Plants of the Prairie, by Robbie Q. Telfer

This piece was written and performed in the series finale of The Encyclopedia Show and is published here with permission from the author. 


Did you know the first Europeans to come to Illinois were bewildered by the Martian landscape.  Uncommon plants and animals and people and weather patterns were all very overwhelming for our poor colonizing forefathers.

So they named everything “weed.”  Milkweed, pokeweed, Joe Pye weed, pigweed, bugleweed, butterfly weed, fireweed, ironweed, rosinweed, sneezeweed, thimbleweed.  A weed is often defined as any plant that is unwanted.  I’m sure if facebook had existed for the native plants of Illinois back then, there’d be a meme going around that said “IF YOU CALL EVERYTHING YOU SEE A WEED, THEN MAYBE YOU THE WEED.”  And all the plants would have a good laugh about that, to keep from crying.  Hashtag PlantTwitter

The Europeans then brought in all the pretty plants that were familiar to them, as well as a bunch of seeds that hitched rides on horse blankets.  You know, in all the criticisms of white people, why doesn’t anyone point the blame where it really belongs?  The horse blankets.  Clearly, the horse blankets hypnotized the white man and that’s why all that horrible stuff happened.  Anyway, the horse blanket seeds and the non-native plants really took a liking to the rich prairie soil, and so did the farmers who were able to bust up the nutritive root mat and plant assloads of corn and soy.  Cut to the present, and now there is less than 0.01% of native prairie left.  We can also blame malls too.  And invasive animal species.  And Rahm Emanuel.

Before all these European genocides however, Chicago was one of the most biodiverse places in the world.  The Eastern forest butts up with the lake and the tall grass prairie.  This has always been a place of transition – or at least for the last 15,000 years.

Steve Packard, the founder of the North Branch Prairie Restoration project said in 1988 in the Chicago Reader: “In a healthy prairie—of which there are few—the average person would know they were in a charmed and different surrounding, like a coral reef or an alpine meadow.

“In May, when the prairie first comes up, it’s eerie, because everything is two or three inches tall. The whole surface of the ground is covered with color—pink shooting stars, yellow star grass, white Seneca snakeroot, pink phlox, violet wood sorrel—masses of this stuff. There’s not a square foot that doesn’t have flowers in it.  One difference between a weed patch and a prairie is that prairie is a 10,000-year-old ecosystem. Like any 10,000-year-old antique, it has a patina, it has character. There’s a sense that every little space has something that fits perfectly.”

One of the first white visitors to the prairie described it as like walking on top of a rainbow.

I volunteered one day with the North Branch Prairie Restoration project, which still stewards land all over the area.  That morning we were cutting teasel and white sweet clover – two of the stronger invasives brought from Europe.  It was a hot morning and the land was marshy – little deer paths cutting through the tangle of grasses and forbs.  It was also electric, like being an invisible zeppelin flying high above the indigenous creature’s county fair.  You don’t realize how quiet most European gardens are until you’re in the buzzing metropolis of the prairie.  Each plant has a pollinator that exists because of the native plants they’ve evolved with.  For instance, monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed – no more milkweed, no more monarchs.  Are monarch butterflies weeds?  No, they’re beautiful as fuck.  And so is milkweed, god dammit.

Did you know earthworms are an invasive species?  They out-compete our native dirt munchers.  Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go and assassinate every single earthworm with my mouth.

My favorite definition of a weed is not the standard, that any plant that is undesirable is a weed, because that’s subjective and megalomaniacal and imperial.  My favorite definition of a weed is any plant that doesn’t participate in the community of an ecosystem.  Ecosystems are a community of flora and fauna that strike a balance that’s been honed for millennia.  Weeds just want to ejaculate their seeds everywhere as fast as possible and die and be all crunchy and horrible.  That is not the behavior of a community member, that is the behavior of someone who touches themselves inappropriately on the subway.

Besides believing that repairing native ecosystems is vital for our moral and literal longterm survival as a species, I also believe communities are the only nonviolent power any group of like-minded people can have in an imperial world.  We need communities of big-hearted people to save the prairie and we need the prairie to save our communities, to save ourselves.

This past weekend me and my ladyfriend went to the Field Museum, and look, we didn’t do it, but if you wanted to have uninterrupted sexual intercourse inside of the Field Museum, just go to the Plants of the World exhibit, for you will have utter privacy.  I know plant ecology isn’t as exciting as other forms of activism or science.  There are very few TV shows starring plants.  Walter Mondale is the only plant ever to have been elected to a major office.  But also one third of all our food comes from a flowering plant, which usually needs a pollinator.  And our livestock need plants too.

Did you know that there are 500 different native bee species to Illinois?  Few sting and they don’t live in hives and if we get choosey about which species and which ecosystems don’t make it into our existence’s annual budget, then it’s a slippery slope to annihilation, my friends.  Did you know…

Look, we started this show in 2008 with a lot of big ideas about art, the academy, persuasion, and entertainment.  We intentionally wanted to grow a community around these ideas.  We are stopping not because we feel like we’ve failed, but because we want to turn this community outward again, take what we’ve learned and attack the ills of the world with fresh eyes, celebrate the joys with new scars.  We’ve done shows about Mesopotamia and Alan Turing and Cheerleading not just because those topics warrant study and discussion on their own merits, but because we wanted to DO something about the war in Iraq and homophobia and sexism.  We wanted to use the artifice of edutainment as a tool for persuasion.  We are a bunch of nerds who don’t know what else to do with our nerd powers but bring together other nerds in our nerd salon.  Through six years of evolution we’ve made this delicate little ecosystem and now we want to turn this work into action.

That’s why we’re giving you this gift.  This little seed packet, designed and conceived by invaluable members of our community, inside there are seeds for:

Asclepias incarnata (Rose Milkweed)

Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed)

Aster oolentangiensis (Sky Blue Aster)

Dalea purpurea (Purple Prairie Clover)

Desmodium canadense (Showy Tick Trefoil)

Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed)

Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot)

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (Slender Mountain Mint)

Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)

All of these flowers are native to the Chicago region, and all are meant to create tiny new communities of pollinators.  So this isn’t a passive gift, it’s a demand, the only thing we’ve ever asked from you directly: plant these seeds.  Give them to people who will.  Plant them in several places.  Tear up a neglected patch of this city and put these seeds in there.  I’m serious.  The community only has power if EVERYONE DOES IT.

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it, but I am indeed a white guy.  I am a non-native to this place my roots grow, this place I can’t live without.  A solution to diminish my impact on the native soil would be to not have an impact and go move to Sweden or Slovenia where my people are from.  But instead, look at this.  This is yarrow – I took this picture Saturday at the Indiana Dunes.  You may have seen it occasionally in the landscape.  There are species of yarrow that are native and nonnative.  But none are invasive.  It’s not a weed, by any definition.  It knows how to participate in the community it didn’t ask to be born into.  In an informal poll taken right now by me I can say that there are approximately zero Potawatomi people here tonight.  Am I wrong?  (If yes – tell them they’re in charge) Non-natives of Chicago, most of us didn’t ask to be sewn here, but here we’ve grown, together for the last 6 years we’ve grown together, now what can you do to make our shared communities survive.  Be as yarrow.  Plant the right seeds.  Plant them.  Plant all the seeds.


robbie-kittie-headROBBIE Q. TELFER is the co-founder and curator for The Encyclopedia Show, a live literary variety show being staged independently in over 10 cities around the world. He’s been in two documentaries (from HBO and Siskel and Jacobs) for his work at Young Chicago Authors where he organized the world’s largest teen poetry festival called Louder Than A Bomb. He’s written on two video games and in 2007 was an individual finalist at the National Poetry Slam. His first published book of poetry, Spiking the Sucker Punch, was released in 2009 from Write Bloody Publishing. He’s a Poet-in-Residence in the Poetry Center of Chicago’s Hands on Stanzas program.