Allison Cisneros takes very good care of the volunteers at Midewin — scheduling, organizing, recruiting, encouraging, working and laughing and restoring side by side with us. From time to time, she takes it upon herself to share the news that one among our family of volunteers has passed away.
A few years ago, it broke our hearts to learn that Lorin Schab had died. Lorin’s passion and accomplishments as a volunteer would constitute a work career for most people.
Several weeks ago, Allison let us know about the passing of Stephen Ringhofer. I remember a sweltering summer day I spent with Stephen. Both of us had sweat through our shirts taking the measure of one of Midewin’s witness trees.
Just last week, Allison informed us that Len LeClaire had died. It’s odd, curious, the things you don’t know about someone — someone alongside you have spent countless days harvesting, cleaning, planting native seeds — until you read their obituary. Len was one of the lucky ones who started down one career path before deciding to follow his passion, switching from computer programming to horticulture. He worked for the Morton Arboretum before retiring and becoming one of Midewin’s most reliable and accomplished volunteers. He also happened to live in Homewood, where I grew up.
My mother recently died, as well. Searching through her insurance papers and the like, I discovered a box filled with everything I’d ever written. It didn’t entirely surprise me she’d kept copies of all the magazine articles I’d written. The one book. She loved to read, even though nature — my primary subject — wasn’t her thing. A mother’s pride.
What did surprise me, however, were several file folders filled with printouts of practically everything I’d published online about nature — from Facebook to blog posts on websites I had no idea she knew.
One printout in particular stands out. The Interior Frontier. A piece I wrote for the Center for Humans and Nature. It chronicles my quarter-century bison quest, culminating in the release of the first bison at Midewin.
My mom never visited Midewin. It wasn’t her thing. But she knew how much it meant to me. Just as I know how much it meant to Lorin, Stephen and Len and countless other volunteers and visitors. Not to mention the bison. And the birds. And the recovering tapestry of prairie grasses and wildflowers.
I currently live in New York. Western New York. Beautiful, scenic country — despite the lack of prairie. Which is why every return trip back to Chicago, to spend time with my 91-year-old father, I spend a day at Midewin.
I can’t begin to calculate the miles I’ve logged on Midewin’s trails. The hours I’ve spent helping to restore. To observe.
The 300-year-old bur oak that Stephen and I measured has witnessed a great many changes at Midewin. From Pottawatomie prairielands to farmland to major munitions arsenal and now back to tallgrass prairie.
A short distance from this signature witness tree, a mile or so west of the Explosives Road Trailhead, lies a remnant stand of oaks. Witnesses to the bison that gave way to cattle, which gave way to a vast field of concrete bunkers built to cure TNT. Witnesses to the recent removal of the bunkers and to the recovering community of prairie, wetland and oak savanna.
There may be no more hopeful sign of recovery at Midewin than the planting of young oaks to recover the health and beauty of this savanna. By the time the slow-growing saplings come of age — rivaling their elders in height and spread of crown — our current generation of volunteer and staff restorationists will long be dust.
We are all here but a very short while, measured in tree time. In prairie time. In geologic time.
During my brief time at Midewin, I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside so many wonderful people. I am grateful to the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for the opportunity to have worked with the US Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, The Wetlands Initiative and others to accelerate Midewin’s recovery — as a refuge, an oasis, a testament to humankind’s capacity for healing the one and only earth we have.
I am grateful for a mother who inspired in me a love of words.