Prairie Pilgrim’s Progress, Pt. 1

I’m not a religious man. But I believe in pilgrimages. I believe in preparing oneself for a journey. Re-reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which continues to inspire A Midewin Almanac, I find myself in need of spending some time at Leopold’s beloved “shack.”

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But like any pilgrimage worth the effort, there are important shrines to visit along the way. First up is American Players Theatre. To my mind, it is the North American equivalent of Delphi. Set in the exquisite, unglaciated hills of southwest Wisconsin, it attracts many fellow pilgrims from far and wide who seek the voice of the gods in the works of Shakespeare and other classical dramatists.

aptNearly 20 years ago, I spent one of the best summers of my life as an actor at APT. Night after night, under the stars, slaying the bloody King of Scotland or standing firm against mob mentality in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

This night, I set sail on a production of The Tempest; the same show in which I appeared on the same stage all those many years ago. If I had remained in acting, I would have relished the opportunity to grow into the role of Prospero and command the elements:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.

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As a volunteer restorationist at Midewin, my skills and abilities are considerably less dramatic. But they’re enough that I can deeply appreciate the hillside prairie restorations that are a vital part of the APT experience.

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Next up on the pilgrimage…Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen.

Prairie Pioneers

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Turns out that compass plants and prairie dock are not the only skyscrapers at Midewin. There are towering headstones in more than half a dozen pioneer cemeteries – reminders of the men, women and children who busted the very prairie being restored today.

In a way, farmers and restorationists are not so different. We use the same fundamental tools and practices to raise certain plants. Over the past years as a volunteer at Midewin I have collected seed, separated it from the chaff, sowed it in fields and planted it in trays for raising in a greenhouse. I’ve watered tender seedlings and eliminated various kinds of “weeds” that would inhibit the growth of the “good” plants.

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Where we part ways, of course, is farmers largely desire monocultures of a particular crop, such as corn, wheat or soybeans. Restorationists cultivate diversity. In fields once owned and farmed for generations by the Morgan family – whose patriarch is memorialized in the naming of a local road – now thrive more than 200 species of native plants in the Iron Bridge Prairie.

But the farmers of Midewin and the entire Midwest helped feed the world. What does prairie feed?

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Some might say that prairie feeds the soul. Certainly, there’s an emerging field of ecopsychology that says that nature is fundamental to our emotional and psychological well being. But when I take a tour of Midewin’s pioneer homesteads and cemeteries – as I do today with Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Alliance – I can’t help but wonder what the pioneer farmers who now fertilize the soil of Midewin with their remains might have had to say on the subject.

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Certainly, the Morgans and Hoffmans and Jacksons and Reeds and Klinglers were intent upon feeding their families and making a buck. But even as they began to tame the land, did they save a little patch of prairie for its bouquet of summer blossoms? Did they look up from their work from time to time to listen to the burbling calls of bobolinks or upland sandpipers? Did they relish falling asleep to the sleigh bell-like choruses of spring peepers?

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Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what provided them a moment of joy as they went about the backbreaking work of draining the boggy land and busting the prairie sod. And perhaps, if you happen to believe in such things, beneath their prairie markers, within the secret places of their mouldering hearts, they, too, joy to witness the prairie, the upland sandpipers and the spring peepers returning and flourishing on the land.

A Thousand Suns

The last time I hiked the several miles from Iron Bridge Trailhead to South Patrol Road Prairie was back in early March. It was a little cooler then. My guess is because the landscape lacked the thousand suns that rise up out of the prairie every summer.

Back in March, Midewin was a lifeless, barren brown.

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Today, the second-year Iron Bridge Prairie is ablaze with color.

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Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

In the miles between these two (of several) prairie restorations at Midewin, there remain vast swaths of pasture grasses and a bumper crop of non-native Queen Anne’s lace. Until such areas may be re-born as prairie, they are managed as vital grassland bird habitat.

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Because Midewin is so big and resources not unlimited, some areas are less well managed at the moment. But even these are instructive. The dense tangle of invasive plants, trees and shrubs is a living argument against “letting nature take its course.”

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A little further on lies South Patrol Road Prairie. About a decade old, it is  the living counter-argument for recovering the health of our native plant communities. Back in March, a bunch of volunteers hand-broadcast native wetland seed throughout the low-lying areas in the prairie.

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Later that month, the Forest Service broadcast additional native seed throughout the upland areas.

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Today, these kinds of on-going management activities make for increasingly perfect pictures of ecological health.

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Cup plant earns its name from its leaves, which capture dew and rainwater. But it’s the dozen suns atop 10-foot stalks that most capture my imagination.

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Prairie dock might well have been called elephant ears for the large, leathery leaves at the base of the plant. But rivaling cup plants in height, this prairie dock specimen boasts several planet-like buds surrounding its own flowering sun.

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Both prairie dock and cup plant, however, look up to compass plant, which can top out at 12 feet tall.

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Other joys in the summer prairie universe include the dangling, multi-hued flowers of big bluestem.

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And prairie blazing star rising, rocket-like, from a  cosmos of yellow coneflowers.

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So, whether it’s all the blossoming suns or that other sun that makes for such a hot, sweaty walk, I don’t much care. A few months ago, I was freezing my butt off out here sowing wet prairie seed. And too soon, all the prairie suns will fade and die back to the earth. And all the birds and butterflies will leave us.

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And I’ll miss the all the color and heat of this fleeting summer season.

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Prairie Speculators

david hunterOne of the many joys of Midewin is walking in the footsteps of those who came before. Like David Hunter. Like most of the original landowners in the lands that comprise Midewin, he was a speculator from Chicago. Unlike most of his fellow speculators, he not only held on to his original land purchase for a longer time, he actually expanded his holdings. Even as he re-entered the army and eventually pre-empted President Lincoln in freeing the slaves.

With the help of Lorin Schab, executive director of the Midewin Heritage Alliance, I’ve identified the succession of landowners on select parcels at Midewin, from the mid-1830’s through 1940 when all of the landowners were compelled to sell their land to the federal government to establish the largest and most sophisticated arsenal in the world.

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Much of South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration area at Midewin – was owned originally by David Hunter. A graduate of West Point, Colonel Hunter first arrived in Chicago in 1824. Posted at Fort Dearborn, he met and became engaged to Maria Kinzie, daughter of John Kinzie, one of the pioneer settlement’s most wealthy and respected businessmen. After several postings elsewhere throughout the Midwest, Hunter resigned his commission, returned to Chicago, married his fiancée, and went into business with his brother-in-law.

On the heels of investing in the building of the most luxurious hotel in Chicago – the Lake House Hotel – in 1836 Hunter joined fellow speculators in gobbling up land all along the proposed route of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Hunter began with 320 acres in Section 14 of Wilmington Township. Soon thereafter, he acquired the balance of the section, bringing his total acreage to 640.

A year later, the national economy collapsed, largely due to rampant land speculation. (Sound familiar?) Hunter held onto his Wilmington land for a while longer – likely leasing it for cattle pasturage since Will County then was an up an coming dairy region – but sought to secure his future by returning to the army.

Following nearly 20 uneventful years in the paymaster corps, in 1860 he wrote to a presidential candidate by the name of A. Lincoln, warning him of potential threats against his life. In return for his concern, Hunter was among those who accompanied president-elect Lincoln on his two-week train ride to be inaugurated in Washington.

david hunter 2Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Hunter was awarded command of a brigade of New York Volunteers. According to some military historians, the lack of troops – underpinned by his punishing approach to war and his abolitionist leanings – led to his issuing a military general order freeing the slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina; an order that was promptly rescinded by President Lincoln.

Following the war, Hunter accompanied the body of Lincoln back to Springfield, where the slain president would rest following his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Thereafter, Hunter was appointed to head up the military court to try the remaining conspirators, resulting in four being hanged and four being sent to prison.

General Hunter never set foot in Illinois again. When he died at the age of 83 in 1886, his 640 acres of Wilmington pastureland had been broken up. Maybe it was John Bovee who first planted the hedgerows to keep his cattle out of the fields owned by R. R. Clark. Maybe it was Edward Collins or his son James Collins, who added yet more hedgerows. Or John P. Kelly. Or Frank Shields. Or R.C. Maley.

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What we do know is that the cottonwood trees that grew up along those hedgerows began growing once the army took control of the property. We know this by counting the rings in those trees that were cut down this past winter. Many of the larger trees have around 70 rings, which dates them to early 1940 – the year the arsenal was established.

Removing the hedgerow trees and all of their brushy undergrowth is part of the on-going effort to open up the landscape and return it to the way it looked when Hunter first paid $1.25 an acre to own a piece of it.

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Prairie Skyscrapers

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This morning, I helped plant 3,000 prairie plant plugs, courtesy of a grant from the US Forest Foundation. Each plant plug stood no more than six inches high. It often takes plants a few years to reach their full height, because much of their initial energy goes into developing their extensive root systems, which can reach depths of 15 feet.

Just across the road where we’re planting plugs lies South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration area at Midewin. Among the nearly 200 native prairie species now flourishing there are some of the skyscraper species that put the “tall” in the “tallgrass prairie.” For a taste…

Here are rattlesnake master and compass plant seedlings.

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Here is rattlesnake master full grown. I can look its clusters of prickly flowers right in the eye.

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Here’scompass plant, its rays of yellow blossoms like little suns atop a stalk rising to a height of 12 feet.

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Common milkweed is not among the tallest prairie plants, but from the right angle it looks as if it may have been designed by the architect of modernist, mid-rise skyscrapers.

Yellow coneflowers rise to a height of only four feet, but who can resist their petals fluttering in the summer wind like Native American prayer ties.

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The Prairie and the Pea (and the Butterfly)

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Eight o’clock in the morning and already we’re sweating through our shirts. But we’re on a mission. To find a needle in a haystack – a seed pod about the size of a pea in a sea of tall prairie grasses. The return of an endangered butterfly depends upon us.

Finding wild garlic plants is pretty easy. If you know where to look. And Midewin ecologist Bill Glass does. He and other volunteers previously marked the location of remnant populations of these native plants. The clusters of rosy, corn nut-like seeds stand atop tall stalks about waist high. They pop off easily in your hand. We don’t harvest all the seed, leaving some to naturally re-seed the area. But each of us comes away with a tidy sackful.

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Searching for prairie violet seed is much more difficult. To begin with, it’s an uncommon native plant in northern Illinois. Fortunately, a few remain at Midewin. But they’re hard to find even when marked. Now that the purple blossoms are done, all that’s left are the fingered leaves for identification. And those leaves are on stems no more than six inches high. And those stems are all but lost in grasses and forbs that reach three to four feet in height.

And even when you do find one, not every plant has a seed pod. Or at least a seed pod ready to harvest. About the size of a pea, the whitish-green pod is ready to harvest if it is pointing up. It’s not yet ready if it’s bowed downward. Then, too, some seed pods have already opened, releasing a small quantity of tiny seeds onto the earth.

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After an hour-long search, we come away with fewer than a dozen seed pods. As Bill explained, there are very few commercial sources for the prairie violet or its seed. If you want it, you have to grow it. And that’s exactly what Midewin’s going to do – add it to the growing number of plant species it cultivates in its seed beds.

The ultimate goal is to cultivate enough seed and plants to establish a sustainable population of prairie violets in restoration areas such as South Patrol Road Prairie. But why? Why is this one, uncommon plant so important to add to the nearly 200 of species of native prairie plants already established?

regal fritillary butterfly larvaBecause violets are the sole food source for the larva of the regal fritillary butterfly. Once common in the prairies of Illinois, the regal fritillary is now officially listed as a threatened species in the Prairie State.

To return the regal fritillary to Midewin – as the Peggy Noteabaert Nature Museum did last year at Paintbrush Prairie Nature Preserve in Markham, Illinois – requires establishing a viable population of prairie violets. And that requires first enduring a hot and humid day in search of a few pea-sized seed pods. No sweat.



About this time last year, I came across a newborn fawn at Midewin. Perhaps only a few hours old, it was nestled in tall grasses alongside Turtle Pond; too new in this world to be afraid of the large, two-legged creature staring down at it from three feet away. Wondering if lightning might strike twice, I retuned to Turtle Pond this year in the hope of glimpsing another fresh fawn.

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Not a hundred feet down Chicago Road, which leads to Turtle Pond, I hear a rustle in the roadside grass. A few seconds later, a spotted fawn appears. A little older, but still lovely. Intoxicatingly cute. Truly, you just can’t help but grin like a child.

For me, such chance encounters are the true treasures of life. Chicken soup for the soul. Call them what you will, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for all the world. Even as I wrestle with the fact that as adults, deer are highly destructive.

Deer are voracious. They eat five to nine pounds of vegetation a day. Nearly hunted to extinction in Illinois in the 1800s, there are now more white-tailed deer in our state than at any time in history. To make matters worse, they are concentrated in our remaining natural areas, which amount to but a fraction of their original territory. As a result, many of our natural areas are virtually devoid of vegetation up to the height a deer can reach with its sharp incisors.

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At Midewin, the native plant seed beds – like those next to Turtle Pond – must be fenced off from deer, which would eat virtually every plant in sight.

So, where I see cute in a fawn, natural area land managers tend to see a future pest to be controlled. And so they turn to hunters, who are just as likely to see a future trophy. Or meat.

hunter safety card

This past January, I passed my hunter safety training toward the goal of going on my first deer hunt. I don’t need the meat. And I certainly don’t want the trophy. But I realize that we, as a people, have created the conditions that allow deer populations to explode. Left uncontrolled, deer will effectively undo all the dollars and hard work invested at places like Midewin to make them havens for a full spectrum of living creatures, both plant and animal.

And so the herd must be culled. And while some might view the opportunity to do so as sport, and others as an ecological necessity, to me the need to do so presents more of an ethical and emotional challenge. And so, later this fall, while sitting cold and silent in a deer blind, hours before the dawn, waiting for my prey, I’m sure I’ll spend no small amount of time thinking back to a warm summer day and the large, liquid eyes of an exquisite creature.

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Me Like it Wet

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What’s not to like? Sunk ankle-deep in mud. Fighting mosquitoes the size of small aircraft. Bent over for a couple of hours planting hundreds of tiny seedlings. All while surrounded by the largest crop of ragweed you’re likely ever to see in your life?  Oh, and did I mention free pizza? That’s a good time, my friends. That’s recovering the health of a premier wet prairie at Midewin.

Earlier this year, miles of drain tile were removed from a 460-acre parcel known as Grant Creek, which had kept the pastureland drier and more productive for raising cattle. Now, fueled by a pretty wet spring and early summer, water once again is pooling on the surface of the earth. Just as it did prior to settlement more than 150 years ago.

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It’s into these wet areas we venture, with rubber boots and rubber gloves. To plant some 70 different species of wetland-loving plants. We work in pairs, one person to dig the hole with an auger, the other to place in the hole a tiny seedling.

Volunteers and staff work side by side. Rolling up his sleeves, Paul Botts, executive director of The Wetlands Initiative, teams up with Midewin ecologist Bill Glass. I set to work with Jeff, who oversees brush removal at Midewin, on flats of winged liatris and some kind of sedge. Dig a hole. Pop a plant plug into it. Backfill, making sure the crown of the plant is just below the surface. Repeat.

In spite of the monster-sized mosquitoes, it’s a perfect day to be in the field. Last year, during Phase I planting, we sweltered under full sun, high temps and humidity. This year, it’s cool and overcast. A long-sleeved shirt and a little bug spray keep the worst of the skeeters at bay. Rubber boots keep our feet dry. And the rampant ragweed is nowhere near to blooming, so there’s no immediate threat of allergic reaction.

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But this is how it’s done. This is how you return a pasture with a handful of weedy plant species back to a functioning wet prairie, with more than 100 species of plants, and untold species of related insects, herps and birds. Even at this early stage of restoration, the bobolinks and other grassland birds are nearly thick as flies. We even found a dickcissel nest sporting a clutch of sky-blue eggs.

When it’s lunchtime, Jerry Heinrich, president of the Midewin Alliance, provides the two dozen volunteers and staff of both the US Forest Service and The Wetlands Initiative, with free pizza. Delivered to our wetland. That’s service.

And after lunch, I take a walk with TWI’s Senior Ecologist, Gary Sullivan, through the Phase I area planted last year. He points out some of the early colonizer plants that have established themselves. Black-eyed Susans. Ohio Spiderwort. And many other native forbs.

All these beautiful wildflowers amid a rage of annual farm weeds, which still must be controlled. Probably by mowing. Including the ragweed before it blossoms and sets seed. But this is all part of the process. In time, with proper management, the perennial native plants will be strong and numerous enough to out-compete the annual non-native weeds, and the wet prairie will be well on its way to nature haven.

A Tale of Two Aliens

OK. So I’m a bird snob. I admit it. Aside from the occasional cardinal, mourning dove or goldfinch – or once in a blue moon, some passing-through warbler – the only birds to visit my backyard pond are house sparrows and starlings. The avian equivalents of garlic mustard and buckthorn.

house sparrow with stop sign I admit I harbor deeply unpleasant thoughts about the house sparrow. The first 50 pairs of this Eurasian-originated bird were intentionally released in Brooklyn, NY in 1851. Within two decades, the house sparrow was the most populous bird species in Illinois and many other states. As early as 1891, Illinois put a bounty on the head of this noisy, obnoxious bird for its devouring of livestock feed and decimation of many native bird species. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Even as I write this, a specimen of this Satan species is perched just outside my window, its incessantly repetitive shrieks of a call like having a gym teacher from hell blowing short, sharp whistle bursts directly in your ear every two seconds.

Deeply unpleasant thoughts.

And so I escape as often as I can to Midewin, to bask in the company of birds. Native birds. Midewin is big enough and diverse enough in its habitats – even at this early stage of recovery – to accommodate lots of different kinds of native birds. I’ve seen more than 100 different species so far this year. Many of them at risk because of non-native species, both plants and birds.

Yes, there are non-native birds at Midewin, too. Like starlings, for instance. First released in America in 1890 by some New Yorkers obsessed with introducing all of the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, this species expanded into Illinois by 1922 and today effectively saturates the entire state.

During spring and fall, you’re likely to find them in great, locust-like swarms.

At Midewin, starlings flock around the cows. Or, more accurately, around the cow pies, feasting on the bugs they attract. ‘Zounds, what would Shakespeare think of that?

While the debate around the issue of native vs. non-native (or exotic or alien) species is a complex and often heated one, for me, the key difference between the two is naturally-introduced vs. introduced by humans. In contrast to house sparrows and European starlings, the cattle egret made it to Midewin all on its own. Native to subtropical Africa and Asia, this species found its evolutionary niche in foraging in the wake of zebras, wildebeests and other large mammals.

With the spread of domesticated cattle herding, the eponymously-named cattle egret greatly expanded its territory on it own. It first made it to North American shores in 1941. Today, this smallest of our “native” egrets, is found at Midewin.

cattle egret 3As widespread as the cattle egret has become, it doesn’t cause crop damage, as do sparrows and starlings. It doesn’t compete with native bird species, such as bluebirds and woodpeckers, leading to their demise. In fact, this morning, while monitoring grassland birds, I enjoy watching an evolutionary symbiotic relationship unfold: a cattle egret nipping insects directly from the hides of the local herd. While starlings pick their vittles out of the poop.

Little House and a Prairie

At first glance there may not seem a lot in common between Midewin and an historic Pullman rowhouse. Midewin is a 20,000-acre natural area. A rowhouse – like the one I just finished rehabbing with the help of two gifted loved ones – is 1,100 square feet of, well, house. In their original conditions, however, both were exceptionally beautiful. But after more than a century of alterations, both were in pretty poor shape. And it takes far more time to restore them than you might think.

My initial guess was that it would take us six months to restore the rowhouse. That was back in 2008. Two and a half years later, we finally finished.

What took so much time?

Well, let’s start with the bathroom. In building what the Times of London described as “the most perfect town in the world,” railcar magnate George Pullman provided indoor plumbing in each one of the 900 rowhouses he built for his workers and their families. As far as I know, however, there exist no pictures of any original bathrooms.

But it’s safe to say they didn’t look anything like the disaster we inherited. What we ended up doing was gutting the entire bathroom – every groady fixture, every jerry-rigged pipe – and then building everything brand new.


So, too, for instance, with Grant Creek restoration at Midewin. There are no photographs of the landscape in its original condition (although there are solid hints in historic survey reports, topographic maps, and the like.) But certainly we know the pasture forage on site was non-native. Like the rowhouse bathroom, restoration of Grant Creek began by wiping the slate clean; herbiciding all of the non-native vegetation and removing the underground drain tile, which had altered the original hydrology. This has been followed by planting new seed and plugs.

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Room by room at the rowhouse, out went the non-original alterations. In went the new and the restored. New hardwood floors. New kitchen. New downstairs powder room. New roof. New electric. New plumbing. New windows. New heating/AC.

I realize all this may not seem like much if you’re not familiar with doing the work yourself. But, let me tell ya, it takes a long time to disassemble an original oak banister, strip 10 coats of paint from its intricate millwork, followed by repairing the breaks, sanding everything smooth, applying several finish coats of oil, and reinstalling them.

It takes time to ascertain the dimensions of the original vestibule that someone had torn out, and rebuild it, using a salvaged original door, which likewise had to be stripped of countless coats of paint, sanded, and repainted with primer and two finish coats.

Just as it takes time – exponentially more time – to undo alterations on a landscape scale, and begin to put back in place the correct and correct balance of hundreds of different plant species. At least with the rowhouse, we didn’t have to worry about someone coming in and undoing our work. At Midewin, even well restored areas must be regularly managed to keep invasive species from taking over again.

Two and a half years it took us to restore an 1,100 square foot home to its original splendor. Midewin is 871,200,000 square feet. It’s going to take a little longer.