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.