February 16, 2016 | by Greg Leichty

Growing up in the farmland of the Midwestern United States, I’ve been told ever since I was old enough to listen that Iowa has the richest topsoil in the world.  But what I didn’t learn until I got a bit older, was the reason for that was the Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna ecosystems that once dominated the landscape had been building that thick layer of black gold for thousands and thousands of years. I also wasn’t aware that nearly half of that rich topsoil was gone; either blown away or washed down into a vast network of waterways, creeks and rivers and into the Mighty Mississippi.  These once dominant and robust ecosystems are now some of the most endangered in the world due to their well-advertised fertility and rapid conversion to agricultural production.
While studying the importance of the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem during a plants course in college, I was stunned to learn that only 1/3 of a typical prairie plant is visible, or above ground, leaving the remaining 2/3 of the plant’s size devoted to its root system.  It seems hard to believe when you’re standing in a prairie, dwarfed by a patch of 7-foot-tall Indian Grass and Big Bluestem, that there’s twice that amount of living material underneath your feet.
That’s why I was excited to see the work of photographer Jim Richardson, who employed some nifty tricks in an attempt to see the roots of these monsters – and it did not disappoint.  Prairie restoration is experiencing a resurgence, and more and more people are realizing the ecological, economic and cultural benefits of the Tallgrass Prairie; and with the work of people like Jim, hopefully many more can come to understand the unseen magic of these ecosystems.

Learn more at www.nationalgeographic.com
View more of Jim Richardson’s amazing photography here.


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