Irreplaceable

Julian Hoffman had me from the opening chapter. The marshlands of Hoo Peninsula, near the mouth of England’s Thames River, have a lot in common with the Calumet marshlands along the southern rim of Lake Michigan. Both are “complex habitats, both human and wild…woven into one.” Both are among the most important migratory and breeding bird habitats in their respective countries. They were threatened with being developed for major airports. They continue to exist under the threat of future developments. They are home to amazing people dedicated to protecting the lands they love.

There is something both despairing and comforting in realizing that one’s homefront battles are shared by others around the world. Despair and comfort. And hope against hope. This is the emotional roller coaster ride Julian takes us on in his new book, Irreplaceable. It’s despairing, for instance, to learn that Boris Johnson, as the former mayor of London, championed building Europe’s largest airport in the middle of the the Hoo Peninsula, a RAMSAR-designated Wetlands of International Importance. Just as our own Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed building a third regional airport by filling in Lake Calumet and raising the entire Hegewisch neighborhood.

As with the proposed airport on England’s Hoo Peninsula, an alliance between government and corporate interests made the proposed Calumet airport appear to be unstoppable

On the other hand, it’s comforting and inspiring to read of George Crozer, Joan Darwell and Gill Moore, founders of the Friends of the North Kent Marshes, who thus far have been able to beat back not one but two airport proposals. They remind me of Marian Byrnes, the Conscience of the Calumet and founder of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, through which she defeated both Mayor Daley’s airport and a proposed bus barn on a remnant Calumet-area prairie-wetland complex since named in her honor.

Marian Byrnes, Conscience of the Calumet ( Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune )

Julian has traveled the world in search of some of the most biologically and culturally rich places in the world. The most beautiful. And sacred. Marshes. Forests. Mountains. Islands. As a birder, I can’t help but be a little envious of his sojourns in search of Egyptian vultures, nightingales, cranes, albatrosses (through Chris Jordan’s haunting photos) and even starlings. Not to mention lynx and spiders and countless other imperiled creatures, great and small.

Midway: Message from the Gyre, photo by Chris Jordan

Julian is adept in making places and species I’ll likely never see seem familiar. He makes the many people he meets along the way feel like friends as well as heroes — everyday heroes who devote their lives to protecting the places they love; places that sustain and nourish them in so many different ways. Sharing their stories, Julian goes a long way toward healing the artificial rift between humans and nature. The people he meets — with whom he hikes and climbs and shares a drink — are largely successful in their preservation efforts because they “reveal the extraordinary presence of [a] place [rather] than allow it to be defined by others, unveiling the remarkable blend of culture, nature and community that’s been knitted together over the centuries.”

Revealing the remarkable blend of culture, nature and community, knitted together over centuries, is precisely what I aspire to accomplish in my own writing about Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie — another irreplaceable place Julian chronicles in his book.

A few years ago, I had the honor of introducing Julian to Midewin. Midwinter isn’t the best time for a tour. The prairie is hardly at its prettiest. Nonetheless, Julian grasped Midewin’s beauty. It’s essence. The intention and inherent power in its name. Midewin is the name of a healing society of the Pottowotamie, who inhabited the prairie lands of Illinois for hundreds of years before farmers plowed it all up and the United States government turned thirty thousand-plus acres of that prime farmland into the Joliet Arsenal — one of the largest, most sophisticated munitions complexes in the entire world.

Aerial View of the Joliet Arsenal — a few decades before becoming Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Chicago Tribune)

Healing,” as Julian observes, “is a potent word. It has the power to rescue hopefulness from hurt, to seal the worst of our wounds and bridge some of the simmering divisions of this world. It evokes a way forward, if not entirely beyond the reach of pain, then at least towards a place where it might be tended to and accommodated. It clears a space for atonement and reconciliation.”

Much of Julian’s book is devoted to protecting irreplaceable places. Midewin, as he rightly observes, is about restoring. It’s about “making good on old debts. Irreplaceable native grasslands were the unique result of intimate interactions between plant communities, soils, climate, native peoples, bison, wind and fire over the course of 12,000 years. Nothing in our lifetimes could ever come close to the intricate layers of prairie richness and meaning that only time and the right conditions can achieve. Instead, restoration is a way of healing what’s already been harmed, a way of reclaiming lost habitats and enabling wildlife to thrive for its own sake rather than ours.”

The amount of original prairie left in Illinois is roughly equivalent to half the volume of the lower case “o” in the red box above — divided into hundreds of bits and scattered about the page

Since Julian’s visit, Midewin has seen a lot of progress. We’re on track to nearly double the amount of land restored to tallgrass prairie, providing critical habitat for the full suite of grassland birds — the most imperiled class of birds on the planet. And the handful of bison that Julian saw foraging the winter grasses has tripled in size — “an image of majestic and inimitable presence…to witness the possibility of restitution. Proof that the actions of individuals and organizations can alter the balance of shared value, expanding it to include lands and animals as part of our fragile yet irreplaceable inheritance, the sustaining foundation to the greater meaning of the name Midewin.”

The Midewin herd has grown to nearly 100 bison

Of course, the stories Julian shares don’t end with the book. In addition to the updates he provides in the epilogue, Boris Johnson recently was chosen as prime minister of Great Britain. Although he has his hands full with Brexit, he might also have it in the back of his mind to resurrect his idea of an estuary airport. While the threat of an airport obliterating the Calumet appears definitively dead, the new mayor recently proposed the siting of a mega-casino complex on the shores of Lake Calumet — on exactly the same land that a new generation of preservationists has been trying to get protected as public open space. And there are rumblings that our new governor is open to revisiting the building of a major highway alongside and partly through Midewin.

The next threat to the history, ecology and culture of the Calumet — a proposed mega-casino complex on the shore of Lake Calumet

Sometimes, I have to admit, in light of seemingly incessant assaults, it’s hard not to despair. “How many times do you have to save a place?” the old adage goes. “As many times as it takes.” As Julian reminds us, however, perhaps grief is more accurate than despair. “Grief,” Julian quotes the photographer Chris Jordan, “is the same as love. Grief is a felt experience of love for something that we’re losing.” Despair, I think, is bereft of love. Hopeless. Paralyzing. Grief, on the other hand, fueled by love, allows us to mourn. To emphathize. And ultimately to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing…to heal ourselves, our lands and each other.

Thanks, Julian.

Blazing start on the recovering prairie lands of Midewin

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