“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” More than a refrain from a classic James Taylor hit, fire and rain are two fundamental life forces in ample evidence this summer at Midewin. One of which we have control over. The other, not so much.
Back in April, a controlled burn was conducted in South Patrol Road Prairie. Prior to European settlement, the prairies of Illinois burned regularly, perhaps once every one to five years. Set by lightning or, later, by Native Americans to drive game to slaughter, fires kept trees and shrubs from cropping up on the prairie, cleared away thatch, and returned nutrients to the soil without damaging native prairie plants, whose roots run deep and well protected.
The fire that was good for maintaining the health of the prairies, however, rightly filled early pioneers with “a terror easier imagined than described…at many times a prairie miles long and on fire with a strong wind was in a dense flame for hundreds of yards wide…while the prairie is in a general conflagration, a terrible roaring, something similar to thunder, is heard…the flame often rose many feet high and would destroy any animal, man or other that was caught in in it.”
Small wonder, then, that those who settled the prairie quickly strove to eliminate fires from the landscape. But with the advent of ecological restoration over the past few decades, the use of controlled burns has become one of the primary tools for maintaining the health of prairies, wetlands and even some woodland types.
I am certified by Chicago Wilderness to serve on burn crews, but this is one job neither I nor any other volunteer are permitted do at Midewin. At Midewin, controlled burns are the exclusive domain of the Midewin Interagency Hot Shot Crew. And what a great job they did, safely burning most of the 460-acre site in a single day. Within a week, like green phoenixes, the tender shoots of prairie plants were pushing up out of the ash.
Last year, record drought conditions stunted the growth of most prairie plants in South Patrol Road Prairie. This year, with record rainfall following the burn, South Patrol Road Prairie has exploded in lush herbaceous greens and the full range of pinks, whites, purples and yellows of native wildflowers.
“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…”
The veins of a prairie dock leaf