Carpenter Park

What better way to celebrate receiving an award for my biography of George Fell than to visit Carpenter Park — one of more than 400 Illinois Nature Preserves for which he provided permanent protection.

But first things first. Receiving an Outstanding Achievement Award for scholarly publications from the Illinois State Historical Society was an exceptional honor — especially since the awards ceremony was held in Representatives Hall in the Old State Capitol. To stand where Lincoln stood when he delivered the “House divided against itself” speech, offering a few words about my own effort to chronicle a small but important sliver of our state’s history — well, that’s a moment I’m going to remember for a long time.

Afterward, my wife and I took advantage of the perfect spring weather and spent the afternoon in the only dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Sangamon County.

Carpenter Park is located along the Sangamon River, about 15 minutes from the Old State Capitol. It is owned and managed by the Springfield Park District, which acquired the site way back in 1922. Prior to that, it was owned by the Carpenter family, who used the river to power a sawmill and a flour mill. Prior to that — because no Springfield, IL history story is worth its salt unless it includes a tie to the 16th President — a young Abraham Lincoln canoed down the Sangamon River, past the modern-day Carpenter Park, on his way to establish his own homestead at New Salem. Prior to that, the Pottawatomie gave the river its name, Sain-guee-mon,  meaning “where there is plenty to eat.”

Today, Carpenter Park is a popular place. Small wonder. Any one of the several trails quickly leads you through an exceptionally rich and varied landscape — from upland forest down to floodplain forest along the river, with seeps and intermittent streams, and scenic sandstone outcrops.

The forest floor was filled with spring ephemerals, including phlox, trillium and buttercup and may apples, to name a few. (The Park District might do well to engage a few Scout troops to pull up invasive garlic mustard, which is threatening to overrun some areas.)

Even more impressive was the number of birds we saw. Carpenter Park is home to at least 82 bird species. We didn’t see quite that many, but it was a joy to spy several red-head woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, many different kinds of warblers, and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

Heroes comes in all different shapes and sizes. Abraham Lincoln was a hero of epic proportions for many things, including keeping the country from being divided. George Fell was a hero in his own right, keeping the the last remnants of our ecological heritage — the prairies, woodlands and wetlands of the Prairie State — from being destroyed.

Il Fait Neige Encore

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The best Christmas present I get every year is a poem from my dear friend, Jim Ballowe. This year’s gift, as with most of Jim’s poems, is liberally laced with images from nature:

“At the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the blue heron, / gangly-legged in the kelp, whipcords an eel / against a rock, then bill pointing skyward / consumes the wriggling whorl in peristaltic comedy / we who lack such a neck can only imagine…”

In its entirety, Jim’s “Pas de Deux” is actually a love poem to his wife, with whom he shares a deep love and appreciation for the natural world and the beautiful drama inherent in it.

Over the years, I’ve written my fair share of poems to lovers, to nature, to lovers of nature. In my salad days, I even attempted one in French, tinged with German and English:

“Il fait neige encore. / Pourquoi? / Peut-etre parce-que la terre / La terre est fatigue / Und mude / And sad…”


Suffice it to say I’m no poet. But hiking through Midewin this winter recalls my youthfully pretentious poem to mind. “Il fait neige encore.” “It’s snowing again.” Not much snow, mind you, but it brings to an end a record 335 consecutive days without at least one inch of snow on the ground. This, coupled with below normal rainfall and one of the hottest summers on record last year has left the landscape of Midewin as dry, as arid, as sere as I’ve ever seen it.

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“Pourquoi?” “Why?” Well, argue with the cause all you may, but this is what climate change looks like. Prairie Creek Pond, a relict ox bow of Prairie Creek, is fast disappearing.

The many ditches that yet run through Midewin, relicts of its farming and arsenal past, have gone completely dry. The mix of wetland and wet prairies that dot many of the restored areas of Midewin are devoid of, well, much of anything that’s wet.

Many people I meet are thrilled that we have “escaped” winter. No snow is first and foremost a matter of personal convenience. No shoveling. No messy commutes to work.

I, too, appreciate not having to shovel snow before commuting to my job downtown. But come springtime, will there be enough water in Prairie Creek Pond to support the full chorus of toads and frogs that fill the cool evening air with melodious mating calls?

Abandoned beaver dam on a relict drainage ditch

Will enough water return to the ditches to support the beaver that made this now-abandoned dam? Will there be enough standing water in South Patrol Road Prairie, Grant Creek Prairie and other restored areas to support returning flocks of ducks, geese, cranes and other water-loving birds?

Even more so than in the poetry of my youth, I see, I sense, I feel a great fatigue in the arid earth. A weariness. A sadness. But what to do? Getting your mind around something as big and complex as climate change can be a real brain cruncher. So much so that putting your head in the sand sometimes seems like a perfectly rationale response: “Ne pas a penser. Ne pas a choisir,” as I concluded in my poem. “To not think. To not choose.”

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Fortunately, there are many dedicated volunteers and staff at Midewin who remind me that restoring such a large, landscape scale site is one of the best ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. And so, I do what I can. I help clean seeds, plant prairie plugs, cut buckthorn, yank garlic mustard and monitor grassland birds.

If I were to write a French poem today about how it feels to help recover healthy populations of native plants and animals at Midewin, it might go something like this:




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Earth Day at Midewin

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If it’s April, it must be time to pull garlic mustard. Even at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which contains several stands of remnant woodland areas.

Garlic mustard is a pretty plant, with clusters of white flowers atop slender stalks swirled with heart-shaped, scalloped-edged leaves. Introduced as a culinary herb, its leaves make for a nice, garlic-tinged pesto.

But particularly in this instance, looks (and taste) can be deceptive. Non-native to North America, garlic mustard escaped the kitchen gardens of early settlers and invaded woodlands throughout the northeast and Midwest. With each plant producing hundreds of seeds, it quickly displaces native wildflowers, turning our woodlands from healthy tapestries to unhealthy monocultures.

In this, garlic mustard reminds me of Bill Cosby’s “The Chicken Heart that ate New York City.” But instead of spreading Jell-o to avoid being devoured by the monster invader (listen to Cosby’s sketch and you’ll know what I mean), getting rid of garlic mustard typically requires spending only a pleasant day in the woods pulling the invader out by the roots.

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As pernicious as garlic mustard is, it pulls out of the ground fairly easily. Today, with nearly 50 pairs of volunteer hands making light work, we manage to clear enough garlic mustard out of Midewin’s Bluebell Woods to fill dozens of large garbage bags (a record-setting 1,155 pounds, according to Volunteer Coordinator, Alison Cisneros.)

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Part of the reward for this work is getting up close and personal with the many different kinds of spring wildflowers we’re trying to save. With the early spring, the bluebells for which Bluebell Woods is named are nearly past their peak blooming.

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But woodland phlox has more than stepped up with myriad clusters of pale lavender blossoms.

And then there are swamp buttercups and red trillium.

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Among the many kinds of woodland wildflowers, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But near the top of the list has to be May apples, whose creamy white blossoms lie half-hidden under Lilliputian, umbrella-like leaves.

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And then there are Jacks in the pulpit, which would be right at home in a children’s book illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Getting down on your hands and knees to pull garlic mustard is a great way get a good peek at these exquisite spring ephemerals.

120421 jack in the pulpitAnd if any more reward for the day were required, today the Midewin Tallgrass Alliance has provided a picnic lunch alongside Prairie Creek.

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Dappled Things

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Bluebell Woods at Midewin. The perfect place to celebrate Earth Day. (Or at least the first Saturday after.) As the name implies, Bluebell Woods are teeming with bluebells and many other woodland ephemerals – tiny flowers that burst forth from the leaf litter before the tree leaves emerge and shade out the sun.

Unfortunately, our native wildflowers are at great risk of being overrun by non-native garlic mustard. Over the past couple of years, the garlic mustard at Bluebell Woods has been kept in check by a dedicated volunteer effort to remove it. And so, today it’s our turn to venture into the woods with collection sacks strapped to our waists.

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Truly, there is little to rival a healthy spring woodland in the morning. I’m hardly a religious man, but upon entering the woods the first line of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem springs immediately to mind: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The early morning sun slants through the budding trees, throwing dappled light upon dew-washed mosses and greenery dotted with the yellows of swamp buttercups, the pink and white of spring beauties, the speckled leaves of trillium and trout lilies…

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The Lilliputian umbrels of May apples…

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And of course the purple-periwinkle of Virginia bluebells.

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Yanking garlic mustard out of a woodland feels a little like liberating France. An overstatement, sure, but there is something profoundly gratifying in removing such a pernicious invasive from an area dotted with so much beauty. Once established, colonies of garlic mustard can blitzkrieg through our woodlands at a rate of up to 120 feet per year to the virtual exclusion of all other woodland wildflowers.

Or, a handful of volunteers can spend a lovely morning in the woods, liberating them for the sheer love of dappled things and the God or Gods that made them.

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