lost in a reverie), 2. Archaic: a fantastic notion or theory; a delusion. 3. Music, an instrumental piece suggesting a dreamy or musing state.  But it is the second meaning, the archaic one, “a fantastic notion or theory; a delusion” I think, that Dickinson intended in this poem.


This is a poem, according to the musician Elizabeth Alexander, “about dreams and creation.” http://www.seafarerpress.com/works/to-make-a-prairie.  By extension, the poem suggests that without dreams, fantastic notions or theories, and personal delusions we would never get started on a crazy project like trying to restore a prairie and the broader job of ecological restoration.

Emily Dickinson understood all this.

The poem, I think, anticipates the field of endeavor that has become ecological restoration.  Ecological restoration is a task that is hard and time-consuming work filled with practical tasks: pulling weeds, working and preparing the soil, gathering and sowing seeds, battling pest plants, conducting prescribed management fires and then doing it all over again, year after year with very little chance of achieving your desired outcomes.

A Harbinger

“And revery alone will do

if bees are few”

To make a prairie”, refers on the one hand to the hard practical work done by earnest, well-meaning people. But, with the introduction of “Reverie” Dickinson alludes to the other side of making a prairie—the likelihood that few people in their right minds would undertake to restore a prairie without reverie.  Such an undertaking, laced as it is with uncertainties and unknowns,  amounts to a “fanciful or impractical idea or theory”; a “fantastic notion or theory; a delusion.

Perhaps what Dickinson is hinting at is that is that “reverie”, the delusion or fanciful thinking is required to get the restoration project started in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the project may be futile and ill advised.

Reverie sustains many an ecological restorationist through tough times of uncertainty and scarcity.   Emily Dickinson understood this.   It is about the vision and dream; about getting started, about art and desire.   As Cynthia Malone says,

“Maybe the poem is suggesting that we begin making something long before we know enough, and long before we pick up our tools.” http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=headwaters

This is how many a restoration begins: without having all the parts or even knowing what all of the missing pieces are. But we begin with a dream and a vision—as unrealistic as it may be—and a desire to learn how to get the job done.

“The Only Teller of News”

Dickinson anticipated, and wrote about what we know today as ecological restoration, at least 50 years before Leopold’s work at The Shack and in the UW-Madison Arboretum.   “To Make a Prairie” was written at least 100 years before ecological restoration became a widespread practice in the mid-1980’s.  But how did a person who probably never visited a prairie have these insights? How could Dickinson have anticipated and written about ecological restoration over 130 years ago?

Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson gives an answer in his essay “The Poet”

“The poet is “The only one capable of articulating the transcendent nature of things, the poet is the one who can identify “symbols” and “emblems” of the world.”

“The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news,”

To the extent that our restoration work is infused with poetry, we are also “Tellers of news.”

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner, conservation photographer, and writer living in the Midwestern United States. Check out my photos at Stephenglassphotography.smugmug.com
This entry was posted in Art and ecological restoration, Ecological restoration, Poetry about ecological restoration, Prairie restoration, Restoration ecology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Emily Dickinson Offers Advice on Prairie Restoration in “To Make A Prairie”

  1. William R. Jordan III says:

    Hey! What a great essay and contribution to the, I believe, crucial project of linking ecology with the arts and humanities on behalf of restoration and, not incidentally, saving the planet.

    A few comments in response:

    First, a thought arises, I think inevitably, as I read Steve’s piece that, well, maybe this is a bit far- fetched. Sure, Dickinson’s poem is about what it takes “to make a prairie”. But isn’t that, er, just a metaphor, with at best an accidental connection with what we’ve come to call “real” prairie restoration?

    Good question. But, for me at any rate, far from diminishing the thought, or my interest in it, this actually mobilized my interest and engagement.

    For one thing, the connections are both striking and, for a poem that’s only five short lines—and 27 words—long (it would almost fit on a t-shirt), numerous: a clover AND a bee (not just a clover, as one might cultivate in a traditional garden, more or less taking the essential bee for granted); not only the distinction between the garden and restoration, but also the connection; the hard work, and even the focus on (to use words Dickinson could not have known) the very ecosystem that would turn out, a century or so later, to be the cradle of ecological restoration. (Why a prairie and not, as one might expect from a New Englander, maybe reflecting on the screaming need for restoration evident in the forests of the Northeast in her day, some beech or pine forest?)

    Steve finds intimations of all these apprehensions in these five lines. But also, as he emphasizes, something more: that “reverie” thing.

    And he emphasizes the crucial role this operation of mind, this aspect of experience has to play in the, as he says, “crazy” idea of ecological restoration.

    I love this. Restoration, the idea of putting something back the way it was, that version of turning back the clock, going back in time, which we all know, in our left-brain moods, is impossible.

    Impractical to say the least. But “impractical” for what?

    I recall a discussion of the aims of restoration at an SER conference a few years ago, when this idea came up and someone commented that it was “impractical”.

    My thought was well, that depends. What are we trying to “practice” here? If the idea is to restore some aspect of ecosystem function such as hydrology or soil stability or even biodiversity, there are probably easier, cheaper ways to do that than trying to bring back ALL the historic species, including, as I say, the inconvenient ones like rattlesnakes and poison ivy.

    But what about getting in touch with the past, with origins, as if that mattered? Or paying tribute to what was here when “we” (however we construe that) got here—“the tribute of the current to the source”, as Robert Frost put it in “West-running Brook”?

    Or simply engaging the tragic impossibility of turning back the clock, nurturing and enactng a grown-up awareness of the aspect of experience reflected in Macbeth’s despairing “What’s done cannot be undone”?

    That, it seems to me is pretty darned practical.

    Indeed, I’ve come to believe that the world actually depends on just this kind of reverie.

    And that this is—has had to be–part of ancient human wisdom.

    As Titania, the queen of the fairies insists in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream ” http://environmentalprospect.org/introduction-to-the-values-project/ the world depends on the rituals the fairies do to maintain the order of nature.

    That came long before Edith Roberts and Volney Spalding and Aldo Leopold and others launched their projects in the early decades of the past century. Indeed, the first ecological restorations, dating back millennia, were not ecological projects at all—ecology didn’t exist until the end of the nineteenth century—but rituals of world renewal, which, in one understanding, maintained and perpetuated the values and informed the consciences on which, a successful society realized—had to realize—human life depends.

    And which, it’s worth keeping in mind, actually worked in ways that purely ecological projects very likely can’t

    Hence my own, perhaps idiosyncratic, but unapologetic commitment to the development of restoration as ecological, certainly, but also as a performing art http://environmentalprospect.org/2016/05/restoring-nature-and-ourselves/

    A “practical” version, we may say, of Dickinson’s poem.

    • Steve Glass says:

      Thanks Bill for your comments and for taking the time to share your thoughts, they are much appreciated. You understand exactly what I am saying, along with all of its fanciful notions.

      I am especially interested in what you had to say about engaging in the “tragic impossibility of trying to turn back the clock” and your belief “that the world actually depends on just this kind of reverie.” But the key sentence for me is: “And that this is—has had to be–part of ancient human wisdom.”

      This made me realize that this “ancient human wisdom” is the connection with ecological restoration we’ve been talking about and forms the basis, I think, of the assumptions that Dickinson makes about human attitudes and behavior in her poem, To Make a Prairie”.

      The poem could not have been written if Dickinson did not assume that 1) people have some capacity for caring about the world; 2) that people are inspired (reverie) to take action to demonstrate that caring (making prairies,); that 3) some parts of the world are damaged (bees are few) and need human assistance to heal the planet; and 4) that humans can find solutions to repair the damage (cultivating clovers and bees.

      As you know, these assumptions parallel some of the assumptions that inspire and inform the work of modern day restoration ecologists. For example, restoration ecologists assume that:

      1. Many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing.
      2. The Earth’s natural capital is diminished, to the detriment of its humans and non-human inhabitants.
      3. Restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems.
      4. Restorationists assume that people have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing damage.

      It’s safe to say that not everyone shares these assumptions.


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