Wisdom of the Prairie

Clair Kucera has been involved with Tucker Prairie since MU purchased the land in 1958. Althought the Clair L. Kucera Research Station stands broken on the prairie, there is still hope this historic land will be used for research like it once was.

By Sara Shahriari
news@ColumbiaMissourian.com

Clair Kucera has been listening to the voice of Tucker Prairie for more than half a century.

On Sept. 13, 1958, Kucera led donors, scientists and university representatives on a tour of Tucker Prairie to celebrate its purchase by MU from the Tucker family. It was Kucera who encouraged then MU University President Elmer Ellis to buy the 160-acre prairie and who wrote a grant proposal that led the National Science Foundation to pay for half the purchase price of $200 an acre.

Despite two knee replacements and arthritis that bends his hands, when he is on the prairie Kucera, now 86, cannot resist walking over the rough ground, pointing out the umbrella-shaped white flower of the umbel or the hair-fine brown seeds of panicum grasses and snapping milkweed's green stem so that it bleeds white sap. He is a natural teacher, and nearly 60 years as an educator hasn't dulled his enthusiasm.

Surrounded by a sea of cultivated corn and soybeans, Tucker Prairie, about 20 miles east of Columbia, is one of Missouri's few "relic" prairies, land that has never been broken by the plow. At first, it looks like a nondescript patch of grasses and weeds. But the prairie reveals something new to a patient visitor with every minute. Big bluestem grass grows more than 7 feet tall, bearing precious seeds above its deep green and purpled leaves. Under the grasses, blazing star's purple flower and sunflower's gold face stand out against the deep green of thick ground cover.

Dead grasses from past summers carpet the earth, working their way into black topsoil that enriches the upper layers of the claypan. The sound of cicadas comes in droning waves and the wind makes itself heard as the grasses nod and brush together under its touch. Birds sound their calls. If Interstate 70 weren't so close by, a person standing on Tucker Prairie's 146 acres could be living in a different time.

The green rectangle of the Clair L. Kucera Research Station stands near the entrance to the prairie. Once a hub of graduate-student study, today, the research station's windows have been broken by vandals and its interior is in disarray. Although students visit the prairie to measure the vegetation's response to burning, graduate students no longer study there.

"It's not the research center that it was in Clair's heyday," said John Faaborg, MU professor of biological sciences.

Faaborg, who studies birds, inherited stewardship of the prairie because MU has not hired a prairie specialist to take Kucera's place since he retired in 1987. The major project on Tucker Prairie these days is seed distribution. Without a prairie-grass specialist at MU, Tucker likely won't regain the position it held as a research center under Kucera, Faaborg said.

CAT SZALKOWSKI/Missourian
Alex Gompper, 11, examines a praying mantis found by MU fisheries and wildlife major Dustin Moss. The insect was burnt and killed while laying eggs during a scheduled prairie fire at Tucker Prairie.




CAT SZALKOWSKI/MISSOURIAN

The Clair L. Kucera Research Station, once a hub of graduate-student study, today, the research station's windows have been broken by vandals and its interior is in disarray.