Harlem Hills Nature Preserve holds a special place in my heart because it meant so much to George Fell.
A school paper George wrote as a young boy revealed both his love for such native landscapes and his fear that they were being destroyed. “Every spring this bare, desolate hill becomes a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” After describing the seasonal parade of native prairie blossoms, from pasque flowers in the spring through purple asters in the fall, he concluded his essay, “Soon, however, there will be houses and streets, bordered with bushes and dried up flowers, which really belong in Europe, in place of the pleasant hilltop which is now there.”
George and his wife, Barbara, spent their honeymoon night camping among the prairie flowers of what then was known as Byron Easton Hill.
George co-authored with this father — a noted amateur botanist who inspired his son in his passion for our native plants — The Gravel-Hill Prairies of Rock River Valley in Illinois, of which Harlem Hills is the largest and best remaining.
When his father died, George redoubled his effort to protect Harlem Hills, which he did first by buying the land and then having it dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in August 1973.
Today, the site is co-owned and stewarded by the Natural Land Institute (founded by George) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
This past March, Susan and I visited the site with Jerry Paulson, former executive director of NLI, who worked many years with George. We were too early see pasque flowers — one of the first bloomers on the gravel ridge prairie. And by the time I was able to return in July, the pasque flowers long since had gone to seed.
In past visits, I’ve seen other early season wildflowers. And today, at the height of summer, there are yet other beauties to behold before they give way in turn to the fall bloomers. As George observed, Harlem Hills is indeed, “a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” But its survival is entirely dependent upon humankind, beginning with one man — George Fell.