Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation

Books seldom sell themselves. Especially if you write a biography of an important but little known conservation leader.

Fortunately, I’ve been having a great time barnstorming the state on my book tour, preaching the gospel of George Fell. Born in Rockford, Illinois, he was about as unlikely a conservation hero as you can imagine — no pedigree, no job, no money, no connections, no experience. And yet, through sheer tenacity, he protected more land in Illinois than anyone before or since. More importantly, he was the driving force behind the establishment of The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and other powerful engines of conservation that will protect even more lands far into the future.

Another thing I love about the book tour is meeting the conservation heroes of today — those who build upon Fell’s legacy to protect the lands they love.

This past weekend, my wife, Susan, and I traveled to the Drifltess Area of northwest Illinois to give a talk to the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation. What a great group of folks. Executive director Steve Barg gave some introductory remarks about JDCF, including the fact that since its founding in 1993 it has protected nearly 7,000 acres of land.

After my “revival tent sermon” about George Fell, my wife and I joined the staff, board and supporters for a country supper of brats, sauerkraut, and cheddar beer soup. In addition to the delicious food, we relished learning about the different ways folks help preserve and celebrate the lands they love — as donors, as volunteers, as nature photographers, artists and writers, and by placing conservation easements on their own lands.

The next day, Steve treated Susan and I to a tour of Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve. Whereas only the highest quality natural lands may be dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves, areas that harbor significant natural and cultural heritage may be dedicated as Land and Water Reserves. Either way, these formal dedications by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission afford and exceptional level of protection.

Casper Bluff is a stand out reserve both for its panoramic views of the Mississippi River and its high concentration of effigy mounds from the middle to late Woodland Society of Native Americans, circa A.D. 700 to A.D. 1,000. Among the protected effigies is the last, intact bird or thunderbird with a wingspan of 216 feet.

JDCF does a terrific job not only protecting important sites, but providing rich interpretive signage. For instance, at Wapello Land and Water Reserve — a sacred site for two late Woodland cultures — I learned that Chief Wapello was among the last Fox chieftains to resist selling any more ancestral lands in the Driftless area. I learned, too, that the original name for Hanover — the town in which the reserve is located — was Wapello.

On the last day of our three-day weekend, Susan and I continued our quest to visit all 400+ Illinois Nature Preserves. There are at least three in Jo Daviess County.

Hanover Bluff was the first to be dedicated in the county, in 1987. It was too wet and muddy to climb the steep slopes up to the aptly-named “goat prairies” tucked amid the oak woodland communities, but we did manage to catch a glimpse of the towering bluffs.

Wards Grove is described as “a large forested island between extensive rowcrop areas to the east and forest areas to the west. Its large size, unbroken canopy, mature understory and position with respect to other regional forested areas, make Wards Grove a very valuable site for area sensitive bird species.”

Last on our list was Apple River Canyon. Most folks know Apple River Canyon as a popular state park. What most don’t know is that there are dedicated Nature Preserves within many of our state, county, and municipal parks, including Apple River. This assures that the most ecologically sensitive areas of the parks have the extra level of protection they need. Not surprisingly, then, there are no established trails in the Apple River Canyon Nature Preserve. But keep an eye out for the distinctive white triangle signs for a glimpse of the very best of the best nature in all of Jo Daviess County.

Nachusa Grasslands

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Nachusa Grasslands Nature Preserve — a beacon of beauty and biodiversity

These oft-quoted words of Daniel Burnham — architect, urban planner, visonary for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, chief author of the Plan of Chicago, commonly known as the Burnham Plan — apply perfectly to George Fell.

My biography of George Fell recounts his extraordinary efforts to launch both The Nature Conservancy and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission

Fell made no little plans. He aimed high in transforming a loose band of academics into The Nature Conservancy, now the largest conservation organization in the world. He was insistent in establishing the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which in turn sparked nearly every other state in the nation to establish similar ways of protecting the remnants of our biological heritage.

Perhaps the best place to experience where Fell’s big, realized plans come together most inspiringly is at Nachusa Grasslands Nature Preserve.

One of several species of coreopsis you’ll find blooming in the recovering prairie lands of Nachusa

Among Fell’s many strengths was his ability to lay out a “logical diagram” for his big plans. No mere dreamer, he painstakingly put into place The Nature Conservancy’s operational infrastructure, including its vaunted chapter system.

The spiky white flowers of rattlesnake master poke at the puffball clouds on a hot summer day at Nachusa

Among the first chapters to be established was the one in his home state. Fell played an active role in the early days of the Illinois Chapter, serving as board treasurer and personally negotiating its first acquisition — Volo Bog. Much later, as executive director of the Natural Land Institute, Fell helped TNC acquire the first 115 acres of remnant prairie near Franklin Grove, IL, which today anchor Nachusa Grasslands.

The heliocentric blossoms of compass plant doing what sunflowers do — turn their faces toward the sun

In 2013, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission dedicated the 1,000-acre core unit of Nachusa as an Illinois Nature Preserve. It’s hard to say which of the 400+ Illinois Nature Preserves is the best, but by several measures Nachusa has to be near the top of the list. In addition to the fact that it is among the largest restored grasslands in the entire state, a small army of passionate volunteers has helped to ensure that its prairies, oak savannas, woodlands and wetlands are exceptionally well stewarded.

Spying lots of Culver’s root put by wife and me in mind of the root beer floats we were going to order at the first Culver’s Frozen Custard joint we found on the way home after a hot, humid day on the prairie

Nachusa harbors more than 700 native plant species and hosts 180 different kinds of birds. Although several other Illinois Nature Preserves boast equally rich biodiversity, Nachusa is the only one that has bison. Only at Nachusa can you experience the beauty, the blood-stirring magic that is The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and a growing herd of Bison bison, America’s national mammal.

Look closely — on the left is a sign warning about Nachusa’s wild bison and on the right is the familiar white triangle sign letting folks know that they are looking at a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve

Thanks, George, for aiming high and realizing your big, beautiful plans. Thanks to all those who build upon what George accomplished and stagger us with their own big plans and achievements.

Since bison were reintroduced to Nachusa in 2014, the herd has grown from 30 to 100
The new visitor center pavilion provides a little shade and a lot of terrific information about the history, the beauty and the biodiversity of Nachusa

Hetzler Cemetery Prairie

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) towering above the tombstones at Hetlzler Cemetery Nature Preserve

On July 7, I discovered quite few towering, flowering compass plants in a one-acre pioneer cemetery in Bureau County, Illinois.

This was a couple of weeks earlier than Aldo Leopold typically found his “pet” compass plant in bloom every year in a corner of an unnamed pioneer cemetery in Sauk County, Wisconsin. He figured it may have been the last of its kind in the western half of his home county. That is before it was cut down by a road crew, unlikely ever to grow back.

At the time Leopold wrote about this “funeral of the native flora” in “A Sand County Almanac,” there was no law, no regulation, no mechanism to protect small, isolated prairie remnants from destruction. In fact, in another essay Leopold relegated some of those remnants to “ultimate extinction” because it was impractical to expect government to own and take care of them.

George Fell was a huge fan of Leopold. He drank deeply of “A Sand County Almanac” Kool-aid. Except the bit about the extinction of remnant natural areas. Like Leopold, he agreed that landowners should expand their ethical spheres to protect the last vestiges of our native plant and animal habitats. But also like Leopold, he understood that could take years, decades, generations to happen. If ever.

So, George Fell — on the heels of being the driving force in the launch of The Nature Conservancy —  was the driving force in the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. This was the nation’s first state agency empowered to provide virtual ironclad protection to the highest quality remnant natural lands.

Hetzler Cemetery Nature Preserve among a sea of corn

Bureau County lies within the Grand Prairie Division of Illinois, which means that most of its 599,360 acres was originally covered in prairie. Today, exactly one acre of its original blacksoil prairie is permanently protected. It lies within the Hetzler Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve. Surrounded by a sea of corn and soybeans, this pioneer cemetery was never disturbed, saved for the burial of some of the state’s earliest pioneers. It contains a rich mix of prairie grasses and flowers, including plenty of compass plants — some of which are likely older than the pioneers sleeping among their roots reaching 15 feet into the earth.

The white globe flowers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) gracing one of the sun-bleached headstones at Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve

In Henry County, directly to the west, there are two additional acres of protected prairie — one acre each in Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve and Munson Township Cemetery Nature Preserve. In addition to compass plants, they contain healthy stands of rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie violets and hundreds of other plants — the diversity of which stands in stark contrast to the monoculture corn and soybean fields surrounding them.

All in all, there are 29 pioneer cemeteries dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. Together, the contain about 50 acres of some of the best prairie remaining in the entire state of Illinois. That isn’t very much. In fact, it’s about .000002 percent of the 22 million acres of prairie that once blanketed the Prairie State.

But thanks to George Fell, our native prairie remnants — containing hundreds of different kinds of beautiful plants and the bugs and birds and other critters that depend upon them for their very existence — are not extinct. They may be small and scattered, but they are very much alive thanks, too, to the Greenfield Cemetery Association, the Henry County Natural Area Guardians, and all the other local groups who volunteer their time to tend these precious remnants of our cultural and natural heritage.

Up and close personal with compass plant blossoms, towering ten to twelve feet above the pioneer prairie headstones

Belmont Prairie

I had a great time talking to supporters of The Conservation Foundation at its annual luncheon. While out in DuPage County, I added three Illinois Nature Preserves to my list — #s 18, 19 and 20 on my way to the goal of visiting 50 this year. My way of celebrating the publication of Force of Nature.

Belmont Prairie is the smallest of the three preserves I visited today. It also may be my new favorite. Truitt Hoff clocks in at 290 acres, Churchill Prairie at 65 acres. Belmont Prairie totals only 10, with an additional 15 acres as buffer.

In 1820, there were approximately 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois. In 1978, George Fell and others completed the first statewide survey of how much natural land remained in Illinois. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory revealed that there were  only 2,352 acres of prairie left, scattered in small parcels throughout the state.

Like several of the Nature Preserves I’ve visited thus far, Belmont Prairie survived by accident, or because someone hadn’t yet gotten around to developing it before it was “discovered.”

The land that includes Belmont Prairie was first bought from the US Government in 1842. By 1890, about half of it was developed as a golf course. By 1920, homes were built.  In 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree collected a rare prairie flower on the site and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum. The Nature Conservancy — of which George Fell was the driving force in its founding — acquired the site. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the site was dedicated as an official Nature Preserve in 199. The current owner of the site, the Downers Grove Park District, lists the dedication year as 1994. Either way, along with 400+ other Nature Preserves, it now enjoys the highest level of protection possible.

(Quick side note: it was also an amateur nature enthusiast who collected a rare prairie plant at Truitt Hoff and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, which set the wheels in motion to have both sites dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. The system works.)

Belmont Prairie may be small, but it affords one of the richest displays of wildflowers — with grace notes of dragonflies, butterflies, bees and birdsong — that I have seen anywhere.  To whet your appetite, below is just a small sampling of what I discovered. Enjoy. And then visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa L.
Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina
Scurfy pea (how can you not just love saying “scurfy pea”), Psoralidium tenuiflorum
Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, with bumble bee
The distinct leaves of compass plant, Silphium laciniatum — soon this plant will send a tall stalk high into the air, filled with bright yellow, sun-like flowers

Spring Green Preserve

As it turned out, it seemed only fitting to be talking about George Fell at Arcadia Books this weekend. George spent his life protecting the natural lands he loved. Now the good folks of Spring Green, Wisconsin and throughout the Driftless Area are engaged in their own fight to protect their beloved lands.

I love Spring Green. Ever since I spent a season at American Players Theatre, killing the King of Scotland a few times a week. Since then, I’ve returned nearly every summer for the theatre, but also for the sheer beauty of the land. In fact, Spring Green Preserve is one of my favorite places on earth.

The preserve is described as the Wisconsin Desert, which technically might be true but grossly undersells the beauty of the site. True, as a sand prairie its soils drain quickly creating a hot, droughty environment that is home to relatively sparse vegetation, including the likes of prickly pear cactus — and lots of it. But, this cool, misty, late April morning, following a recent prairie burn, it is carpeted with bird’s foot violet and early buttercup, and dotted with spikes of cream white indigo.

The thousand-acre site is filled, too, this morning with a chamber concert of birdsong. The four-note descants of eastern meadowlarks echo off the adjacent bluffs, while blue birds and yellow-rumped warblers harvest the low vegetation for a breakfast of bugs. The lark sparrows are in a more amorous mood, the males splaying their distinct tail feathers in the hope of attracting a mate.

As it turns out, Spring Green Preserve also has has an indirect but distinct connection to George Fell. The site is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, of which George was the driving force in its founding. It is also a Wisconsin State Nature Preserve. During my talk at Arcadia Books, I shared that Wisconsin’s nature preserves system actually predates the one in Illinois by nearly 15 years. George certainly knew about the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas, established in 1951 within the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In fact, he used it as a staring point in crafting a bill to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, empowered to dedicate lands as nature preserves, providing them virtually ironclad permanent protection.

Ironclad protection for natural lands and farmland alike is what the Driftless Area needs right now. Attending the talk at Arcadia Books was David Clutter. Years ago, he used to work for the Natural Land Institute, founded by George Fell. Today, he is the executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and helping to lead the fight against the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project, which its proponents want to run right through the heart of the Driftless Area.

For those who may not know, the Driftless Area — primarily southwest Wisconsin, but also parts of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois — derives its name from the lack drift. Drift is the gravel, sand, clay, rocks, etc. left behind by retreating glaciers. There isn’t any drift in the Driftless Area because, for a combination of reasons, the glaciers that once blanketed the midwest didn’t cover this area. The Driftless Area — unlike the flat, glacier-scoured lands surrounding it — is one of exceptional beauty for the rolling hills, rugged bluffs, deep valleys, bucolic farmsteads and world-class natural areas.

Opponents of the proposed transmission line and its viewshed-killing towers have a battle cry: The glaciers never came through our region. Neither will the transmission line.

To help fight the good fight, the Environmental Law and Policy Center recently submitted comments to the Rural Utilities Service, underscoring the need for the required Environmental Impact Statement to “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives, including no-build and robust non-transmission alternatives.”

Fighting major infrastructure projects isn’t easy. But as George Fell reminds us, sheer tenacity and perseverance can go a long way toward achieving ultimate success. It took George years to protect a remnant prairie from being destroyed by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. It took him decades to champion the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. It took him a lifetime to spark the entire Natural Areas Movement, which spawned countless preservation groups and continues to inspire a growing army of dedicated individuals to protect the vital lands we love.

It may take years to keep the proposed transmission towers from stockcading the landscape. But protecting the likes of Spring Green Preserve and its surrounding lands is so worth the fight.

Cowles Bog

Cowles Bog is not an Illinois Nature Preserve. Neither was The Nature Conservancy involved in its protection. Nonetheless, this National Natural Landmark provides a direct connection to George Fell.

Cowles Bog is a 205-acre area within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Historically, it was part of a much larger wetland complex known as the Great Marsh, which in turn was part of an even larger complex of dune and swale habitat unique to the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the rest of the Great Marsh, Cowles Bog is more accurately described as a wetland complex, comprised of conifer swamp, wet prairie, fen, sedge meadow, marsh, and, yes, bog. This morning, it is ablaze with marsh marigolds, accompanied by the clarion call of sandhill cranes, among the oldest bird species on earth.

Cowles Bog apparently derived its name courtesy of a student of Henry Chandler Cowles. Famous for his field trip excursions, Cowles taught at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years. A pioneer in advancing the field of ecology as an accepted discipline within the natural sciences, he was particularly enamored of the Indiana dunes, a living laboratory for discerning how ecological communities change and evolve over time.

Among Cowles’ students was Victor Ernest Shelford, who, under Cowles’ influence, evolved from a classical zoologist into an animal ecologist. Rather than studying animals independent of their environments, he significantly advanced the understanding of plants and animals being dynamically and inextricably linked as a single community (or biome, to use the technical term.)

Shelford, who spent his entire teaching career at the University of Illinois, stood out from his peers for being activist-minded. Unlike most academics of his time, he was adamant about using scientific knowledge to actually protect natural lands. Accordingly, he founded the Ecological Society of America to do just that. But when his fellow academics grew uneasy with Shelford’s activist agenda, he used his own money to start up a splinter group, the Ecologists’ Union.

George Fell took only one course under Shelford, and apparently didn’t like his professor much. At least at first. Years later, Fell would be elected to the board of the Ecologists’ Union and become the driving force in transforming it into The Nature Conservancy.

The start-up years of TNC were — to put it politely —  dynamic. Big, competing ideas among super smart, exceptionally strong-willed individuals. (Shameless plug alert: I chronicle the necessary sausage making in detail in Force of Nature.)

But when I stroll through Cowles Bog, I think not of the many battles George fought in starting up TNC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and, in sum, the entire Natural Areas Movement. Rather, I marvel just how interconnected everything is. The many people — yesterday, today and tomorrow — who protect such places as Cowles Bog. And the many different kinds of plants and animals that make such places such as Cowles Bog one of sheer beauty, awe and inspiration.


Publishing a First Book

As of today, I am done. Done with writing, re-writing, copy edits, indexing, photo releases, and yet more copy edits–all the various steps that go into the process of turning a manuscript into a physical book. It’s been a little over a year. What a learning curve. What fun.

It  all starts with finding a publisher. Some writers are fortunate to have publishing agreements in advance. Most of us, however, write “on spec,” on speculation, in the hope that someone out there will deem what we’ve written worthy of putting into print.

I’ve written a number of articles on assignment from various magazines and journals, but I wrote the Fell biography on spec. Initially, I had been commissioned by the Natural Land Institute to write a short biography of Fell for inclusion in its 50th anniversary publication, A Legacy of Natural Lands. But I found Fell such a complex, fascinating man, and the backstory of his many accomplishments equally complex and fascinating, that I believed he deserved a full-length book. I spent several more years digging into Fell’s life and career, expanding on the original 25-page biography several-fold to 200 pages.

After the manuscript was accepted for publication, the editing process included trying out a lot of different titles.

In a way, writing the manuscript is the easy part. Next comes querying publishers, which requires first reviewing their submission guidelines to determine which ones publish the kind of thing you’ve written. Among the various commercial and academic presses I researched, the University of Wisconsin Press seemed the best fit for having published biographies of big name conservationists such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold, as well as lesser-known but equally important conservationists such as Frederick and Frances Hammerstrom–a husband and wife team not unlike George and Barbara Fell.

As with any publisher, you have to make your pitch. What is the book about? Why is it important? Does it advance the field of knowledge? And, of course, is there an audience–a book-buying market–for the book? You submit your answers to these and many other questions, along with a sample chapter and some additional requirements, and then you wait.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before the University of Wisconsin Press got back to me, requesting the full manuscript. This, they sent out for peer review to academics in the field, seeking their take on the value and publishability of the manuscript. Fortunately, again, the reviewers gave the manuscript the thumbs up.

I was thrilled when the University of Wisconsin Press offered me an agreement to publish the book, pending certain revisions based on the peer reviews. While I began final revisions to the manuscript, I also joined the National Writer’s Union, which offers a service to freelance writers to review publishing agreements.

This past summer, following my submission of the final manuscript, it was sent to a copy editor. All I can say is thank god for copy editors. Mine saved me from countless silly mistakes, as well as several of considerably more consequence had they gone unnoticed and unaddressed. In any event, it was my job to review and accept, amend or decline all the suggested copy edits, and then forward the marked-up manuscript back to the senior editor at the Press for final copy editing.

Oh, and then there was the tracking down of photos and maps (and securing permissions) to provide a short, visual narrative of Fell’s impressive life and career.

Just this morning, I have finished my final review of the final page proof–last chance to catch any wayward punctuation, etc.–which required me to become conversant with something else entirely new: standard proofmarks.

Along with the final page proof, tomorrow I will send to the senior editor the index, the compilation of which I had hired a professional. Compiling an index is another facet of book publishing I had taken for granted until it became my responsibility either to learn how to do it myself (there is, of course, as much art as there is skill in this) or at least be informed enough to be able to choose among a number of exceptional candidates. In addition to providing a sound roadmap for those seeking particular information, the indexing process also surfaced a few more errors and oversights that had not been caught in the copy edit process. Whew!

Now it’s up to the senior editor, who finalizes everything before shipping the final final draft to the printer. The actual books, then, will be sent to the distribution warehouse–which just happens to be in Pullman, where I live–and then off to the stores and booksellers. Scheduled publication date: April 18–just about the time that pasque flowers will be blooming in Harlem Hills Nature Preserve, the rare, gravel hill prairie where George and Barbara Fell camped out on their wedding night.

All in all, it will have been a little over a year-long process from my initial query to publication. Next step on the learning curve–promoting the book.

Oh, and the next book–Finding Vivian, a young adult novella–is in the works, as well. Stay tuned.


111126 burn 4Fire. It’s more than a Chicago soccer team. More than a song written by Bruce Springsteen and made famous by the Pointer Sisters.  (And perhaps even more famous when parodied by Robin Williams singing in the voice of Elmer Fudd.) Fire is also a force of nature I help control today and use as a tool in the recovery of our prairie heritage.110422 seed bed burn

Even as the prairie is being newly re-created at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, it needs to be burned every few years or so. (Even the seed beds need to be burned from time to time.) An historically fire-dependent habitat type, prairie requires periodic burns to restore its soils, maintain diversity and keep invasive plant species – both native and non-native – in check.

As a Midewin volunteer, I’m having the time of my life working alongside US Forest Service staff in many restoration activities – brush clearing, native plant planting, species monitoring and the whole spectrum of seed propagation from collecting to cleaning to sowing. But the one activity not available to volunteers is participating in controlled burns. That responsibility perforce lies entirely with the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew – crack aces who help fight major forest fires out west.

However, since fire both was and is such a critical component of the prairie ecosystem, last year I enrolled in the two-day Midwest Ecological Prescription Burn Crew Member Training Class offered by Chicago Wilderness. And today, with certificate in hand, I’m out for my first burn at Indian Boundary Prairie.

110713 markham 3

The five suburban Markham parcels that make up IBP comprise one of the highest quality prairie remnants in the entire state – home to an especially rich diversity of plants and animals including several rare plants, birds and mammals. At 200 acres, it also represents one of the state’s largest prairie remnants – a reminder how little prairie remains in Illinois (less than 1/10 of one percent statewide) but also how ambitious and critical Midewin is, with its goal of 20,000 acres of restored prairie.

111126 burn 2

Back to the burn. Dressed in our fire-resistant Nomex suits, we little resemble the Pottawatomie that used to ignite the prairie to drive game to the slaughter. But with lots of collective training and experience, our band of a dozen or so volunteers – expertly led by The Nature Conservancy’s Stuart Goldman – are savvy in the use of fire for particular, restorative ends.

With winds gusting up to 35 mph today, our goal is limited to burning a wide strip at the north end of one of the parcels, which will serve as a fire break for a crew to burn the balance of the parcel on a more favorable weather day.

With some crew members stationed as lookouts to make sure no embers escape into an adjoining section of the prairie, other crew members light drip torches – fueled by a mix of diesel and gasoline – and “drop fire” along small slices of our strip, working into the wind to keep the fire manageable. Then, to keep the fire contained within a relatively straight line on both sides of the strip, crew members follow the fire with water pumps, dousing the flames as needed.

My job is to use a flapper – a large, heavy rubber flange –for the same purpose. One or two flaps is all it takes to both stamp and blow out modest flames.

111126 burn 5

Small slice by small slice, we light the prairie grasses. In spite of a high moisture level, the dry husks ignite readily, fueled by periodic gusts of wind. All it takes is a few seconds and there before you is a small wall of flame licking upwards of a dozen feet. The heat, too, is instantaneous and powerful, feeling like a burst from a hot oven.

And then just as quickly, the fuel is spent and the fire dies down to dribs and drabs along the margins. A sharp burst of pressurized water, or a strong flap, and the flames are extinguished. Here and there, some stumpish clumps of prairie grasses smolder. Squirt. Flap. Extinguished.

111126 burn 1

Left behind, where just a minute ago stood a mix of spent but still towering prairie plants, is largely ash. Here and there remain some naked stems of woody shrubs, but nothing much left to burn. When, in a few days, the next crew runs fire through here, when it reaches this strip the head fires will die almost instantly for lack of fuel. Just as planned. Controlled. Safe. Effective.

For a newbie, I didn’t eat too much smoke, save for my spell as a downwind spark spotter. But even that was bearable because next spring – here at IBP, at Midewin, and at restoration sites throughout Chicago Wilderness – the prairie will return richer and healthier than ever for the application of a little controlled fire. That is something worth singing about…fire (doo-de doo doo doo.)

110713 markham 2