Oh, good people. Let’s to the fields of Midewin. Spring is springing.
At first blush, the landscape may look rather grey and uninviting, but look first with your ears. The meadowlarks have returned and are among the earliest songbirds to fill the air with their melodies: sol-ti-do-mi-do. (For those of you who know solfege, feel free to sing along.)
Not to be outdone, song sparrows throw back their heads and let loose with a tuneful blend of whistles, chirps and buzzes.
If songbirds are today’s featured soloists, downy woodpeckers peep piccolo-like descants, the wing beats of wood ducks are fluttering flutes, red-winged blackbirds ratchet out a rhythm, and chorus frogs comprise the back-up band.
With its wings spread wide as it glides low over the prairie, a northern harrier seems less hunter than conductor. A coyote cocks its head and listens intently. For a mouse? A vole? Or, might she, too, be taking a moment out of her day to delight in the sounds, sights and smells of early spring?
For me, this moment, this clear, warming morning, this natural symphony is underscored by a leitmotif that runs involuntarily through my mind; the opening line of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Like Leopold, I cannot. And for that, on this day before Easter, I give thanks for Midewin and the return, the recovery, the resurrection of my native prairie state. Amen.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.)
And for those who require something distinctly more church-like, may I recommend a Jack in the pulpit.
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.