Spring Green Preserve

As it turned out, it seemed only fitting to be talking about George Fell at Arcadia Books this weekend. George spent his life protecting the natural lands he loved. Now the good folks of Spring Green, Wisconsin and throughout the Driftless Area are engaged in their own fight to protect their beloved lands.

I love Spring Green. Ever since I spent a season at American Players Theatre, killing the King of Scotland a few times a week. Since then, I’ve returned nearly every summer for the theatre, but also for the sheer beauty of the land. In fact, Spring Green Preserve is one of my favorite places on earth.

The preserve is described as the Wisconsin Desert, which technically might be true but grossly undersells the beauty of the site. True, as a sand prairie its soils drain quickly creating a hot, droughty environment that is home to relatively sparse vegetation, including the likes of prickly pear cactus — and lots of it. But, this cool, misty, late April morning, following a recent prairie burn, it is carpeted with bird’s foot violet and early buttercup, and dotted with spikes of cream white indigo.

The thousand-acre site is filled, too, this morning with a chamber concert of birdsong. The four-note descants of eastern meadowlarks echo off the adjacent bluffs, while blue birds and yellow-rumped warblers harvest the low vegetation for a breakfast of bugs. The lark sparrows are in a more amorous mood, the males splaying their distinct tail feathers in the hope of attracting a mate.

As it turns out, Spring Green Preserve also has has an indirect but distinct connection to George Fell. The site is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, of which George was the driving force in its founding. It is also a Wisconsin State Nature Preserve. During my talk at Arcadia Books, I shared that Wisconsin’s nature preserves system actually predates the one in Illinois by nearly 15 years. George certainly knew about the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas, established in 1951 within the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In fact, he used it as a staring point in crafting a bill to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, empowered to dedicate lands as nature preserves, providing them virtually ironclad permanent protection.

Ironclad protection for natural lands and farmland alike is what the Driftless Area needs right now. Attending the talk at Arcadia Books was David Clutter. Years ago, he used to work for the Natural Land Institute, founded by George Fell. Today, he is the executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and helping to lead the fight against the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project, which its proponents want to run right through the heart of the Driftless Area.

For those who may not know, the Driftless Area — primarily southwest Wisconsin, but also parts of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois — derives its name from the lack drift. Drift is the gravel, sand, clay, rocks, etc. left behind by retreating glaciers. There isn’t any drift in the Driftless Area because, for a combination of reasons, the glaciers that once blanketed the midwest didn’t cover this area. The Driftless Area — unlike the flat, glacier-scoured lands surrounding it — is one of exceptional beauty for the rolling hills, rugged bluffs, deep valleys, bucolic farmsteads and world-class natural areas.

Opponents of the proposed transmission line and its viewshed-killing towers have a battle cry: The glaciers never came through our region. Neither will the transmission line.

To help fight the good fight, the Environmental Law and Policy Center recently submitted comments to the Rural Utilities Service, underscoring the need for the required Environmental Impact Statement to “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives, including no-build and robust non-transmission alternatives.”

Fighting major infrastructure projects isn’t easy. But as George Fell reminds us, sheer tenacity and perseverance can go a long way toward achieving ultimate success. It took George years to protect a remnant prairie from being destroyed by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. It took him decades to champion the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. It took him a lifetime to spark the entire Natural Areas Movement, which spawned countless preservation groups and continues to inspire a growing army of dedicated individuals to protect the vital lands we love.

It may take years to keep the proposed transmission towers from stockcading the landscape. But protecting the likes of Spring Green Preserve and its surrounding lands is so worth the fight.

Edward L Ryerson Woods

I know. I shouldn’t have a favorite. Out of 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, how can I choose one above the others? It would be like choosing which child I loved best. But today, I’m choosing. Today it’s Edward L Ryerson, #15 toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves in 2017.

What initially lured Susan and me to make the trip up to Ryerson Woods was the art. The Brushwood Center was hosting an exhibition of photographs by Carol Freeman. Entitled Endangered Beauty, the exhibition featured a sampling of Carol’s quest to photograph all 483 endangered species in Illinois.

Yep. You read that right. 483. There are a lot of plants and animals on that list. Small wonder since 75% of the Prairie State is a corn or soybean field. Carol’s photographs remind us, however, how richly diverse and exquisitely beautiful our native flora and fauna are.

I imagine that what fuels Carol to capture all these many species on film is much the same as drove George Fell to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. George, too, was motivated by beauty and biodiversity to protect every last scrap of prairie, wetland, woodland, bog, fen and every other kind of natural area remaining in the state before they were plowed up or paved over.

Today, Illinois Nature Preserves harbor a third of all threatened and endangered plant species, and nearly half of all mammal species. Fifty different kinds of plants and animals exist nowhere else in Illinois except in dedicated nature preserves. In fact, some entire habitat types — such as globally rare algific talus slope — remain only as dedicated nature preserves.

Inspired by Carol’s photographs, Susan and I venture into the woods.

White trout lily (Erythronium albidum)

Wow.

Woodland wildflowers. Everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

Unfortunately, many of our region’s woodlands are orverrun with invasive tree and shrubs. Here and there, you might find a small patch of spring beauties or a pocket of Virginia bluebells.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

But Edward L Ryerson well deserves its Illinois Nature Preserves dedication by virtue of being a prime example of a wet floodplain forest along the DesPlaines River, as well as for how exceptionally well-stewarded it is. Fire scars on tree stumps are evidence of controlled burns, which help keep the forest clear of invasives, allowing woodland wildflowers — aptly known as spring ephemerals for their fleeting appearance — to thrive.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

To stroll for hours through such beauty. What a gift. Thanks George Fell, for establishing the Illinois Nature Preserves System. Thanks Edward L. Ryerson for  buying the land from “the grandson-in-law of the first permanent settler in Lake County…and I would like it to remain the way it was when the Indians lived there before he came in 1834,” and for sparking the establishment of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which now owns and manages the site. And to all those who have had a hand in the protection and stewardship of this historic, cultural and biological gem.

Cowles Bog

Cowles Bog is not an Illinois Nature Preserve. Neither was The Nature Conservancy involved in its protection. Nonetheless, this National Natural Landmark provides a direct connection to George Fell.

Cowles Bog is a 205-acre area within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Historically, it was part of a much larger wetland complex known as the Great Marsh, which in turn was part of an even larger complex of dune and swale habitat unique to the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the rest of the Great Marsh, Cowles Bog is more accurately described as a wetland complex, comprised of conifer swamp, wet prairie, fen, sedge meadow, marsh, and, yes, bog. This morning, it is ablaze with marsh marigolds, accompanied by the clarion call of sandhill cranes, among the oldest bird species on earth.

Cowles Bog apparently derived its name courtesy of a student of Henry Chandler Cowles. Famous for his field trip excursions, Cowles taught at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years. A pioneer in advancing the field of ecology as an accepted discipline within the natural sciences, he was particularly enamored of the Indiana dunes, a living laboratory for discerning how ecological communities change and evolve over time.

Among Cowles’ students was Victor Ernest Shelford, who, under Cowles’ influence, evolved from a classical zoologist into an animal ecologist. Rather than studying animals independent of their environments, he significantly advanced the understanding of plants and animals being dynamically and inextricably linked as a single community (or biome, to use the technical term.)

Shelford, who spent his entire teaching career at the University of Illinois, stood out from his peers for being activist-minded. Unlike most academics of his time, he was adamant about using scientific knowledge to actually protect natural lands. Accordingly, he founded the Ecological Society of America to do just that. But when his fellow academics grew uneasy with Shelford’s activist agenda, he used his own money to start up a splinter group, the Ecologists’ Union.

George Fell took only one course under Shelford, and apparently didn’t like his professor much. At least at first. Years later, Fell would be elected to the board of the Ecologists’ Union and become the driving force in transforming it into The Nature Conservancy.

The start-up years of TNC were — to put it politely —  dynamic. Big, competing ideas among super smart, exceptionally strong-willed individuals. (Shameless plug alert: I chronicle the necessary sausage making in detail in Force of Nature.)

But when I stroll through Cowles Bog, I think not of the many battles George fought in starting up TNC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and, in sum, the entire Natural Areas Movement. Rather, I marvel just how interconnected everything is. The many people — yesterday, today and tomorrow — who protect such places as Cowles Bog. And the many different kinds of plants and animals that make such places such as Cowles Bog one of sheer beauty, awe and inspiration.

 

Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

Upper Embarras Woods

Spring beauties are for everyone to enjoy: they occur in every county in Illinois

This past week, Susan and I didn’t find any pasque flowers at Harlem Hills Nature Preserve. Eager to get a jump on spring, we took advantage of our downstate trip to seek out some woodland ephemerals. We were not disappointed.  The forest floor of Upper Embarras Woods — our 14th dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve of the year — is carpeted with spring beauties.

There is but one dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Douglas County and it is a gem. The Upper Embarras (pronounced em-bragh) Woods is a 65-acre inholding within Walnut Point State Park. It lies immediately adjacent to a stretch of the Embarras River, itself designated by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a biologically significant stream for its outstanding diversity of habitat features, including gravel bars, gravel-sand raceways, sandbars, riffles, and deep pools.

The nature preserve encompasses old growth forest of giant white oaks and hickories. These elders provide perfect habitat for a host of woodland birds, including red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers–all three of which we relished today, along with oodles of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, brown creepers and white-sided nuthatches,

This time of year, in many wooded areas, you are likely to see only a patch or two of woodland wildflowers, mostly due to a lack of management. Too many of our protected natural areas are overrun with non-native invasives, including buckthorn and honeysuckle. These shrubby invasives quickly spread and crowd out native plant species, which is bad for the health of our woodlands and, well, pretty crappy for those of us who seek them out for their sheer beauty.

The periodic use of fire keeps the nature preserve relatively free of honeysuckle and other invasives

At Upper Embarras Woods, the spring beauties were everywhere, indicative that the nature preserve portion of the park is well managed. Fire scars on the trees indicate regular controlled burns, which emulate the natural wildfires that used to keep the woodland understory relatively open — necessary for a healthy mix of spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and other woodland wildflowers, as well as for seedling oaks and hickories.

Notice the difference? That shrubby wall of green is highly invasive honeysuckle

By way of comparison, just on the other side of the path — across from the nature preserve — there are virtually no spring beauties. Why? Well, at first blush all those bushes might look nice and green. But they are honesuckle bushes. They are the first to leaf out, which robs wildflowers and tree seedlings of the light and nutrients they need to survive.

White-tailed deer are native to Illinois, but sometimes they, too, need to be controlled least they eat and destroy our woodland wildflowers

Sufficiently managing all of our protected natural areas — including dedicated nature preserves — remains a big challenge. Budgets are tight. Resources are scarce. But an early spring walk along the path that separates Upper Embarras Woods Nature Preserve from the rest of Walnut Point State Park reminds us why we need to find a way — on one side, an abundance of health and beauty, on the other side…well, there remains much more work to be done.

Another spring beauty alongside the namesake river of the Upper Embarras Nature Preserve

Starved Rock Nature Preserve

Winter sunlight on St Peter Sandstone in Starved Rock State Park

How Starved Rock State Park got its name remains a matter of debate. But that it harbors one of the most beautiful nature preserves is rock solid fact.

Legend would have it that the namesake feature of the park — a towering limestone bluff overlooking the Illinois River — derived its name from a mid-18th century conflict between native tribes. Purportedly as revenge for a murdered chief, the Pottawatomies and Ottawas waged battle with the Illinois, who sought refuge atop the bluff. The attackers laid siege, cutting off escape, leading to the death-by-starvation of the Illinois.

The namesake feature of Starved Rock State Park

There is scant historical evidence to support the legend, but archaeologists have confirmed that native people inhabited the area around Starved Rock as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. Fast forward to the 1890s when a Civil War veteran purchased the site and developed it for tourists. A couple decades later, the State of Illinois acquired the site as its first recreational park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge and cabins and made many trail improvements. In 1966, the park was designated as a National Historic Landmark. One year later, 700 of the park’s 2,630 acres was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

On a cold winter day, you can have the canyons all to yourself

In truth, few people visit the dedicated Nature Preserve within Starved Rock. The park, which runs along the southern shore of the Illinois River, is bisected by the north-south running Route 178. The historic lodge, cabins and hiking trails are located to the east of the highway. The nature preserve is to the west. Both boast dramatic canyons, carved through St. Peter Sandstone over the past 15,000 years, or so. The canyons form cooler micro-climates, which support species typically found much further north, such as Canada yew, northern white cedar and eastern white pine.

The original Stairmaster–the final set of stairs leading to the top of Starved Rock

Among the challenges of managing dedicated nature preserves is managing visitors and the impacts they can have on fragile ecosystems. This is especially true at Starved Rock, with its two million visitors per year. The steep slopes of soft sandstone are highly susceptible to erosion. This is bad for both plants and people. Erosion makes it difficult if not impossible for plants to take root and survive. Erosion also makes for bad footing for folks who–in spite of all the warning signs–hike off trail and end up with severe injuries, or worse.

To limit erosion — beyond warning folks to stay on the trails — there are lots of boardwalks and staircases installed in the main portion of the park. But the purpose of a nature preserve is to preserve the landscape in as pristine a condition as possible, which is why there is limited access to the Nature Preserve portion.

Due to the unusually mild winter, there were few bald eagles to be seen save for those that grace the lodge grounds courtesy of talented chainsaw artists

Still, to hike the public trails within Starved Rock is to get a good sense of the rugged but fragile beauty of this ecologically and culturally rich landscape. And after a walk on a cold winter day — a great way to see the park with relatively few people around — it’s terrific to be able to enjoy dinner in the lodge and be warmed by a blazing fire.

6.7 Miles and 2.5 Million Years Ago at Midewin

According to an app on my my iPhone, I took 18,594 steps today at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, totaling 6.7 miles. In truth, I went much farther than that. As I strolled through recovering prairie lands, I traveled back in time–through 1945 and the arsenal era, through the pioneer farmer era of the 1800s, all the way back to the time of the last glacier and beyond.

South Patrol Road Prairie in a snowless mid-February

In spite of the unseasonable, 70 degree temperature, the prairie doesn’t look like much in mid-February. It’s understandable how most people driving along historic Route 66, which runs through the middle of Midewin, are likely to perceive nothing more than dead weeds.

Oh, but before the prairie wakes is a perfect time to dive deeper into the history of Midewin. The dry, matted grasses make it easier to climb the steep slopes of munitions bunkers. This provides a bird’s eye view of the Joliet arsenal era. During the 1940s, hundreds of bunkers on the west side of Midewin harbored massive amounts of TNT and its component chemicals, while even more bunkers on the east side of Midewin held the end products–bullets and bombs that were shipped overseas in support of Allied troops fighting the Good War.

Before trees and shrubs leaf out, the remains of various pioneer homesteads are easier to spy. They lie tucked within overgrown copses–originally planted, no doubt, to provide the earliest settlers some protection from the prairie sun and winds. When the government forced the farmers to sell their land in order to build the arsenal, all the farm structures were either moved or razed, leaving nothing but their limestone foundation bones–memorial relicts, really, of those who first busted the prairie sod as far back as the 1830s.

Amid yet other leafless copses lie mounds of other kinds of stones. These are reflective of the pioneer settler era as well as the Pleistocene Epoch. In the process of plowing up the prairie, pioneer farmers found they also needed to clear their fields of massive granite boulders. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were left behind by the mile-thick glaciers that last blanketed northeastern Illinois about 14,000 years ago.

As it turns out, placing your hand on a sun-warmed rock from so long ago pales in comparison to hearing the clarion call of a sandhill crane, which speaks to Midewin’s even more distant past as well as its future.

Sorry for the lousy pic–the crane came upon me so quickly and close that I couldn’t get focused fast enough.

The oldest sandhill crane fossil dates back 2.5 million years ago. Once threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss, sandhill cranes continue to make a comeback. Over the past few years, as more and more of Midewin has been restored, flocks of sandhills–or sandies–have been regular visitors to Midewin, stopping over on their migration from Florida to Wisconsin and the upper midwest.

During this time,there has been a pair or two of sandhills that hangs around Midewin throughout the breeding season. No one yet has found a nest, but expectations are that it’s just a matter of time before this largest and most ancient of North American birds raises young again amid the “dead weeds,” better known as hundreds of species of native prairie grasses and flowers, at Midewin.

South Patrol Road Prairie in high summer herbage.

Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve

On the way to celebrating a nephew’s birthday in Oak Brook, Susan and I stopped by Salt Creek Woods–number five toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year. In case you’re wondering, Salt Creek–which runs through Salt Creek Woods and a chain of Forest Preserves of Cook County sites–isn’t salty at all. “A tale in an old history…says the stream got its name when high waters in 1838 washed away a wagon load of salt belonging to John Reid, a teamster.”

A few years before the eponymous salt incident, General Winfield Scott and his troops were quarantined by cholera on their way to chase Chief Blackhawk and the last of all native tribes out of Illinois for good.

Girl Scouts wading in Salt Creek, circa 2921

Salt Creek Woods, located in the Bemis Woods unit, must have been among the earliest lands acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, established in 1909. For, in 1921, the District built the Girl Scouts a log cabin, and also dammed up the creek to provide better swimming opportunities.

Today, the cabin and dam are long gone. What remains is perhaps the richest birding sites in all of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

At the recent Wild Things conference–this year’s biennial gathering attracted 1,700 professional and volunteer nature stewards, with 300 on the waiting list–Doug Stotz provided the bird data. Doug is Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum and one of the region’s premier birders.  He shared the results of the 2016 Bird the Preserves, a “big year” competition to see which FPCC site boasted the best bird life.

Confessing (with a wink and a nod) that he is not at all competitive when it comes to birding, Stotz revealed that his site–Salt Creek/Bemis Woods–came in at #1 in the competition. He cited several impressive stats, including the fact that of the four sites he birded within the preserve, the one with the highest total bird count was Salt Creek–a 245-acre tract dedicated as the 8th Illinois Nature Preserve in 1965.

 

Stotz observed that among the reason for the impressive bird count at Salt Creek was the quality restoration and stewardship. As George Fell well knew, the greatest threat to our remaining natural areas is the lack of maintenance. Absent the natural forces that used to maintain our diverse habitats, our prairies, wetlands and woodlands can quickly become overrun with invasive species, both native and non-native.

Even woodlands need some level of controlled burns to remain healthy habitat for plants, mammals, bugs and birds, alike. Some of our preserves have become so overgrown that they require heavy duty, manual removal of woody shrubs and even mature trees. While cutting down trees can be controversial, doing so according to sound, science-based management plans is essential. Overgrown woodlands might appear green and healthy, but as every birder knows they are all but devoid of bird life.

Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve

For me, the best way to cap a conference about saving nature is to go out and walk around in some. After two days spent indoors in windowless conference rooms, I sneaked away a little early to take a hike through Middle Fork Woods–the 4th of 50 Illinois Nature Preserves I plan to visit this year in celebration of the publication of the Fell biography.

Don’t get me wrong, spending two days with close friends and colleagues at the annual Vital Lands Illinois conference is, well, vital. Initiated several years ago by the Grand Victoria Foundation, Vital Lands Illinois is a network of public and private land conservation from across the state, working together to coordinate and enhance land conservation. At this year’s conference, we greatly expanded our horizons by including a dedicated consideration of mitigation and agricultural programs to bolster land protection efforts.

For the past couple of years, we’ve held the annual VLI conference at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana–alma mater for both me and George Fell. There are two dedicated Nature Preserves in Champaign County, but one is on private land and access to the other requires permission from the local forest preserve district. So, I headed straight east into Vermilion County to Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve, located in Kickapoo State Park.

The preserve is named for the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the only river (rather, a 17.1-mile section thereof) in Illinois designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Ironically, what makes this stretch of the river particularly wild and scenic is the very thing that destroyed much of the adjacent landscape. Along its meandering course, the river has cut into layers of bedrock formed during the Pennsylvanian Age, 320 million years ago. Among the strata–or layers–of bedrock are sandstone, siltstone, limestone, shale and–most significant–coal.

Dating back to the mid-1800s, there have been more than 150 coal mining operations in Vermilion County. In fact, the first coal strip mining in the United State occurred in Vermilion County, and that–along with slope mining–is exactly what happened at what is now Kickapoo State Park and the adjacent Kickapoo State Recreation Area. Between 1918 and 1924, Surface Mine No. 6 and Slope Mine No. 6 produced nearly one million tons of coal. Today, mining laws require companies to restore mined lands to their original condition, but not so when Vermilion County boasted another first in 1939: the first wasted minescape to become a state park.

On a cold winter day, stripped of its foliage, much of Kickapoo State Park is revealed for what it is–a reclaimed minescape: the deep water ponds, the tailings, the sheered-off cliffs, the erosion gullies and, of course, the sealed-off mine entrances. Nonetheless, there is an inherent regenerative power in nature that has softened the scars we have left, providing habitat for many plant and animal species, as well as a restorative hike for a conference-fatigued individual such as myself.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not the mined portion of the 2,800-acre state park that is dedicated as a nature preserve. No, by law, dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve is reserved for an area that “retains or has recovered to a substantial degree its original natural or primeval character.” In this case, that means a 69-acre area within the park that escaped the ravages of mining; where various kinds of glacial-era deposits were not stripped away to get to the coal, leaving intact “plant and animal populations…distinct from those found elsewhere in Illinois.

Incidentally, on the way home, I spied nearby a next generation of energy production on the prairie. Perhaps no source is perfect, but is harnessing the free wind perhaps better than the extractive practices of the past?

 

Kankakee River Nature Preserve

I’m trying hard not to feel guilty. I should be at the Women’s March downtown with Susan and fellow Pullmanites Amy and Laura and Lorraine and jb, and tens of thousands of others. To stand in solidarity for the values I hold dear: equity, inclusion, fairness, kindness, love, the arts, the environment.

I am so proud of and heartened by those who showed up all over the country to have their voices heard en masse. But, as I awoke before the day’s first light this morning, I could not shake Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” out of my head:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And so here I am at Kankakee River State Park, in search of Kankakee River Nature Preserve, on a beautiful, unseasonably warm Saturday morning. At first, it’s odd. There is no still water here. We haven’t had much rain, but perhaps the thaw that comes with 59 degree weather–in January!–has released a deluge into the Kankakee River, which has spilled over its banks, running incredibly fast and filled with dead trees carried along like toothpicks.

Equally weird is the silence. Early morning is typically the best birding time, when the avian world wakes up to actively flit and feed. But this morning, I see not a single bird. I hear nothing save for the burbling of water channeling its way through various spillways to the river. Have even the birds headed downtown to add their voice to the protest?

I have visited the state park several times, without ever realizing that two portions of it were dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. I head out in search of one of the tracts, known as either Langham or Altorf Island, one of several islands dotting the Kankakee River. And as I walk along the river, the new moon overhead and refusing to hide its face in the light of the new day, I consider that there are different ways of protesting. In his own way, George Fell protested against the wanton destruction of the remaining natural lands of Illinois and the nation. His was a life-long protest, the determined, hard slog of transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy, now the largest conservation organization in the world. The even harder effort to envision and see through to passage the Illinois Natural Preservation Act, which inspired many other states to follow suit in protecting their remnant and critically important natural lands.

At first, Langham Island appears not so different from its sister islands, save the for tiny sign that reminds everyone that it is a dedicated nature preserve, and that everything on it is protected by law. What’s to protect, you might think, peering at the leafless trees and the dense understory of invasive honeysuckle. But a closer look reveals that a goodly portion of the island has been cleared of its invasives. A couple years ago, Habitat2030 and Friends of Langham Island teamed up to cut brush and conduct controlled burns to restore the native habitat; in particular to rescue from extinction a flowering plant that occurs only on this 20-acre island and nowhere else in the world.

Standing here, riverside, staring across at the island treasure in our midst, another quote–this one by Margaret Mead–pops into my head: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is then that I spy on the water not a single wood drake, but more than a hundred goldeneyes and countless Canada Geese. And hear the downy woodpeckers, and white-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers busy at their feeding.

I do in fact grieve this day in fear of what the next four years may hold. At the same time I am comforted by those who show up–alone, with others, when needed and every day–in defense of the wild and wonderful things of this earth.