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.
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.
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.
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.”