Ghosts of the Prairie

For me, the football season ended January 23 when the Packers beat the Bears 21-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. And so I venture out to Midewin for a quiet walk on Super Bowl Sunday.

Since my last visit, a little more than 20 inches of snow has fallen in the Chicago area – the third largest snowfall on record. Added to that is what looks like another couple of inches of fresh powder that has just fallen today on South Patrol Road Prairie.

Even with such an unusual amount of snow on the ground, it’s hard to imagine what Midewin may have looked like 20,000 years ago. That’s about the middle of the last ice age when glaciers covered much of North America, including the northeastern third of Illinois. The snow today is about two feet deep. I stand a little shy of six feet. The tallest prairie plants top out around 12 feet.

The bur oaks in Prairie Creek Woods rise to about 100 feet into the air. The last glacier to cover this area may have been as much as 700 feet thick – as tall as the 52-story IBM building in downtown Chicago.

ibm building

(If you’re wondering, the IBM building is the 20th tallest structure in Chicago. The Willis Tower – formerly Sears Tower – is #1 at 1,451 feet.)

The glaciers are long gone, of course. The last one retreated out of Illinois about 13,500 years ago. Gone, too, are the mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers that once roamed the tundra of Illinois. And as tundra gave way to prairie, then came wolves, bears, elk, mountain lions and bison that one by one were hunted down or otherwise pushed far to the north and west as prairie gave way to farmland and towns.

A few mile walk on such a cold, snowy day leaves the impression there is no wildlife left at Midewin at all. The rich abundance of amphibians, birds and assorted small mammals is either hunkered down until the skies clear or hibernating until warmer days return. Or not yet returned from wintering grounds elsewhere.

And then I spy the coyote. Like other native, top-of-the-food-chain predators, coyotes largely disappeared from our state in the 19th and 20th centuries, but have recently made an extraordinary comeback. Even so, these “ghosts of the prairie” come by their nickname honestly – they are rarely seen.

But that hasn’t kept many in our region – fearing that coyotes prey on pets and small children – from calling for their re-elimination. (Here’s a good website for debunking a lot of fears and misconceptions: http://urbancoyoteresearch.com.)

The myths of many Native American cultures reveal coyotes as tricksters, alternating between cleverness and buffoonery; wisdom and lechery; equal parts imp and hero; “a rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos…turning quickly from clown to creator and back again…representing the sheerly spontaneous in life, the pure creative spark that is our birthright as human beings and that defies fixed roles or behavior.”

After glimpsing the coyote at Midewin, that night I would dream that a coyote was loose in a neighbor’s backyard. I took a shovel and chased it, swinging wildly, trying to beat it to death, but always missing. Exhausted, I retreat to my own back yard – a tiny natural oasis, with a pond and lots of native prairie plants. The coyote creeps into my backyard, along with another and another. Before my eyes, each of them transforms into the kind of young man I used to be. Or wish I’d been.

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