Green Fire at Midewin

It was a perfect trifecta: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, The Wetlands Initiative and a film about Aldo Leopold. Actually it was a perfect quadfecta, because the screening took place at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Midewin is the most ambitious tallgrass prairie restoration effort in the nation. The Wetlands Initiative – working in close partnership with the USDA Forest Service, which manages Midewin – is the driving force behind many of the individual restorations at Midewin.

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Midewin doesn’t actually appear in the documentary Green Fire, Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time. But it embodies, on a grand scale, what Leopold stood for. Following the film, staff from TWI and the Forest Service described how Leopold’s land ethic, written more than 60 years ago, drives the recovery of Midewin today.

For me, it boils down to this: during the course of the past century and a half, the 20,000 acres of Midewin have been sorely abused; first in the production of crops, secondly in the manufacture of arms. Following the closing of the arsenal, it would have been an easy thing to pave the land over and throw up some subdivisions and strip malls. In fact, there were many that were itching for the dollars that would flow from that very thing.

But as Leopold pointed out in perhaps his defining essay, “The land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against…modern trends.”

At Midewin, a small but determined number of groups and individuals had a different vision: to restore the land to its native state. In so doing, they revolted against “the belief that economics determines all land use.” (Again, using Leopold’s words.) But rather embraced his idea that those involved in land use decisions should consider “what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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In the end , a part of the former Joliet arsenal was sliced off for a landfill. Another part for an intermodal transport facility. Another part for a union trade school. Another for a national cemetery. But by far most of the land – 20,000 acres – was reserved for nature. No, that‘s not quite right. Midewin is reserved very much for people, too.  Without people, the land could not recover. It takes people to heal an abused landscape. Lots and lots of people. From all walks of life. From professional staff to volunteers. To help return the native plants and animals to the land. And in so doing, they recover a close relationship to the land. They breathe life into Leopold’s concept of a land ethic as well as the very meaning of the word Midewin: healing.

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