Peace Dividend

joliet arsenal entry gateIt’s safe to say that if not for war, Midewin wouldn’t exist. A hundred years after pioneers swept away the prairie in favor of soybeans, corn and cattle, the US Army swept away farmers in favor of the largest and most sophisticated munitions complex in the world.

On the eve of the United States entering WWII, there existed only six munitions plants in the country. To ramp up for the war effort, the federal government would build 77 more.

In September 1940, farmers in the Wilmington area were more or less compelled to sell their land for $1.25/acre with 60 days to move out. The government would eventually buy about 450 parcels totaling nearly 37,000 acres of prime Illinois farmland.

joliet arsenal assembly lineOn the east side of Route 53, the Kankakee Ordnance Works set a record for producing over one billion pounds of TNT. On the west side, the Elwood Ordnance Plant packed that TNT into nearly a billion bombs, shells and mines. (Later on, the combined works would be known as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.)

To accomplish this mind-boggling output, the Army erected nearly 2,000 structures and employed about five times as many people.

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Attending today’s “Ghosts of the Ammunition Plant” tour, there’s a couple who worked at the plant in the 1960s. They, like the rest of us, have come to see what’s left of the old arsenal buildings.

Our tour guide for today is Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Association. Every historic site should be so lucky to have a Lorin – an engaging walking encyclopedia of all things arsenal (and pioneer and cemetery) history.

Leading us through old arsenal buildings and igloos – massive, earth-covered, concrete bunkers where ammunition was stored – Lorin regales us with facts and stories about everything from how bombs were constructed, to the softball leagues the workers organized on site, to the 1942 explosion that took 48 worker lives.

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One by one, the old arsenal buildings are being torn down as prairie restoration continues. If I were a religious man, I might be tempted to point hopefully to Biblical passages about beating “swords into ploughshares.” (A ploughshare being as important a tool to prairie restoration as it is to farming.) But elsewhere in the Bible, it’s all about the reverse: beating “ploughshares into swords.”


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We’ve certainly experienced both at Midewin. And it seems good and right to remember and honor both. Even as so much of the world appears hell-bent on war at the moment. A fact that is never far from mind as the carillon, and Taps, and 21-gun salutes from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery often can be heard across the former farmland, the former arsenal land, the once and future prairie land of Midewin.

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Scurfy Peas and Prairie Violets

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Scurfy pea. Sounds like a character right out of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Actually, it’s a native prairie plant. Uncommon in Illinois, its growth and development are slow. Which is why we’re planting it in new raised seed beds today.

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Midewin currently cultivates about 120 different native prairie plant species in three seed bed areas. A few days ago, I joined a Cub Scout troop and a handful of other volunteers planting purple prairie clover and marsh goldenrod in the River Road Seed Beds.

Some species, however, don’t fare well in these locations. The soil is too rich, or the competition from weeds and even other prairie plants is too fierce.

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And so it is with scurfy pea, which we interplant with little bluestem in a lighter, sandier soil mix. Little bluestem will help keep weeds at bay and also provide fuel for a future controlled burn; scurfy pea being a species that responds particularly well to fire.

In the middle of the bed we plant prairie violet. Hang around Midewin long enough and you get to touch different species at different points in their life cycles. Earlier this year, out in the field, I helped gather a little seed from this even more rare native species. Others cleaned and planted the seeds in trays. Today, we’re planting the seedling plugs. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to gather prairie violet seed out of the raised beds and start the process all over. Ditto the next year and the year after that.

Because we need lots of prairie violets in our prairie restorations at Midewin. LOTS. Once we have LOTS, we may have the chance to reintroduce the regal fritillary butterfly, whose caterpillars feed exclusively on violets.

And because prairie violets are such a diminutive plant – topping out at three to six inches – they can be dwarfed and overrun by other species. And so, to give them a leg up, we’ve raised them up into these new seed beds.

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Staring down at the seedlings we’d just spent a few hours planting under an unforgiving sun,  it can be hard to imagine a prairie. Especially when you glance up at the hundreds upon hundreds of acres awaiting restoration.

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But this is how it begins. A few volunteers. A few dedicated staff. A handful of fragile seedlings. Add sunshine and rain. Repeat as needed. And eventually…

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Prairie Pilgrim’s Progress Pt. 2

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I know of no forest school of architecture. Nor wetland school. Nor savanna, nor bog, nor fen, nor dune nor panne. But there is a Prairie School of architecture. Originated in Chicago, but inspired by the dominant landscape of the entire Midwest. And no prairie pilgrimage worth its salt would be complete without a day spent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin.

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No architect is more closely associated with the Prairie School than Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright preferred the term “organic architecture,” meaning that beyond serving the individual needs of the client, his work should reflect “the nature of the site and the native materials available.” Thus were born his many “Prairie Houses” – their low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, natural materials and often long rows of casement windows reflecting the long, low horizontal prairie on which they sat.

Just minutes away from American Players Theatre (see Prairie Pilgrim’s Progress Pt. 1) lies Taliesin. Welsh for “Shining Brow,” it served as Wright’s home and studio for many years, and today continues to anchor the architecture school he founded.

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As an indication of just how deeply the Midwest landscape influenced his work, in his autobiography Wright recalled that “As a boy I learned to know the ground plan of the region in every line and feature.  For me now its elevation is the modeling of the hills, the weaving and fabric that clings to them, the look of it all in tender green or covered with snow or in full glow of summer that bursts into the glorious blaze of autumn.  I still feel myself as much a part of it as the trees and birds and bees are, and the red barns.”

There are no Frank Lloyd Wright homes at Midewin. (The closest one is the B. Harley Bradley House in Kankakee.) But Midewin affords the kind of unique source material that inspired Wright. And many others. And not just architects.

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Midewin attracts birders, botanists, girl scouts and boy scouts, ecologists, historians, church groups and civic groups, artists, photographers, former arsenal workers and volunteer restorationists.

The list goes on and on. Because Midewin – even at this early stage in its recovery, even beyond the rare birds and recently-discovered new plant species and hands-on opportunities to heal a landscape – affords a big sky, an unbounded horizon and solitude. The chance to be alone with your own thoughts and the healing earth. To be inspired. Rejuvenated. That’s my kind of school.

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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.

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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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