RIP – Outdoor Illinois Magazine

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Chicago Wilderness Magazine. Illinois Steward Magazine. Outdoor Illinois Magazine. I had the good fortune to write for all three publications. Each of them rich with words and images celebrating the equally rich nature of The Prairie State. But now, all three publications have succumbed to budget cuts, a down economy and cataclysmic shifts in the publishing industry.

First of all, props to Outdoor Illinois editor Kathy Andrews. As wonderful an editor as there is. Together, in the pages of this Illinois Department of Natural Resources publication, we were able to explore new prairies along the Chicago lakefront, the preservation of an ancient ravine in Apple River Canyon, hunting for a rare plant the size of a white marble in Chicago’s Calumet region, celebrating a mix of art and nature in a ravine at the former Fort Sheridan, and most recently the plumbing of Midewin.

Midewin is plumbed? Yep. Big time. Like about one third of Illinois. And at places like Midewin, often the first restoration step involves de-plumbing. If you’d like to read more, check out Man vs. Wetlands in the latest and last issue of Outdoor Illinois Magazine. RIP.

 

Me Like it Wet

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What’s not to like? Sunk ankle-deep in mud. Fighting mosquitoes the size of small aircraft. Bent over for a couple of hours planting hundreds of tiny seedlings. All while surrounded by the largest crop of ragweed you’re likely ever to see in your life?  Oh, and did I mention free pizza? That’s a good time, my friends. That’s recovering the health of a premier wet prairie at Midewin.

Earlier this year, miles of drain tile were removed from a 460-acre parcel known as Grant Creek, which had kept the pastureland drier and more productive for raising cattle. Now, fueled by a pretty wet spring and early summer, water once again is pooling on the surface of the earth. Just as it did prior to settlement more than 150 years ago.

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It’s into these wet areas we venture, with rubber boots and rubber gloves. To plant some 70 different species of wetland-loving plants. We work in pairs, one person to dig the hole with an auger, the other to place in the hole a tiny seedling.

Volunteers and staff work side by side. Rolling up his sleeves, Paul Botts, executive director of The Wetlands Initiative, teams up with Midewin ecologist Bill Glass. I set to work with Jeff, who oversees brush removal at Midewin, on flats of winged liatris and some kind of sedge. Dig a hole. Pop a plant plug into it. Backfill, making sure the crown of the plant is just below the surface. Repeat.

In spite of the monster-sized mosquitoes, it’s a perfect day to be in the field. Last year, during Phase I planting, we sweltered under full sun, high temps and humidity. This year, it’s cool and overcast. A long-sleeved shirt and a little bug spray keep the worst of the skeeters at bay. Rubber boots keep our feet dry. And the rampant ragweed is nowhere near to blooming, so there’s no immediate threat of allergic reaction.

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But this is how it’s done. This is how you return a pasture with a handful of weedy plant species back to a functioning wet prairie, with more than 100 species of plants, and untold species of related insects, herps and birds. Even at this early stage of restoration, the bobolinks and other grassland birds are nearly thick as flies. We even found a dickcissel nest sporting a clutch of sky-blue eggs.

When it’s lunchtime, Jerry Heinrich, president of the Midewin Alliance, provides the two dozen volunteers and staff of both the US Forest Service and The Wetlands Initiative, with free pizza. Delivered to our wetland. That’s service.

And after lunch, I take a walk with TWI’s Senior Ecologist, Gary Sullivan, through the Phase I area planted last year. He points out some of the early colonizer plants that have established themselves. Black-eyed Susans. Ohio Spiderwort. And many other native forbs.

All these beautiful wildflowers amid a rage of annual farm weeds, which still must be controlled. Probably by mowing. Including the ragweed before it blossoms and sets seed. But this is all part of the process. In time, with proper management, the perennial native plants will be strong and numerous enough to out-compete the annual non-native weeds, and the wet prairie will be well on its way to nature haven.

Little House and a Prairie

At first glance there may not seem a lot in common between Midewin and an historic Pullman rowhouse. Midewin is a 20,000-acre natural area. A rowhouse – like the one I just finished rehabbing with the help of two gifted loved ones – is 1,100 square feet of, well, house. In their original conditions, however, both were exceptionally beautiful. But after more than a century of alterations, both were in pretty poor shape. And it takes far more time to restore them than you might think.

My initial guess was that it would take us six months to restore the rowhouse. That was back in 2008. Two and a half years later, we finally finished.

What took so much time?

Well, let’s start with the bathroom. In building what the Times of London described as “the most perfect town in the world,” railcar magnate George Pullman provided indoor plumbing in each one of the 900 rowhouses he built for his workers and their families. As far as I know, however, there exist no pictures of any original bathrooms.

But it’s safe to say they didn’t look anything like the disaster we inherited. What we ended up doing was gutting the entire bathroom – every groady fixture, every jerry-rigged pipe – and then building everything brand new.

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So, too, for instance, with Grant Creek restoration at Midewin. There are no photographs of the landscape in its original condition (although there are solid hints in historic survey reports, topographic maps, and the like.) But certainly we know the pasture forage on site was non-native. Like the rowhouse bathroom, restoration of Grant Creek began by wiping the slate clean; herbiciding all of the non-native vegetation and removing the underground drain tile, which had altered the original hydrology. This has been followed by planting new seed and plugs.

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Room by room at the rowhouse, out went the non-original alterations. In went the new and the restored. New hardwood floors. New kitchen. New downstairs powder room. New roof. New electric. New plumbing. New windows. New heating/AC.

I realize all this may not seem like much if you’re not familiar with doing the work yourself. But, let me tell ya, it takes a long time to disassemble an original oak banister, strip 10 coats of paint from its intricate millwork, followed by repairing the breaks, sanding everything smooth, applying several finish coats of oil, and reinstalling them.

It takes time to ascertain the dimensions of the original vestibule that someone had torn out, and rebuild it, using a salvaged original door, which likewise had to be stripped of countless coats of paint, sanded, and repainted with primer and two finish coats.

Just as it takes time – exponentially more time – to undo alterations on a landscape scale, and begin to put back in place the correct and correct balance of hundreds of different plant species. At least with the rowhouse, we didn’t have to worry about someone coming in and undoing our work. At Midewin, even well restored areas must be regularly managed to keep invasive species from taking over again.

Two and a half years it took us to restore an 1,100 square foot home to its original splendor. Midewin is 871,200,000 square feet. It’s going to take a little longer.