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.

Fire

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.)

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