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Friday November 21, 2014
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Aunita Erskine

 

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Joseph Mercy Hospital.

Native Americans burned prairies to keep the land open and provide forage for the animals they hunted, and they did it for so long that entire ecosystems evolved to depend on fire. Even after the federal government bought the land and the Potawatomi moved west, cinders from passing trains set fires that kept the area open and preserved the prairie plants that lived here. But when diesel engines replaced steam, invasive shrubs and trees began to move in, smothering the native plants. For a prairie, Erskine says, "that's like the kiss of death."

Erskine, fifty-two, is a hospital administrator by profession--at the U-M, not St. Joe's--but the U-M English grad got hooked on native plants a dozen years ago while working on a master gardener project. When she was introduced to the Shanghai Prairie a few years later, she fell in love. "It is one of the most botanically diverse areas I have ever seen," she gushes. "It has everything any student of the prairie could hope for."

Though U-M professor and prairie advocate Bob Grese had earlier done some work to remove invasive plants, by the late 1990s buckthorn and honeysuckle were again crowding out the native grasses and wildflowers. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're losing the prairie,'" Erskine recalls. "If I didn't do something here, in ten years half of this will be gone."

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