The Fall

In religious circles, “the fall” gets such a bum rap. Adam and Even disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, therefore everyone born into the world is tainted by this fall, this original sin.


Me, I find nothing but grace, redemption and beauty in the fall at Midewin, my Garden of Eden.


The air crisp. The sun warm. Autumnal colors sharp against the crystalline-blue sky. There is no blood red to compare with Virginia creeper in October.


There is no royal robe so purple as common asters.


There is no gold so precious as sneezeweed. Or one of a dozen or more native goldenrods.


Somehow, even the oranges and ambers seem more vibrant and alive when glimpsed from the inside of one of the old munitions bunkers remaining from the Joliet Arsenal days.


And is there any more handsome head dress to be found than atop a white-crowned sparrow?


Is there any more hopeful sign of the prairie’s recovery than the imminent return of bison?


Just as hopeful and beautiful are the tiny creatures that call Midewin home, such as this banded garden spider backlit while suspended within its translucent web.


I am not alone this sacred day. Nor should I be. Midewin is a welcoming place for birders, hikers and horse-people, alike.


Midewin is a place of retreat and refuge and rejuvenation. And even as the prairie grasses and flowers begin to fade, I find great comfort and strength in their sending their energy underground, into their roots, deep into the prairie soils. So, too, as I walk through the autumnal prairie do I feel my own energies at one with the healing earth of Midewin. I am grateful for this fall.


And the Walls Come A-tumblin’ Down

bunker demolition 1Unlike the fabled walls of Jericho, it takes more than blowing a trumpet to bring down the bunker walls at Midewin.  Knocking down walls meant to withstand – or at least direct – accidental explosions of armaments requires big bucks and heavy equipment.

From a distance, the bunkers – or igloos or magazines – of Midewin seem sort of natural. Like moguls. Or glacial kames. To those with a literary bent, they blend into the landscape as seamlessly as Hobbit homes of Middle Earth.

110731 bunker view

120211 bunker front

Up close, it’s easier to see them for what they were – each one a mini-fortress to cure TNT and harbor bombs. Each bunker is made of concrete reinforced with rebar. The walls are 12 inches thick near the rounded top and flare to 15 inches at the base below ground. The theory was that in the event of an accidental explosion, the force of the blast would be directed upwards rather than to the sides, which would lessen the likelihood of a chain reaction among neighboring bunkers.

120211 bunker graphic

All the interior widths measure 26 ½ feet, but the bunkers vary in length – between 40 and 80 feet – depending on what was stored in them. The bunkers on the west side of Midewin – the site of the Kankakee Ordnance Works – typically harbored “various chemicals and compound products that went into the making of bombs and other armaments.” Bunkers on the east side – the site of the Elwood Ordnance Plant – generally held finished shells and bombs.

120211 bunker interior

Topping off each bunker is a layer of soil approximately 2 ½ feet thick. This helps keep the interior at a constant temperature, which was as good for storing ammunition as it is for over-wintering prairie plants.

When Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service inherited nearly 400 bunkers (along with about 1,500 arsenal-era buildings and related infrastructure.) To date, several bunkers have been demolished as part of an effort to restore a rare dolomite prairie.

Currently, the National Forest Foundation has secured the funding to help the Forest Service take down several more bunkers – the first of about 50 that need to be removed to restore a 2,000-acre inholding to its native prairie state.

Once this 2,000-acre parcel is restored, it will link existing restoration areas – South Patrol Road Prairie, Lobelia Meadows and Grant Creek – comprising the largest, contiguous stretch of tallgrass prairie in the entire state of Illinois.

Now that’s something to trumpet.

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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.

120630 arsenal building

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.

120630 green frog

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.”

120630 building II

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.”

120630 arsenal monument

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.

120630 heron rookery

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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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.)

abe lincoln

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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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.

120211 bunker field

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.

120211 bunker side view

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.

120211 bunker interior

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.

120211 bunker view pond
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.


120211 bunker view osage orange
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.


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.

joliet arsenal entry gate now

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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110629 arsenal deconstruction
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.”


abraham lincoln cemetery 1

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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A Grace of Egrets

great egretSandhill cranes. Great Egrets. Scarlet tanagers. These are but a few of the many birds I saw today at Midewin; birds that have returned hand in hand with the slow but steady recovery of the prairies, wetlands and woodlands they need to survive.

It seems crazy. But when Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation. Most of the land had been intensively farmed for more than a century. And much had been further altered during the arsenal years, when countless bombs and more than a million tons of TNT were manufactured on site.

It takes a long time, a lot of careful planning, and plenty of sweat equity to recover the ecological health of land that has been so degraded. Especially on such a massive scale. To date, about 2,500 acres of Midewin are under active restoration. Including Grant Creek.

According to Gary Sullivan, Senior Ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative – a key partner in several restoration efforts at Midewin – the 470 acres of Grant Creek were largely used for pastureland. Even with the installation of drain tiles, the area was less than ideal for rowcrops because water continued to pool on the land and the bedrock limestone, in some areas, was only six inches beneath the surface.

110516 tile removing equipment

110516 drain tiles 2

Earlier this year, TWI, working in concert with the US Forest Service, removed more than a mile of drain tiles along with tree- and shrub-infested hedgerows. Following several applications of herbicide to knock back pernicious weeds such as leafy spurge, the site has been seeded with numerous native species adapted for the mix of wet and dry prairie that research suggests was original to the site.

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Among the next steps is the hand planting of 68,000 plugs – seedlings of many different native species. Some of those plugs were delivered today by Fromm-Huff Farm, Inc., a downstate supplier that deals exclusively in native plants. Although I  am here to interview TWI staff for an article I’m writing for Outdoor Illinois, I can’t help but roll up my sleeves and help unload nearly 300 flats of plant plugs. In the next couple of weeks, I imagine I’ll be back out here for a volunteer workday to begin hand planting those plugs out in the recovering prairie.

110516 grant creek with foundation stones

Before I leave, I take a long, last look at Grant Creek. At this very early stage of recovery, the site might look to the casual observer little more than a fallow farm field, with the remains of a 19th century school house on the horizon.

110516 golden alexanders

Upon closer inspection, however, one can see sure signs of what’s to come. Golden Alexanders are in bloom.

And native sedges and rushes once again flourish in wet swales graced by a trinity of miraculously white great egrets.

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110516 egrets

Beauties and Mysteries

110503 trailhead sign

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie isn’t just about nature. Its 20,000 acres lie at the crossroads of many different stories. Setting off from Explosives Road trailhead speaks directly to the site’s former life as the largest and most sophisticated munitions plant in the country. Within a quarter mile south along the Newton Loop Trail, you come upon one of several cemeteries that remain from pioneer settler days.

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Newton Cemetery is named for the one body buried there. Or maybe not. A local paper announced that George C. Newton died at the age of 31 on December 17, 1865. Originally from Vermont, he was a beekeeper who lived with his mother and stepfather on a farmstead in the vicinity.  Whether he was actually buried there, or whether his family erected a marker as a memorial remains unknown.

hairy woodpecker

No doubt Mr. Newton once walked this land as I do, today. Perhaps while tending his bees on just such a spring day – the perfect balance between cool air and warm sunshine – he, too, took time to delight in a hairy woodpecker chasing after a house wren that seems bent on annoying the larger bird with a non-stop spate of scolding churrs.

house wren

blue grosbeak 1

However, in all likelihood Mr. Newton would not have seen a blue grosbeak. This robin-sized bird with silver beak, cobalt body and chestnut wingbars – flitting back and forth between weedy shrubs and arsenal-era barbed wire fencing – is a rarity at Midewin even today. It has been gradually expanding its range into northern Illinois only since the early 20th century. No one’s sure exactly why. Perhaps because of climate change. Perhaps because of its ability to adapt to former farmland gone shrubby or powerline cuts through wooded areas. It’s as much as mystery as what brought Mr. Newton to such an untimely end.

Later in the evening, at the annual meeting for bird monitors, Ecologist Bill Glass explains that while the management plan for Midewin calls for thousands of acres of land to be restored as prairie, at 20,000 acres Midewin is large enough to leave plenty of shrubland habitat. The prairie restoration is vital, of course, for grassland birds, which, as a group, has declined over the past 30 years by up to 95 percent in Illinois due to habitat loss. However, shrubland birds – such as blue grosbeaks – are likewise imperiled because of a lack of adequate places to feed, rest and rear their young.

crescent moon

After the meeting, I head back out into the prairie, into the night, turning my attention from bird monitoring to frog monitoring. Last time I was out, every pond and puddle seemed to harbor its own Mormon Tabernacle Choir of chorus frogs. Tonight there’s not much more than a few scattered calls here and there.

At Buttonbush Pond, in fact, there’s no frog song at all. But there is the slap of a beaver tail on the water that sounds like a pistol shot. And the calming hoot of a great horned owl. And the thinnest crescent of a new moon reflected in the still water of the pond.

In past entries, I’ve quoted poets ranging from Gerard Manley Hopkins to my good friend Jim Ballowe. But this evening, with thoughts of Mr. Newton and the beauties and mysteries of the day in mind, my internal playlist tracks to a little Neil Diamond:

And each one there
Has one thing to share
They all sweated beneath the same sun
Looked up in wonder at the same moon
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon
For bein’ done

Out of the Bunker and into the Light

110331 bunker interior 1

One of my favorite rites of spring. The annual moving of native plants out of the bunkers. During the arsenal years, the bunkers stored TNT or finished bombs. The reinforced concrete bunkers, covered with earth, are just as perfect for overwintering plant plugs.  The cool, constant temperatures allow the plants to go dormant during the winter, as they need to do, but keep the root plugs from heaving in the natural freeze and thaw fluctuations of winter.

And so, as the sun warms the morning from a start of 27 degrees to what will top out at 50, more than a dozen volunteers and staff pile into trucks and vans and venture deep into the east side of Midewin. Some of the bunkers are open to visitors to explore. But the one we visited has been sealed up since last fall. It takes two pairs of strong arms to unwedge its explosion-resistant locking mechanism. And then, with all the excitement of opening an ancient tomb, the heavy steel door groans open.

110331 bunker exterior

But rather than dead things, the bunker is filled with trays upon trays of native plants that are but sleeping. Many hands make light work and soon the bunker is empty and a truck and trailer filled to the brim.

Back at the “Hort Building,” we unload the plants into one of several outdoor shade houses, where diffused sunlight and warmer temperatures, along with a little water, will wake the roots and send new green sprouts into the world.

Over the course of the next couple of months, there will be plenty of workdays to plant these plugs in seed beds or one of several areas under active restoration.

110331 shade house

Happy Birthday

I turned 51 today. To celebrate, I took advantage of the unseasonable sunshine and 40 degrees temperature to take a day-long hike at Midewin.

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Within a half mile of the Iron Bridge Trailhead, you can take in a bit of what Midewin was, is, and yet will be. And the limited palette of early March – before everything starts growing again – affords the opportunity to see such things more clearly; sort of like how certain details are clearer in black and white rather than color photographs.

Within a few steps of starting out, you can peruse the foundations of one of the early farmsteads, most of which were moved or torn down once the land was acquired by the federal government at the start of World War II.

Beyond that lies a bunker field that once harbored armaments during the Joliet arsenal years.

110301 prairie pasture view

Heading west, the trail – itself a raised railbed relict from the arsenal years – forms a dividing line between pasture and prairie. To the north is one of the more recent prairie restoration efforts – Iron Bridge Prairie. Even dormant, its restored wildness stands in stark contrast to the shorn non-native grasses of the south side pasture lands; lands that one day will be likewise filled with prairie grasses and flowers.

The trail soon thereafter leads to the namesake iron bridge, which spans historic Route 66.

I am welcomed to the west side of Midewin by a half dozen eastern bluebirds – the first I’ve seen this year. And twice as many goldfinches, the males inching toward their lemon yellow breeding colors.

The trail next winds through a large expanse of harvested hay field. Like the pasture land south of the Iron Bridge Prairie, it is managed for agricultural purposes on an interim basis, until such time as the resources are available to recover the native landscape. Until then, the hayfields and cattle pastures provide critical habitat for grassland birds. Today, there’s not a meadowlark, dickcissel or grasshopper sparrow in sight. But, even now, they are on their way from wintering grounds as far away as the rainforests of Brazil.

The trail leads past several former farm fields that now lie fallow. They provide a reminder that “letting nature take its course” inevitably leads not to healthy habitat, but rather to tangled thickets of aggressive non-native species.

110301 brush hog

A few miles into my hike, I come across a work crew tackling some of those thickets. Along with lots of other volunteers, I’ve certainly cut my fair share of brush. But for big jobs – clearing out large sections of woody growth – only big equipment run by professionals will do.

But there are some jobs that must be done by hand. Largely by volunteers. And such work and such a volunteer I find just a little further down the trail. In her second year as trail steward, Margaret spends at least once a week at her site. Today, she’s pulling garlic mustard, a pernicious non-native invasive that can quickly overrun woodland areas, choking out all other native wildflower species.

Another mile or so down the trail, I come to South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration site at Midewin. Today, Midewin crews are over-seeding the site with additional prairie seed, including seed that staff and volunteers have collected and cleaned over the past several months.

It’s heartening to see all this hard work happening today. Next Thursday, I’ll be out here for a volunteer day of brush cutting. But today, I’m content merely to saunter (derived from the 15th century French word santren, “to muse, be in reverie;” to count the returning birds; to find a dry patch of thatch and take to heart Walt Whitman’s invitation “to lean and loaf at my ease.”