Blasts from the Past, Nests for the Future

Nearly 60 years ago to the day, an explosion at the Elwood Ordnance Plant killed 48 people. The force of the blast was so great that only 32 bodies were recovered. Today, a group of birders young and old enjoyed a close-up look at a heron rookery that lies within the shadow of the blast site.

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There’s much of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie that is open to the public to explore at will. There remain, however, certain areas that are accessible only on guided tours. Today’s tour of a heron rookery takes us into one of the restricted areas. Our first stop was near an old arsenal-era power plant. While our bird guides – John Baxter and Lee Witkowski – searched for rare loggerhead shrikes in Osage orange trees that grew along an old arsenal-era road, I heard green frogs calling from a flooded stairwell in one of the arsenal’s several power plants.

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Our caravan continued deep into the west side of the former Joliet Arsenal, where many structures from the old Joliet arsenal still remain. Among those buildings is the re-built Building 10, Group II, “where anti-tank mines and anti-tank mine fuses were packed into shipping crates and then loaded onto railcars.”

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As I wrote in the current issue of Illinois Heritage, “On June 5, 1942, at 2:45 a.m., an explosion destroyed this building and three train cars. The force of the blast was so great – each mine had an explosive weight of 62,600 pounds of TNT – that only 32 of the 48 bodies were recovered, with 16 officially declared as ‘missing.’ The blast injured another 64 persons. Windows shattered 22 miles away in Kankakee and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that residents of Chicago – located about 60 miles way – thought there had been an earthquake. Espionage was ruled out, but the precise cause of the blast has never been confirmed.”

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A monument to the fallen workers stands at the entrance to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. But here, where the blast actually happened, a bunch of birders are more intent upon a line of dead trees just up ahead. Atop nearly every tree is a big nest of sticks measuring up to 4 feet across. And in nearly every nest is a fledgling great blue heron. Or two. Or more. The sky is dotted with adult herons foraging for food for their young ones.

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And in a nutshell, that’s Midewin today – relicts of the arsenal past side by side with nests full of feathered hope for a future filled with restored nature. And people relishing both.

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Midewin at Home

Midewin measures about 20,000 acres. My backyard garden measures .010330 of an acre. But there’s a lot in my postage stamp-sized private refuge that keeps me connected to the largest prairie recreation effort in the country.

My backyard boasts about 30 of the nearly 200 native prairies species found at Midewin. Here’s a few that are currently in bloom.

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Common throughout much of the eastern half of North America, Ohio spiderwort sports clusters of three-leaved flowers the colors of the Swedish flag. Each blossom lasts only a day; often times only a morning. Purportedly, spiderwort got its name from its sticky sap, which, when dabbed, stretches into long, thin, spider silk-like strands. This same quality lends spiderwort an alternative and decidedly less poetic nickname: cow slobber.

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True to its name, butterfly weed is a magnet for several butterfly species. But Native Americans prized chewing its tough roots as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, giving it the name, Pleurisy Root.

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Eastern prickly pear cactus. Cactus in Illinois? Yep. In about half its 102 counties, including both Cook (where I live) and Will (where Midewin is located.) It has fewer thorns (or, technically, spines) than most western species of cactus. But they are more than sufficient to protect waxy sunshine yellow blossoms.

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Lead plant is aptly named for the lead-like color its leaves. But when in flower, its “pubescent spikes” of purple are all the more dramatic for the conspicuous reproductive parts: reddish stamens and bright yellow anthers.

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Rattlesnake master. This alien-looking member of the carrot family bears an equally curious name. Early pioneers erroneously thought the root of this native prairie plant would cure rattlesnake bites.

Beyond their beauty, beyond keeping me connected to Midewin, these and other native plants help make my garden truly green. Uniquely adapted to the Midwestern prairies, they require little to no maintenance. No fertilizers. No pesticides. And no watering.

This season, for instance, has been exceptionally dry. Many of my neighbors have had to water their lawns and keep their annuals well watered to keep them from dying. Me? Aside from a few basil and tomato plants I keep in pots, I haven’t had to water my garden once. And everything is healthy and robust, largely due to equally healthy and robust root systems. The roots of leadplant, for instance, can extend 15 feet into the soil, ensuring that it can withstand drought conditions.

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Memorial Day at Midewin

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There are so many ties that bind Midewin to Memorial Day.

The most obvious, of course, is that Midewin was born of the same legislation that established the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Upon the closing of the former Joliet Arsenal, a citizen advisory committee – assembled by Representative George Sangmeister – recommended allocating about 19,000 acres for the establishment of the largest tallgrass prairie east of the Mississippi River and 910 acres for the largest national cemetery in the country. (Since then, another national cemetery had its acreage expanded in order to retain claim to being #1.)

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It is fitting that the largest national cemetery in the Land of Lincoln, anyway, be named for the president who, in 1862, signed into law the establishment of national cemeteries “for the soldiers who die in the service of the country.”

It seems fitting, too, that a national cemetery honoring our soldiers should rise up on land that once boasted the largest and most sophisticated arms manufacturing facility in the world. Once a place that made bombs and bullets now forever harbors the soldiers who used such instruments of war to defend our country.

Would that this transformation of the land meant that there was no more need for munitions. Sadly, of course, this remains far from true. A neighbor’s son lays here, a casualty of the Iraq War.

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Like all national cemeteries, the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery is a sacred place. But something about this particular one seems to me to accentuate its hallowedness. Perhaps it’s because the many headstones – in spite of their arrangement in straight, soldierly rows – almost seem to have grown up out of the prairie; a word not too far removed from the word prayer.

There are many people visiting the cemetery this weekend, me among them. And I can’t help but think that each of us shares a similar prayer: for some kind of healing, for ourselves, for the souls of the departed, for the nations still stubbornly at war, our own included.

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And after paying my respects at the cemetery, I feel compelled to head down the road to Midewin. To surround myself with prairie – each native wildflower, each rare and endangered grassland bird that finds safe harbor here a living prayer for a better day.

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Mists of Avalon at Midewin

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A Mists of Avalon morning at Midewin. Cool. Overcast. The horizon veiled in haze. Magic. Otherworldly. All the more so for the breathtaking number of some of the most imperiled birds on the planet.

Among bird nerds (a term of deep affection) it is well known that population declines among grassland birds – those species that originally inhabited prairie but also adapted to certain kinds of farm fields – have been “steeper, more consistent, and more geographically widespread than declines in any other ecological or behavioral grouping of birds.”

“In Illinois…during the 25-year period ending in 1984, grassland songbirds declined by 75 – 95%”. Since then, species by species, population declines have continued at alarming rates for bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrow, savannah sparrows and dickcissels.

The main culprit? Loss of habitat.

The solution? In part, places like Midewin. Even before it is fully restored as mostly tallgrass prairie, it is large enough and managed in such a way as to provide healthy habitat for the full suite of grassland birds.

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As a Midewin volunteer, I regularly monitor grassland birds in a cow pasture romantically named “Tract 104.” But what it lacks in poetry and actual prairie grasses (until such time as it, too, is restored to its native condition) Tract 104 more than makes up for in grassland birds.

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Take meadowlarks, for instance. Forty years ago there used to be 24 million of these prairie songsters. Today, there are only seven million. A decline of 72 percent. At Midewin, they are so common that they are the featured creature in the Midewin logo. Today, I count 37, their song one of the most recognizable sounds to fill the misty and mystical air. Watch Lang Elliott’s “Eastern Meadowlark Portrait” and see what poetry meadowlark song inspires in you.

Rivaling meadowlarks for beauty of song are bobolinks. Emily Dickinson referred to them as “the rowdy in the meadow.” Out-rhapsodizing the Belle of Amherst, Henry David Thoreau had this to say about bobolinks: “This flashing, tinkling meteor bursts through the expectant meadow air, leaving a train of tinkling notes behind.”

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This morning, I count 73 bobolinks. Beyond Midewin, if there are any bobolinks to count at all, you might see one or two. Maybe half a dozen. Here, in truth, their true numbers are beyond my counting. The males are flashy, fluttering and singing away in full view. But the females typically lie quiet and hidden in the grasses. Then, too, there are so many other birds singing, chirping, buzzing, flashing by, flushing, bursting out of the grasses like tiny fireworks. It can be like trying to count snowflakes before they hit the ground.

Like the mythical Avalon, the very real Midewin is a place of healing and recovery. This is a place where many people pitch in – restoring and monitoring – to help reverse the population declines of some of the most beautiful, tuneful and delightful creatures the world affords us.

Woodcock Music

April showers must not have got the memo. Absent for much of “the cruelest month,” they finally decided to make a big show on May 1. But after a day of hard rain, the skies have cleared around dusk. Just in time for woodcock music.

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What a miracle a woodcock is. Chunky, bug-eyed and no-necked with a Jimmy Durante-like beak, every spring the males of this species become graceful acrobats of the air. To attract a mate, a male will launch himself “skyward,” to quote Aldo Leopold, “in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”

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This evening, I stand at my favorite woodcock theatre – an island of trees and shrubs in South Patrol Road Prairie. Ecologists would call this place an ecotone, “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” Such areas typically teem with “greater species diversity and biological density” than the individual ecological communities. In this particular instance, the forest provides shelter, feeding and nesting habitat for woodcocks. But the adjacent prairie provides the wide open space they need for their elaborate courting rituals.

Along with what I can only imagine are a great many female woodcocks – the females are excessively polite audiences and their camouflage makes them virtually undetectable, especially in the fading light – I relish in the warm-up act. While still on the ground, the males emit  “queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart ,“ as Leopold accurately observed, “sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.”

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And then, these comically squat birds launch themselves into the air and become poetry. If their twitters and warbles were physical stuff, it would be glitter, bejeweling the twilight sky. That’s the show, folks. Punctuated by a rain-washed breeze, a distant coyote cry, and a chorus of frogs and toads sweetly calling from the resurgent wetlands all around.

aldo leopold hunter

In quoting Leopold about woodcocks, most leave out the part where he talks about hunting them. “No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”

Since learning of the sky dance, it has been my misfortune to encounter woodcocks in death. But not from hunting. Last year, I happened upon a woodcock in a planter in downtown Chicago – victim of a collision with a building.

woodcock downtown planter

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Earlier this week, while on a bike ride a few blocks from my house, I came across another – victim of a speeding driver for whom the bird was barely a bump in the road.

Like many bird species, populations of woodcocks have been in free fall, largely due to a loss of habitat. A recent woodcock hunter survey in Illinois revealed a sharp decline in this once popular game species. Hunters reported “very few woodcock to hunt” and “no place to hunt.”

woodcock 3This is one of the many reasons I volunteer to help restore Midewin. In a state in which less than one-tenth of one percent of high quality natural habitat remains, Midewin’s 20,000 acres of recovering natural habitat provides what woodcocks and many other species of native plants and animals need to survive. To flourish.

No dearth of sky dancers here.

Earth Day at Midewin

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If it’s April, it must be time to pull garlic mustard. Even at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which contains several stands of remnant woodland areas.

Garlic mustard is a pretty plant, with clusters of white flowers atop slender stalks swirled with heart-shaped, scalloped-edged leaves. Introduced as a culinary herb, its leaves make for a nice, garlic-tinged pesto.

But particularly in this instance, looks (and taste) can be deceptive. Non-native to North America, garlic mustard escaped the kitchen gardens of early settlers and invaded woodlands throughout the northeast and Midwest. With each plant producing hundreds of seeds, it quickly displaces native wildflowers, turning our woodlands from healthy tapestries to unhealthy monocultures.

In this, garlic mustard reminds me of Bill Cosby’s “The Chicken Heart that ate New York City.” But instead of spreading Jell-o to avoid being devoured by the monster invader (listen to Cosby’s sketch and you’ll know what I mean), getting rid of garlic mustard typically requires spending only a pleasant day in the woods pulling the invader out by the roots.

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As pernicious as garlic mustard is, it pulls out of the ground fairly easily. Today, with nearly 50 pairs of volunteer hands making light work, we manage to clear enough garlic mustard out of Midewin’s Bluebell Woods to fill dozens of large garbage bags (a record-setting 1,155 pounds, according to Volunteer Coordinator, Alison Cisneros.)

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Part of the reward for this work is getting up close and personal with the many different kinds of spring wildflowers we’re trying to save. With the early spring, the bluebells for which Bluebell Woods is named are nearly past their peak blooming.

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But woodland phlox has more than stepped up with myriad clusters of pale lavender blossoms.

And then there are swamp buttercups and red trillium.

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Among the many kinds of woodland wildflowers, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But near the top of the list has to be May apples, whose creamy white blossoms lie half-hidden under Lilliputian, umbrella-like leaves.

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And then there are Jacks in the pulpit, which would be right at home in a children’s book illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Getting down on your hands and knees to pull garlic mustard is a great way get a good peek at these exquisite spring ephemerals.

120421 jack in the pulpitAnd if any more reward for the day were required, today the Midewin Tallgrass Alliance has provided a picnic lunch alongside Prairie Creek.

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Easter. To my way of thinking, there’s no better church to celebrate the essence of the day than Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Like many Christian holidays, Easter has strong pagan origins. According to some sources, the word Easter comes from Eostre (or Eastra), the Teutonic Goddess of Spring and fertility.

Midewin is a 20,000-acre altar in which fertility, re-birth and resurrection are everywhere apparent. If you know where to look and what you’re looking at.

At first glance, Iron Bridge Prairie may seem nothing but a shorn farm field.

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But look closely and you’ll see tender shoots of prairie grasses and wildflowers emerging from the dead stubble. Two years ago, this area was a monoculture of soybeans. Today, it has been re-born as a prairie teeming with upwards of 100 different kinds of prairie plants.

meadowlarkIf you listen closely, you’ll hear eastern meadowlarks – which require healthy prairie habitat to feed and raise their young – fitted out in their golden choir robes with black stoles, singing celebratory descants that rival those sung in any church. (And I say this with some authority, having sung professionally at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.)

In spite of the mild winter and early spring, it’s still a little early for prairie plants to be in bloom. But the wooded areas of Midewin are another story. Under the sheltering canopies of ancient oaks in Prairie Creek Woods lie a host of spring ephemerals.

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Woodland Phlox
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Spring Beauties

May Apples are not yet in bloom, but their umbrella-like leaves shelter promising buds. (To see May Apples in full bloom, check out the next blog post.)

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And for those who require something distinctly more church-like, may I recommend a Jack in the pulpit.

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On my knees to better appreciate the spring wildflowers carpeting the woodland floor, I can’t help think of the Psalm: “For as much as ye did unto the least of mine, ye did unto Me.”

It is, unfortunately, another Psalm that too often has guided us in our relationship to most if not all things great and small in nature: “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.” Certainly this is true in Illinois, where less than one-tenth of one percent of quality natural area remains. When Midewin was established in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation of any quality at all.

But at Midewin – and many other restoration sites scattered throughout the region – I believe that we as a people yet have a shot at redemption. We can roll up our sleeves and volunteer to help preserve and restore what little nature is left. And in so doing, give meaning to the hymn that’s being sung this very morning in churches all across the world: “For the beauty of the earth, For the glory of the skies…hill and vale and tree and flower, Sun and moon and stars of light…For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight…Lord of all to thee we raise, This is our hymn of grateful praise.”

Perhaps that’s essentially what the meadowlarks are singing. And perhaps what a lone garter snake – that most reviled of Biblical creatures – likewise senses from the same sun that warms us both on this brisk Easter morning.

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RIP – Outdoor Illinois Magazine


Chicago Wilderness Magazine. Illinois Steward Magazine. Outdoor Illinois Magazine. I had the good fortune to write for all three publications. Each of them rich with words and images celebrating the equally rich nature of The Prairie State. But now, all three publications have succumbed to budget cuts, a down economy and cataclysmic shifts in the publishing industry.

First of all, props to Outdoor Illinois editor Kathy Andrews. As wonderful an editor as there is. Together, in the pages of this Illinois Department of Natural Resources publication, we were able to explore new prairies along the Chicago lakefront, the preservation of an ancient ravine in Apple River Canyon, hunting for a rare plant the size of a white marble in Chicago’s Calumet region, celebrating a mix of art and nature in a ravine at the former Fort Sheridan, and most recently the plumbing of Midewin.

Midewin is plumbed? Yep. Big time. Like about one third of Illinois. And at places like Midewin, often the first restoration step involves de-plumbing. If you’d like to read more, check out Man vs. Wetlands in the latest and last issue of Outdoor Illinois Magazine. RIP.


Green Fire at Midewin

It was a perfect trifecta: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, The Wetlands Initiative and a film about Aldo Leopold. Actually it was a perfect quadfecta, because the screening took place at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Midewin is the most ambitious tallgrass prairie restoration effort in the nation. The Wetlands Initiative – working in close partnership with the USDA Forest Service, which manages Midewin – is the driving force behind many of the individual restorations at Midewin.

green fire poster

Midewin doesn’t actually appear in the documentary Green Fire, Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time. But it embodies, on a grand scale, what Leopold stood for. Following the film, staff from TWI and the Forest Service described how Leopold’s land ethic, written more than 60 years ago, drives the recovery of Midewin today.

For me, it boils down to this: during the course of the past century and a half, the 20,000 acres of Midewin have been sorely abused; first in the production of crops, secondly in the manufacture of arms. Following the closing of the arsenal, it would have been an easy thing to pave the land over and throw up some subdivisions and strip malls. In fact, there were many that were itching for the dollars that would flow from that very thing.

But as Leopold pointed out in perhaps his defining essay, “The land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against…modern trends.”

At Midewin, a small but determined number of groups and individuals had a different vision: to restore the land to its native state. In so doing, they revolted against “the belief that economics determines all land use.” (Again, using Leopold’s words.) But rather embraced his idea that those involved in land use decisions should consider “what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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In the end , a part of the former Joliet arsenal was sliced off for a landfill. Another part for an intermodal transport facility. Another part for a union trade school. Another for a national cemetery. But by far most of the land – 20,000 acres – was reserved for nature. No, that‘s not quite right. Midewin is reserved very much for people, too.  Without people, the land could not recover. It takes people to heal an abused landscape. Lots and lots of people. From all walks of life. From professional staff to volunteers. To help return the native plants and animals to the land. And in so doing, they recover a close relationship to the land. They breathe life into Leopold’s concept of a land ethic as well as the very meaning of the word Midewin: healing.

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A View from the Bunker

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From a certain distance, they might be mistaken for haystacks. Or Indian burial mounds. Or Hobbit homes. Even up close, it can be a little hard to imagine them for what they are: storage bunkers for millions of bombs and a million tons of TNT. Harder still, perhaps, to imagine them returning to prairie.

The bunkers are relicts from the former Joliet arsenal, without which there would be no Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

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Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII, the federal government launched a massive armament campaign. It built 77 ammunition plants all across the country, with six located in Illinois. The largest and most sophisticated combined facility was the one constructed just south of Joliet along historic Route 66. The federal government originally acquired more than 36,000 acres of farmland at a cost of $8.1 million. It laid down hundreds of miles of rails and roads, built more than 1,500 buildings, and constructed nearly 400 storage bunkers (or igloos as they were originally known) for an additional cost of $113 million.

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The bunkers were constructed of reinforced concrete and mounded with earth in such a way as to withstand and direct any accidental explosions upward rather than to the sides, which might ignite a chain reaction among surrounding bunkers.

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A small number of bunkers have been removed from one wetland restoration area, but the cost of dismantling structures that were built to withstand concentrated bomb blasts is, as you might imagine, prohibitive. In the mean time, they are a good place to escape the bitter winds on such a sub-zero wind chill day as today. Even more importantly, they provide a promontory from which to survey the dynamic interface between former farm fields, former arsenal land and future prairie.

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Across an access road to one of the bunker fields, some natural hydrology is reemerging; the likely result of failed drain tiles from Midewin’s agricultural past.


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Bunkers aren’t the only non-native elements that need to be removed – the osage orange trees in the foreground are “volunteer” escapees from hedgerows planted by pioneer farmers prior to the establishment of the arsenal.