Burning Prairie Paradigm

The super-paradigm informs the one about burning prairies. I’m pretty sure you know what the smaller paradigm is — the “true statement” about prairies and burning — that was threatened by both the articles you read. So go ahead and write that paradigm of reality as an actual sentence that has a subject, verb, and object. If you aren’t sure what I mean, ask yourself what produces what, environmentally (where fire is part of the equation), in natural prairie ecosystems such as the Flint Hills of Kansas. Please write out the sentence that answers or states this. Then scroll down past the spoiler space and find out if we are on the same page.







I imagine your sentence stating the smaller paradigm reads something like this:

Burning grasslands produces healthy prairie ecosystems.


Prairie fires maintain healthy prairie ecosystems.

Burning is an action word, a verb. The verb describing the kind of action that produces or changes an object is process. So burning the prairie grasslands is a process. A healthy prairie ecosystem is an ecological pattern of grasses, herbaceous plants, soils, animals, and wildflowers in which things such as trees and woody brush are absent. The process of burning produces the pattern of healthy prairie. This is a paradigmatic statement of reality among most ecologists these days, and also among the Flint Hills ranchers and people at The Furrow. It’s even a paradigmatic statement of reality for most of the people interviewed in the smoke article at US News.

The relationship between process and pattern is one of cause-and-effect: the fire is the cause that produces healthy prairie ecosystem as an effect. Without fire, as you read in the articles, woody plants move in and choke out the grasses. The assumption is that no other process produces healthy prairie, given that Brian Obermeyer of the Kansas Nature Conservancy points out that “Some folks are burning more frequently than they would have otherwise needed to because woody plants have gotten such a strong hold in places” ( Newman 2019). Further, the arrow of cause-and-effect between pattern and process is one-way: fire is required for healthy prairie, but healthy prairie is not required for fire. Places that have invasive cedar trees for instance, and are no longer healthy prairie, also burn. We can therefore diagram the relationship between process and pattern with an actual arrow:

grassland burn —> healthy prairie

Two very important parts of this paradigm are not visible in the diagram.

First, a value is attached to any given pattern. Over the last few decades, natural patterns have come to be valued as “good” because people are starting to realize they are more stable and provide more resources. It may be hard to imagine, but this hasn’t always been the case. The beautifully-written novels of Willa Cather, for instance, describe natural prairie in evocative terms but also celebrate the replacement of native grasslands with towns, trees, ponds, and fields of corn, wheat, and alfalfa. This view is even more evident in books such as Rølvaag’s novel “Giants In the Earth.” (Much of the history of Western culture celebrates the power of humans to tame or civilize the landscape. Think of the Paul Bunyan stories in America, for instance, or the fact that the European fairy tale hero who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the Wolf [a telling villain] was a woodsman with an axe.)

Process and pattern are linked so tightly in a cause-and-effect way that any value applied to one winds up being applied to the other. This makes sense, because it’s difficult to navigate a situation in which native prairie is “good” but the fire which produces and maintains it is “bad” and must be suppressed. Something has to give in that equation. So, very slowly, prairie fire has also come to be valued as “good” by Western culture.

This is actually the precise place the smoke story collided with the paradigm. It hit the value part of things. It’s hard to read stories of children and elderly people suffering respiratory ailments serious enough to hospitalize them and not question the “good” value accorded to the burning that produces the smoke. But the moment you see the burning as “bad,” the whole paradigm shivers from the blow. Do you see that? Because you cannot logically say the burning is bad but that the native prairie it produces is good. And in fact, that’s what the reporter kept bringing us back to, with her interviewee’s quotes, is the idea that native prairie ecosystem is a good thing to have around so we’re stuck with the burning, and that this creates a situation of real internal disturbance because people are suffering from the smoke. That sort of impasse is precisely what sometimes makes people shut down and say, “I don’t want to hear any more about this; burns are necessary to healthy prairies and that’s that.”

You can find the other invisible part of this paradigm for yourself if I suggest that an alternative solution to the smoke problem is simply not to burn the Flint Hills because it’s bad to burn there, but to go ahead and burn other grasslands because burning is good everywhere else. Can you feel the problem this creates? The paradigmatic statement about burning prairies is universal. It is “grassland burn —> healthy prairie,” not “grassland burn —> healthy prairie in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma, but grassland burn ≠> healthy prairie in Kansas.” To say that, we’d have to explain why Kansas is different.

Of course, now you feel like you have a clue about how Kansas, or at least the Flint Hills, might be actually different. So let’s push on that a little bit.

  • Is the outcome of the burning, the visible  pattern, different in the Flint Hills? That is, does the prairie there not benefit from burning after all? (Shake your head no. It still benefits. Take a look.)
  • Is the process of burning different somehow? (Jumping up and down and throwing things, are you?) OK. So the process in the Flint Hills is different in some way from a natural burn. How is it different?
  • Is the process different because the ranchers don’t really care about maintaining healthy prairies? I think they do, if you define healthy prairies as ones with abundant native grasses. That is what they want, right?
  • Is the process different because the Flint Hills fires aren’t set naturally, by lightning, but by humans? You’re starting to get somewhere here, but you’ve still got a couple of problems. Let’s look at those separately.

First, to get any traction on this idea, you’d have to get scientists to measure the pattern and outcome of lightning-started prairie fires and compare that to the pattern and outcome of rancher-started prairie fires. And I fear the results will look very much like those in the three power line edge effect papers I linked to: “something seems to be going on here but we can’t figure out what it is.”

Second, Native people sometimes burn the prairies now, and used to burn the prairies historically. Native people are humans too. Can there be a difference between fire set by an Indigenous person and fire set by a non-Indigenous person? Is it possible that the burn processes set in motion by an Indigenous hand and a white rancher’s hand produce different patterns, different outcomes?

If you’re feeling a bit wobbly here, stop and breathe. I know you feel trapped. That’s why we’re doing this, is to find the larger super-paradigm we’ve been trying to unearth, that’s got you by the foot, so you can release it.  It’s that larger paradigm that’s making it so impossible to escape the trap you’re in here. We have most of the elements in front of us now, so let’s lay them out and see what we have. Please continue to The Larger Paradigm so we can do this together.