RUSHFORD, Minn. | It's early evening and Scott Leddy is free to wander the prairie where he again greets the plants and insects that are his friends, his passion and his healers.
With each step, he identifies plants and insects, usually with scientific name, at times adding a common name. On the Joel Johnson Sand Prairie east of Rushford, he sees the common horsemint, and close by is the rarer hairy lens grass.
In a few more steps, he sees a common soldier beetle. "I'm looking for the holy grail of tiger beetles in this place, the ghost tiger beetle," he said. "One day. "
Another 150 feet, beautiful in tall spikes of rich purple, a blaze of color in the brownish prairie, are rough blazing star. The Leonard's skipper butterfly depends on that plant because "that is what it lives on," he said.
That's a key.
"Everything here has something that it depends on," he said. The plants feed the insects and in return, the insects pollinate the plants. "Everything is connected out here, that's what drives me out here."
Such co-dependence is also a mirror of his relation with prairie: it helped heal him and he's helping heal it.
Leddy, 46, who lives in Rushford, said he grew up suffering from epilepsy. In his late teens, "I was really struggling, I was seizing almost every day." An operation made the seizures worse. "I didn't think I would live," he said. "You're in a whirlwind. It was hard for me to be in peace because I was always anxious."
Leddy began to walk on prairie. "I came to peace out here on the inside and the out because I was in peace."
Leddy began to heal. It took more than two decades, but he said he's nearly free of the seizures. No medical tests prove he was healed by prairie, but he believes it. "I think it gave me a kind of purpose. As I got more connected with it, I got better."
With his interest in the prairie's flowers and grasses came an interest in bugs, birds and other wildlife. For a while, he headed a nonprofit group that tried to find, preserve and protect prairie, but it was hard to keep finding funding, he said. He did, however, train some younger people who continue to spread the passion for prairie. And the group did help protect many remnant prairies, he said.
Leddy said he often finds remnants on land owned by older people who remember how the land looked 80 or more years ago, when so much prairie dominated the landscape. An 1847 survey found three-quarters of the area was prairie or savanna with prairie and some trees, often oak.
Now, the DNR says maybe 1 percent of the once 18 million acres of prairie remain in Minnesota. Instead of large expanses, prairie landscape is found in small pockets "This is not an open landscape any more. This is it," he said.
Something else is vexing him this evening. It's irking, almost angering him — what he doesn't hear or see. That would be pollinators.
So few bees, beetles and butterflies is a topic that comes up repeatedly during Leddy's walk. During the past five years, more and more species have gone missing. They are critical to our food supply and to prairie.
With each step he would take five or 10 years ago, he would have kicked up dozens of beetles and butterflies, the prairie would have been abuzz with them. Not now. "They are not what they were," he said. "Our pollinator species have been crashing."
"I just hope we would be able to keep part of it," he said. But he's not sure any more. He's seeing fewer and fewer species each year. "We are in that web and that web is being frayed," he said.
Farm chemicals might be a cause, but he also thinks too much burning in the wrong places has been a contributor. Public and private conservation groups have, for decades, relied on fire as a natural way to restore prairie, but he isn't buying it and he said so. That irks the groups but getting their attention "has been my goal," he said. "I just keep pushing."
It's getting late and after he's had a chance to see so many of his friends, and healers, Leddy is done for the evening. Sure, things are tough, but the prairie is still the prairie. "Where else can you walk through thousands of native plants, thousands and thousands," he said. "Where else can you find a place like this?"