Enlightenment

110918 dragonfly 2

I can’t prove it. But I’d be surprised if the inspiration for stained glass in the world’s great cathedrals didn’t begin with a dragonfly wing. A wing’s veins became leaded kames. The translucent membrane colored glass. And to the close observer, the face of God is reflected in both.

How else to explain the joy that washes over me as a blue-faced pondhawk alights upon my shirt and rests there for what seems like an eternity?

110918 prairie dock

My saunter through Midewin on this early fall day has left me feeling rather melancholy. The exuberant golds of summer sunflowers are giving way to the solemn purples of autumn asters. Much of the herbage that was vibrant and green has gone sere and brown.

110918 asters

Already some birds have flown south for the winter. I haven’t seen an indigo bunting all day. Some northern-breeding warblers are passing through, but all dressed in drab as if in their haste to escape the coming winter they forgot to pack their breeding plumage.

Already the days are shorter and the sun has lost some of its familiar sting. And it’s hard not to be a little sad for the change of season. The coming cold. The death and departure.

110918 dragonfly 1

And then a dragonfly lands on my chest. This ancient creature, which has been harvesting insects on the fly for the past 300 million years – before, during and after dinosaurs roamed the earth. I look down into the aqua face. The ruddy body. The translucent wings. And there, in miniature, I see the glasswork of Chartres. Strasbourg. Rheims. Notre Dame.

Or, more humbly, far more humbly, one of the stained glass pieces I made for my home.

stained glass dragonflies

Least you think me the least bit sentimental in my dragonfly moment, I call upon no less an odonatology expert than Ziggy Marley, who once observed “This dragonfly came up to me. He was hovering right in front of my face, and I was really examining him, thinking, How does he see me? I became enlightened.”

Yah, mahn!

Ghosts of the Prairie

For me, the football season ended January 23 when the Packers beat the Bears 21-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. And so I venture out to Midewin for a quiet walk on Super Bowl Sunday.

Since my last visit, a little more than 20 inches of snow has fallen in the Chicago area – the third largest snowfall on record. Added to that is what looks like another couple of inches of fresh powder that has just fallen today on South Patrol Road Prairie.

Even with such an unusual amount of snow on the ground, it’s hard to imagine what Midewin may have looked like 20,000 years ago. That’s about the middle of the last ice age when glaciers covered much of North America, including the northeastern third of Illinois. The snow today is about two feet deep. I stand a little shy of six feet. The tallest prairie plants top out around 12 feet.

The bur oaks in Prairie Creek Woods rise to about 100 feet into the air. The last glacier to cover this area may have been as much as 700 feet thick – as tall as the 52-story IBM building in downtown Chicago.

ibm building

(If you’re wondering, the IBM building is the 20th tallest structure in Chicago. The Willis Tower – formerly Sears Tower – is #1 at 1,451 feet.)

The glaciers are long gone, of course. The last one retreated out of Illinois about 13,500 years ago. Gone, too, are the mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers that once roamed the tundra of Illinois. And as tundra gave way to prairie, then came wolves, bears, elk, mountain lions and bison that one by one were hunted down or otherwise pushed far to the north and west as prairie gave way to farmland and towns.

A few mile walk on such a cold, snowy day leaves the impression there is no wildlife left at Midewin at all. The rich abundance of amphibians, birds and assorted small mammals is either hunkered down until the skies clear or hibernating until warmer days return. Or not yet returned from wintering grounds elsewhere.

And then I spy the coyote. Like other native, top-of-the-food-chain predators, coyotes largely disappeared from our state in the 19th and 20th centuries, but have recently made an extraordinary comeback. Even so, these “ghosts of the prairie” come by their nickname honestly – they are rarely seen.

But that hasn’t kept many in our region – fearing that coyotes prey on pets and small children – from calling for their re-elimination. (Here’s a good website for debunking a lot of fears and misconceptions: http://urbancoyoteresearch.com.)

The myths of many Native American cultures reveal coyotes as tricksters, alternating between cleverness and buffoonery; wisdom and lechery; equal parts imp and hero; “a rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos…turning quickly from clown to creator and back again…representing the sheerly spontaneous in life, the pure creative spark that is our birthright as human beings and that defies fixed roles or behavior.”

After glimpsing the coyote at Midewin, that night I would dream that a coyote was loose in a neighbor’s backyard. I took a shovel and chased it, swinging wildly, trying to beat it to death, but always missing. Exhausted, I retreat to my own back yard – a tiny natural oasis, with a pond and lots of native prairie plants. The coyote creeps into my backyard, along with another and another. Before my eyes, each of them transforms into the kind of young man I used to be. Or wish I’d been.

Cavorting with the Enemy

white tail deer 1

This past weekend I attended a state-sanctioned Hunter Safety Training course, a first step toward going on my first deer hunt next fall at Midewin. In some circles, this makes me a traitor. A Benedict Arnold. Hunters are the enemy. They’re not nature lovers. They’re killers.

The fact is, most everyone involved in natural areas restoration is a killer of some kind. While some may limit their activities to monitoring birds or butterflies or planting native plant plugs, many saw, chop and lop down invasive plants – including some aggressive native species such as gray dogwood – and treat the stumps with a heavy concentration of herbicide to kill the plants at their roots. Many participate in prescribed burns, setting controlled fire to natural areas, which kills off undesirable plant species along with a fair number of native insects and other critters that fail to escape the flames.

deer browse lineMany restorationists likewise understand that excess populations of native white-tailed deer must be killed in order to restore the health our woodlands. Drive by most forest preserves in Northeastern Illinois and you’ll see a distinct browse line, with deer having consumed virtually everything on the ground and on trees up to a height of about five feet. At Midewin, nine-foot chain link fences now surround the native plant seed beds to keep out deer that previously mowed through the beds like a plague of locusts. However, few restorationists actually take up a gun and do the deer killing themselves. But that often doesn’t stop them from looking down their noses at the hunters they rely upon to do the dirty work for them.

Of course, the hunting community is hardly short of individuals who return the favor by disparaging the entire environmental community as a bunch of “tree huggers” and “Bambi lovers.”

I didn’t have to attend hunter safety training in order to apply for a hunting license in the State of Illinois. Anyone born before 1984 is exempt. However, never having hunted before, it seemed to me the common sense thing to do, just as last fall I had enrolled in a course to be certified to assist with conducting controlled burns.

In truth, there was a significant degree in common between the two training courses. Both of them lasted about the same amount of time over two days. More importantly, both emphasized safety, safety, safety. Hunting and burning are activities that can have beneficial effects, but both involve no small amount of risk. To property. To human life.

For this reason, hunting and burning also share in common a fair amount of opposition. In part because some fundamentally oppose them, no matter their positive effects. Or for moral and ethical reasons. Or because they don’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of each.

I’ve never hunted in my life. Never had the least desire to do so. The closest I’ve come is holding a trapped squirrel over a big bucket of water to drown it. Over the years, I’ve trapped a hundred or more squirrels in my backyard and transported them to various forest preserves. The main reason I do so is to keep squirrels from taking up residence in my attic as they have done on several occasions, repeatedly chewing through the wood soffits on my historic home. On one occasion, a squirrel some how got into my house while I was out of town and tried to get out by chewing through the sashes of my newly-installed historic replication windows. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to drown even a squirrel that caused significant damage to my home. So it will be interesting to see if I can pull the trigger on a deer that causes significant damage to a treasured natural area.

The two-day hunting safety course was good. In addition to firearm safety, a great deal of emphasis was placed on being a responsible and ethical hunter. Quoting Aldo Leopold, “the father of wildlife management,” the instruction manual stressed “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Doing the right thing includes respecting natural resources, landowners, hunters and non-hunters alike. It includes obeying the law, exercising good judgment, safe judgment. It includes the concept of “fair chase,” a concept first purportedly developed in the Middle Ages and formalized in this country by the Boone and Crockett Club (founded by the conservation president Teddy Roosevelt) and woven into the laws of many states.

For all the information about doing the right thing ethically, there ran through the comments and conversations of the 60 or so people taking the course, and even occasionally among the instructors, a polite but pointed undertone of “us” against “them:” we need to do the right thing because “environmentalists” want to take away our sport; the government wants to take away our rights. Or, as one camo-clad dad of two young kids preparing for their first hunt chimed in unapologetically, “Democrats suck.”

hunter safety card

When I explained to a few folks why I was taking the course, they appreciated that someone from the “other side” would bother to walk in their shoes (or Gore-Tex hunting boots) for a change. “No one understands nature better than a hunter” was a common refrain. Come next November, I’ll see for myself. Between now and then, however, as I learned from the course, I’ve got a lot of practicing with a firearm to do so I can go into the field confident, prepared, safe and responsible.

Tracking Leopold

After a morning of seed cleaning followed by a quick lunch in nearby Wilmington, it’s treat time. Since my last walk at South Patrol Road Prairie, there have been a few inches of fresh snowfall. This affords me the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold. In “January Thaw,” the first sketch in A Sand County Almanac – the bible, for many preservationists – he describes the joy of following the tracks of various animals in the snow. “January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

And cold it certainly is today, with temperatures in the upper teens and a sharp wind out of the west. The thick skies threaten more snow. The upside of such harsh weather is that there is not another human being to be seen. Not so much, even, as a booted footprint other than my own.

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There are plenty of other signs of life, however, along a work road that leads into the heart of the largest restoration are at Midewin. Wide enough to accommodate the heavy equipment that’s lately been used to remove more miles of hedgerows, the snow-covered road lies before me like a book. Criss-crossing the road are mounded, sub-snow tunnels of prairie voles. In healthy environments, there may be as many as several hundred voles per acre. Judging by the number of tunnels, or “runways” as ecologists call them, this prairie restoration looks to be well on its way toward a healthy condition – not a bad accomplishment considering it was fallow farm field a decade ago. Since then, the USDA Forest Service, working in partnership with a number of nonprofit partners including The Wetlands Initiative and Corlands, has spent several years removing miles of drainage tiles, filled drainage ditches, leveled a railroad berm and recontoured a landscape that had been in agricultural production for generations. More than 100,000 prairie “plugs” have been planted, including wild onion which I helped plant by hand last year.

The ensuing patchwork quilt of prairie and wetland communities has provided a good home for our native voles. And our native mice, judging by the similar number of tracks upon the surface of the snow. And while they might be the bane of farmers and homeowners – Google “vole” and most of the front-loaded entries have to do with exterminating them – these native critters are a vital part of the prairie food chain, evidenced by a set of coyote prints. In sharp contrast to the random windings of the vole runways and mice tracks, the coyote prints run in a measured, straight line until they erupt in a concentrated flurry. Over the course of a mile, I come across a dozen such skirmish sites, which makes the road seem more like a buffet line.

northern harrier

And coyotes aren’t the only ones partaking of this mid-winter smorgasbord. Here and there are little splashes of dirt and snow, evidence of some hawk, or what Leopold called “feathered bombs,” dropping out of the sky for a meal. There are several species of hawks that remain year-round at Midewin, but the likely culprits in this treeless, 450-acre expanse are northern harriers. Unlike red-tailed hawks, which typically hunt from the perimeters of such open areas – they prefer elevated perches, such as trees, from which to swoop down and seize prey – northern harriers hunt by gliding slowly above open grasslands. They fly low, relying as much upon sound as sight.

And what a sight they are today, with nearly a dozen on the hunt – more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Another strong indication that this prairie recovery is working. Northern harriers are endangered in Illinois, a victim first of disappearing prairie and wetlands, and more recently of open farm fields giving way to suburban housing developments.

A little further down the path lies what’s left of one of those hedgerows that had to go so that harriers and other grassland-dependent birds could return. Where just a couple of months ago there was an impenetrable tangle of Osage orange trees, Japanese honeysuckle and multi-flora rose – non-native species all – there now remains nothing but a small mountain of mulch. Oh, and a couple dozen stacked trunks of cottonwood trees. The cut trees provide the opportunity to inhabit yet another sketch in A Sand County Almanac. It’s not yet February, I’m not here to saw the trees into firewood, and cottonwood is certainly not “Good Oak,” but I can count tree rings. I can surmise, as did Leopold with his fallen oak, how these cottonwoods came to grow here and use the tree rings as a timeline to chart the changes to the landscape over their lifetimes.

In truth, it’s tough to count tree rings in the soft wood of cottonwood trees, the saw blades having left obscuring scars. But as far as I can tell, most are roughly the same diameter and the most readable examples average 66 rings. That dates them to 1945, five years after the federal government acquired 36,345 acres of farmland to establish the Elwood Ordnance Plant and the Kankakee Ordnance Works, which came to be known collectively as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.

The cottonwoods in this hedgerow were likely “volunteers,” with the purposefully planted Osage orange providing a suitable nursery to catch wind-blown seed and harbor seedlings. Before the army took over, farmers likely would have kept the cottonwoods at bay so they didn’t shade or divert water from cropland. During the arsenal years, the army likely let the hedgerows run wild, with adjacent land largely used for the pasturing of cattle, which would have benefited from the shade of tall trees.

As much as I’d love to take an historical sleuthing through all of the tree rings as Leopold did, that biting wind and the start of a stinging snow makes me think better of it. For now.