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Documentary Short: “The Prairie Flower Way of Life”

A Look at Life on America’s Iconic Tallgrass Prairie.

by Noel Bass

For the past two summers, I have taken nearly identical trips to the midwest. Both were to the same Tallgrass Prairie Farm in Iowa, called “The Prairie Flower”. Though, nearly identical trips, these two years could not be more different. The main factor being the 2012 drought. The summer of 2011 was a rich season, with a perfect balance of rainfall and sunshine.  It was quite a shock later to see the same land, during the worst drought in decades. I took 4 individual trips to The Prairie Flower, during 2011 and 2012. Each time I documented pieces of footage of life on the tallgrass prairie. On my last trip, I was able to spend some time capturing interviews with Bev and Dwight Rutter, owners of the tallgrass prairie farm. The end result is this little story about a family and land that are equally generous. Equal in my heart.

I first learned about the tallgrass prairie through a website called WWOOF.org, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. My original goal was to find volunteer opportunities on Native American reservations. A friend pointed me to WWOOF. After a lot of browsing, I did find a volunteer opportunity on an Native American reservation, but I also came upon a very unique little farm in the middle of Iowa. Every other farm on WWOOF seemed to be centered around the typical organic farming that we think about. Most center around edible vegetation or livestock. The Prairie Flower was growing grass. Yep, grass. I had to know more. After a little research, I discovered that the tallgrass prairie was once America’s dominant landscape. Now only 4% of it remains. We removed something solely unique to our continent, when we removed the tallgrass prairies of America. No other place in this world has what we had.

Pale Coneflower field against sky

Pale Purple Coneflower on The Prairie Flower, Noel Bass Photography

We replaced the tallgrass prairie with organized rows of  corn and soy beans. Both of these crops don’t like intruders, so they require pesticides. And because of corporate control and governmental subsidies, what we consider “farming”, is no more. The land is poisoned with chemical fertilizers. The wildlife is killed off. It’s sterile, especially on the eyes. There’s more variety of life in your average home closet. Underneath the surface of all this corn, is tens of thousands of years of roots and nutrients from the once massive tallgrass prairie.

Iowa Monoculture_

Mono-culture in Iowa, Noel Bass Photography

The tallgrass prairie has a chance at revival. In fact Dwight Rutter argues that if we quit farming today, the tallgrass prairie would begin to rise again without having to plant a single seed. There are signs of this on every mono-crop farm. Corn farmers call them “weeds”. But if you look closely, that “weed” is a native tallgrass prairie plant, deserving of it’s place.

Close Encounter Dragonfly CROP

Dragonfly on The Prairie Flower, Noel Bass Photography

Needless to say, I was intrigued by the wwoof opportunity on The Prairie Flower. I set out to Iowa with a camera and a will to get my hands dirty. My first impression was not of the land, but of family. I met up with Dwight and Bev at a parking lot in the nearby town of Spencer, Iowa. After a very quick greeting, Dwight immediately jumped in my truck and said, “Okay, so we’ll just follow her (Bev).” Dwight is Dwight. And Bev is Bev. From the first time you meet them until you leave, they are as the prairie is. The prairie is a prairie. More than we can say for what we are trying to think of as “human”. We say things like, “Hey, I’m human”, when we make an error in judgement or have an accident. Then, at the same time, we can glorify “human”, by calling superiority over other species. What it means to be “human” is not simple to classify because we live in fantasies about our role on this planet. We watch super hero blockbusters and run to theaters to watch stories about human characters who are more like immortal gods. Dwight, Bev, and the tallgrass prairie, are not. They know their role here. It’s simple. Work with the weather. Work with the land and nature. Most of it is labor intensive, though rewarding. Droughts will come. Troubles will follow. That’s life.

Dwight and Bev_

Bev and Dwight Rutter on The Prairie Flower, Noel Bass Photography

Going against nature might be “human”. So you thought. It’s not. It’s a lesson we will learn. But that’s not the point of the story. The story of “human” doesn’t find itself in mistakes or god-like triumphs. It finds itself in-between. It’s there in our connections. My last trip to the tallgrass prairie was unique for another reason. I met Alison DeMartino, a volunteer through WWOOF. I was able to see a family accept another individual as effortlessly as a new seed into the farm. That’s how Dwight and Bev operate. They see things naturally. People come into your life, but for the most part, things don’t change. Like seasons on the prairie, they bloom and become colorful. Some seasons, parts of the farm will excel in seed production while other parts may not mature. The clouds will dump rain where they want to. Just as volunteers may fall onto the Prairie Flower. In between, the connections are human. Possibly and ironically, it’s the connection to be less “human” that brings people to the tallgrass prairie. It’s bigger than you. It’s taller than you. It’s more beautiful than you are. But it doesn’t say this when you’re in it. Without speaking it, it says, “welcome home” to a stranger.

Thanks Dwight, Bev, Rutter Family and Friends!

by Noel Bass, Los Angeles Photographer