by Rebecca Tonietto
Hi! 👋 My name is Rebecca Tonietto and I am one of the founding members of Plant Love Stories - which is why it may come as a surprise that I am completely breaking the rules in this post and not writing about an actual plant. Rather, a community of plants – I am a community ecologist, so bear with me.
Had you told the me of yesteryear, picking ticks out of my hair and scraping tens of hundreds of Desmodium seeds off my clothes, cursing the buckthorn thickets as I crashed through to reach my field sites, that I would find myself missing – no - longing, for the prairie, I would have laughed in your face.
"But it is literally 110 degrees out!" I would have said. "There is inherently NO SHADE in a prairie!" I would have said. "And coyotes!" "And it is like walking through water!" "And you cannot see anything! You CAN GET LOST walking in a straight line!!!" I would have said all those things.
Yet, it has now been five years since I have done field work in real prairies. I miss them. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I do. It is palpable. Especially now in the fall, when the prairie comes ALIVE. The bursts of purples and yellows leaping out between the swaying grasses, waving in the crisp autumn breeze. The smell of Prairie Dropseed – that can’t-quite-explain-it, sweet-but-spicy just beginning of a scent that seems to disappear just as you are about to be able to describe it.
Can you say you get just a glimpse of a scent? It's like that.
I am back in southeastern Michigan now and live within a mile of my childhood home. I have a job I love and am beyond thrilled to be here. I feel so incredibly lucky that my kids can grow up around family, like I did. Which is why it feels weird (and even incredibly selfish) to say how much I miss something I didn’t even know I cared so much about.
When I left Michigan for the first time, nearly 15 years ago, I desperately missed the trees. In Chicago I had to pick a neighborhood that had them – lots and lots of them. I missed the forests I grew up around and felt at home in. I used to describe them as my "natural habitat."
One of the scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden (where I did my graduate work) had an email signature that said something along the lines of "anyone can love the mountains, but it takes soul to love the prairie." The prairie can sneak up on you. I didn’t really realize how much I had fallen in love until it was no longer all around me.
Don’t worry about me, though. I still work with wonderful
friends, old and new, on a prairie plot project and have a chance to introduce my students to a new ecosystem. I’m getting to plant native gardens in neighborhoods around Flint, Michigan and meeting wonderful people doing amazing things for their communities. I even have a “prairie” of sorts in my front yard – for when I just need to see a darn coneflower. Or a Baptisia pod. Or some other thing that somehow now signifies fall or spring or summer to me.
I also get my fix from the fantastic prairie folk I follow on Twitter – here a few, check them out if you want to see and hear more about the awesome work (art and science) they do!
Please feel free to also break rules in your submissions to us. My real Plant Love Story – the one about one species – is too tough for me to write right now. I’ll be back when I can do it. Until then, please keep ‘em coming. 🌻🌾❤️
Rebecca Tonietto, PhD is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Michigan-Flint, a 2015 Smith Fellow, and co-founder of Plant Love Stories interested in native bee conservation in urban and restored systems.