Vernon County Couple Restoring Prairie With Fire And Sweat

By Zac Schultz | October 20, 2017


Jim Theler and Suzanne Harris have an amazing view from their hill overlooking a valley in the Driftless region in Vernon County.  But whenever they climb the “mound,” as they call it, they are constantly looking down, looking for new plant species that have emerged from the past.  “There are some 250 known species of plants on that hill,” Theler explains.  “Native plants, and so if we see a flower or something that we don’t know, we have to do some research and find out.”

Theler bought the mound from a neighbor in 2003.  It was overrun with red cedar and prickly ash, but he knew it contained a secret past. It was once a hillside prairie and an oak savanna.  “I could see the remnant prairies in there. And they are really quite small, but I thought if we could open it up, it would allow those to spread.”

They started with a chainsaw and sweat.  “We started clearing paths and paths turned into fields and fields turned into prairies,” says Harris.  “And it was great.”

Soon burr oaks emerged from the forest to stand guard over the hillside.  They cored one tree in 2003.  “It had 185 rings,” says Theler.  “So today that makes this tree just about 200 years old. This tree began growing 30 years before the first European moved to this township.”

Then this old oak saw something else it likely hadn’t seen since before the first Europeans — fire.  “We started out just getting very small burns but now we can do pretty large burns,” says Theler.

Controlled burns cut down the woody vegetation and allowed new plants to emerge from the seed bank buried in the soil.  “We brought in no seed,” says Theler.  “It was just a natural area and it literally spread out on its own.”

“We saw some things that nobody had seen before,” says Harris.  “There were plants that nobody had ever seen up there and they started coming back from somewhere.”

But the seed bank is not the only buried history on the mound.  On the eastern face, there is a rock shelter.  “There’s more than a meter of deposits from ancient native peoples that lived here,” says Theler.  “This goes back at least 3,500 years based on the style of artifacts we found.”

Theler and Harris are both archaeologists.  They believe the shelter was used as a hunting camp by many different Native American groups over thousands of years.  The projectile points, pottery shards, tools, elk bones added with the native plants and animals make this mound something Theler and Harris felt they must preserve.  “It has both warm plants from five or six thousand years ago that nobody brought in. They were just there on the south face.  We can go to the north face and we can find small animals, snails, that are from the Ice Age. So you think about one hill having all of those factors. And then you have Native Americans living on this hill for the last three or four thousand years and it is really an amazing place.”

Eventually this mound will contain even more buried history.  “So this is where I’ll be when I’m gone,” says Theler, pointing at a headstone in the ground.  “Where Suzanne will be when she’s gone. My mother’s already here.”

Theler and Harris have spent so much time unearthing this mound’s past, they want to be part of its future.  “I feel at peace with being there,” says Theler.  “To be up there and to be part of that landscape forever, because that’s how beautiful it is up there. That’s how special it is.”

Zac Schultz

Zac Schultz is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project who thinks three-minute stories and one-line bio descriptions are woefully brief.

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