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Aunita Erskine, Ann Arbor, MI

Aunita Erskine

Guardian of the Shanghai Prairie

by John Hilton

From the August, 2010 issue

"The Indians called this the Burnt River District," says Aunita Erskine as she tromps across the Shanghai Prairie. According to local legend--which, Erskine cheerfully stresses, is just a legend--it's called "Shanghai" because Chinese workers camped here long ago while working on the railroad track that borders the thirty-five-acre lowland just north of St. 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."

With the blessing of St. Joe's, Erskine became the prairie's self-appointed, unpaid guardian. She doesn't have permission or the budget for burning, so several times a year, she sprays herself with repellant to ward off the insects, then leads a dozen or so volunteers down the steep,

...continued below...

poison ivy-lined footpath to the prairie. Doing their best imitation of a prairie fire, the volunteers cut down shrubs with hand tools, then dab the stumps with weed killer.

"I'm glad to get rid of some of that," says Erskine, pointing out a clump of small buckthorn stumps almost lost amid the growing grasses. Over by the train tracks, a small pine tree stands dead. "The only good pine tree in a prairie is a dead pine tree," Erskine declares. "Bob [Grese] girdled it, and we finished it off."

Then she spots a small buckthorn growing nearby. "Here's one we missed," she scowls. "Your days are numbered, buddy!"

Shanghai Prairie is not virgin land--it was used for grazing, and long ago gravel miners dug trenches across it. But it was never farmed, so many prairie plants survived here that disappeared elsewhere, including two endangered species--white bottle gentian and what Erskine calls "a little teeny panic grass." But, she stresses, "it's not really the species, it's the collection" that makes the Shanghai special. A survey found 268 species of plants growing here, more than 80 percent of them native.

Fiercely protective of the natives, Erskine sometimes makes a mock gun with her thumb and forefinger and "shoots" invasives--"ka-pow!"" In contrast, she gently brushes a hand over some of the prairie natives at her feet: "here's heath aster, early goldenrod, an anemone of some sort--I dunno, some fuzzy thing!--a strawberry. Everything's here that should be here." A high water table moistens the trenches left by the gravel miners, so species typical of wet and dry prairies thrive within a few feet of one another. She has a visitor feel the fuzzy, oval leaf of a plant called prairie dock--even under a hot sun, evaporation makes it cool to the touch.

People who love prairies are a special breed. In her day job, Erskine says, "I help identify children who have chronic or serious illnesses that are eligible for a [state] program called Children's Special Health Care Services--it used to be the Crippled Children's Fund." Recently, a parent with whom she was discussing the program asked about the photo of a prairie plant on her wall. He turned out to be a native plant specialist himself, so they talked prairies for a while--a welcome relief, he told her, from thinking about his child's medical problems.

Erskine met her husband, Dean, through family members who worked at the U-M Hospital ("Everyone at the hospital is married to a relative of someone who works in the hospital," she says.) Married for fifteen years, they have no children of their own, but Dean, radio host Lucy Ann Lance's producer and business partner, has a grown son, Kyle, from a prior marriage.

Dean's not part of the Shanghai clan--"a workday for Aunita is a pizza night for Dean," he says--but he hasn't entirely escaped the prairie's pull. "My husband worked on the first workday," Erskine chortles. "I told him we were going out for ice cream."

Erskine's restoration efforts are supported by a grant from the Michigan Botanical Club--"I got under $1,000, but it jump-started me buying supplies." She's collaborating with people restoring other "prairie remnants" along the railroad tracks, which are owned by Norfolk & Southern. They hope to persuade the railroad to stop using herbicides on a twenty-mile stretch of its line through the county.

As for Shanghai Prairie, she's determined to restore the open landscape of the Burnt River District. Her ultimate dream is to see it protected by a private conservancy that can maintain and burn it, assuming a way can be found that won't trouble the nearby hospital. But for now, she'll keep pushing back the woody invaders one shrub at a time.

"Those are prairie grasses back in there," she says, pointing into a patch of invasive locust trees that she has in her sights. "I'm coming!"    (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2010.]


On August 23, 2010, Marsha Traxler wrote:

Dear Mr. Hilton,

I enjoyed your article in the August issue about Aunita Erskine and her good work to restore that precious prairie. It's encouraging to read about her love and diligence on the part of our Native plants.

There are two aspects of the article I'd like to comment on. First, the Native people used fire to keep areas open so they could garden. My Ojibwe grandmother talked about her memories of people using fire to keep the blueberry fields abundant and to allow places to grow food crops.

Second, the concept that the federal government bought the land here is not one that Native people recognize as accurate. United States soldiers on horseback drove the Native people here using terror and guns to "encourage" them to "move west". There was a "Trail of Tears" here too. Treaties were signed and money and goods provided in exchange for the right to live here, but these transactions were conducted under threat of death, sometimes at gunpoint. There is a brass plaque on a large boulder near the Kalamazoo train station commemorating the "moving west" of the Bodawadomie (Pottawatomi) people that you might find interesting.

Despite the brutality of the United States' soldiers, some of the Native people here could not bear to leave the land of their ancestors and the graves of their grandparents and children. The band of Bodawadomie who lived in this beautiful valley before the troops arrived did move west, but just to the area now known as Athens, Michigan. The Huron River was formerly known as the Nottawasiipi, and the Nottawasiipi Band still lives in the Athens area. It might be useful to contact them and hear their side of this story.

To the traditional Anishinaabeg (Bodawadomie, Odawa and Ojibwe in this area) land cannot be owned. We are the land. Our bodies are made of the water and soil here. We are inseperable from the land itself. Selling the land would be like selling your right arm. There is no way that the people here 200 years ago would have "sold" something they could not possibly own. The American people have not been taught the truth of what happened in this country as the European immigrants moved westward. We cannot deal with the continuing aftermath of our bloody history until we begin to acknowledge that history. I hope you will do what you can to correct the misconceptions perpetuated by this otherwise fine article.

Marsha Traxler.

On August 23, 2010, David Briegel wrote:
Great article and even better reply from Ms Traxler. Americans don't wish to hear and they even deny the reality of the founding of our nation.

Carving up the land amongst royalty and the chosen, attempted genocide on the indigenous peoples and slavery are merely the tip of our infamous iceberg!

And we are "the good guys" and civilized!! Right.

On August 25, 2010, Karen wrote:
Nice article, enjoyed it. The comments afterward by Ms Trexler were the most interesting to me becausse I would love to know the TRUTH. I wish she would write a book......

On August 26, 2010, Cendra Lynn wrote:
My grandpa was born in a log cabin in Indian Territory in 1877, land that Louisa May Alcott's family was forced to leave because whites were not allowed. In 1888 the government began selling the land to all comers in what became Oklahoma.

However, what devastated my people more were white people's diseases. Five of the 15 kids in his family and one parent died of the first wave of illness after whites moved in. Two years later another five and the other parent died of a second wave. The family broke up and my grandfather was on his own at age 15.

I've heard it estimated that 80% of us were wiped out long before white people came our way by smallpox spread by wild pigs. Smallpox, influenza, bubonic plague and pneumonic plagues were lethal for most of us.

While the white part of me is ashamed of what my ancestors did to Natives, the Native part of me understands that most of us were not killed by intent. Despite all his losses, and there were others in his life, my grandpa was never bitter nor vengeful. So I always think it's not fair to cause white people to feel more guilty than is correct.

On August 28, 2010, John Hilton wrote:
Tony Horwitz includes a powerful account of the plagues that followed Hernando de Soto--and his pigs--as they pillaged their way across the American south in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America.

In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann explores the scholarly debate over the death toll. He sides with the "high counters" of the pre-Columbian population, which in turn suggests that the mortality rate may have been as high as 90 percent.

I've never seen an estimate of the local impact, but the Huron River band of the Potawatomi suffered a flu epidemic in 1811. It's unlikely that it was either the first or the last of what Erick Trickey called, in a 1999 Observer article, the "white plagues."

I also recommend R. David Edmunds' The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. It's the source of most of what I know about the last Native people to live in what's now Washtenaw County.

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