Midewin-Dunes Connection

Along the Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

“The woods are lovely dark and deep/But I have promises to keep…” The Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

Last week, the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission voted in support of the Illiana Tollroad. To assuage my frustration and grief, I head to Midewin, which lies in the path of the proposed tollroad. But part way there, I turn the car around and make my way to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Why? In many ways, the Dunes are to Northwestern Indiana what Midewin is to Northeastern Illinois. Both are large, landscape-scale conservation areas. The Dunes National Lakeshore – along with its sister site, the Indiana Dunes State Park – measures nearly 18,000 acres. Midewin is a bit bigger at 19,000. (A lot bigger at 40,000 acres if you factor in its sister sites – the DesPlaines Conservation Area and Goose Lake Prairie.)

Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods...

Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods…

Both are ecological gems. The Dunes boasts over 1,100 flowering plants and ferns, making it one of the most biologically diverse of all our national parks. Even as Midewin is being fully restored to its original prairie state, it is a major refuge for all species of grassland birds.

In addition to being havens for native plants and animals, the Dunes and Midewin provide people something they can’t get anywhere else in our highly urbanized area: a chance to get away from it all for a little peace, quiet and introspection. In fact, the home page for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is titled “Sand and Solitude.” And the very word Midewin is a Potawatomi word for “healing.”

Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes

Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes

Living nearly equidistant between the Dunes and Midewin, it’s frequently a toss-up which one to visit for hiking and birding. Loving them equally, I go to both. A lot. The last thing in the world I would want to happen is for anyone even to suggest running a major tollroad alongside the Dunes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that doing so would be devastating. For plants and animals. For the people who visit. All the noise, congestion, pollution. Blech.

Along the Indiana stretch of the Illiana Tollroad – which NIRPC just voted to approve – it would run far to the south of the Dunes, mostly through farmland. But on the Illinois side of the state line, the Illiana would run along the entire southern border of Midewin. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to understand what a terrible effect that would have on any natural area.

In approving the Illiana, it’s obvious that NIRPC doesn’t much care what happens on the Illinois side. Unfortunately, neither does the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council’s MPO Committee, in its approval of the Illiana.

no illianaBut others care. Deeply. This tollroad ain’t built yet.

Midewin in Chicago

IMG_1395Through early January, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie can be found in Chicago at the corner of Montrose and Ravenswood. Inside, on the second floor, of Lill Street Gallery.

Nature has been inspiring artists since time immemorial. Think of the unamed artists who inscribed animals on the cave walls of Lascaux. Thomas Cole and the many other landscape artists who comprised the Hudson River School in the mid-19th century. Lorado Taft and his Eagle’s Nest Art Colony along the Rock River in northwest Illinois. Even a certain Midewin blogger who makes original stained glassworks inspired by his award winning garden. IMG_6487

IMG_1399Late this past summer, Artists Nora Renick Rinehart and Liz Ann Kozik spent a 24-hour period at the actual Midewin, located about 20 minutes south of Joliet. According to signage at the exhibit, “Liz drew from that which grows in the earth, the plant life that filled the landscape: prairie restoration, crops, grass, and weeds. These paintings became the wallpaper that now fills the gallery.”

“Nora turned her gaze upward to the sky, photographing the sky every two hours. Using household paint swatches, she captured the exact color of the sky in each particular moment. These photographs hang around the gallery.”


I’ve been out to Midewin proper more times than I can count. I’ve written about it extensively and taken thousands of pictures. But I also love seeing Midewin through the eyes of others. Nora and Liz are gifted artists, whose talents and perspectives beautifully complement each other in this exhibition that runs at Lill Street through January 5, 2014.

I love how Liz has captured the exceptional diversity of plant life at Midewin with minimal use of color. And how her subtle palette shift from green to gold mirrors the overall progression of prairie color from spring to fall.

IMG_1405And I find it both playful and inspired how Nora helps familiarize the viewer to the prairie landscape by holding up color swatches to match the sky. Whereas many may be unfamiliar with the prairie, virtually everyone has seen color swatches at Menards or Home Depot with such nature evoking names as “blue willow.” Placing the familiar alongside the unfamiliar provides a reference point to help us really see something new. And, if we think about it, to remind us that so much of the man-made color in the world comes directly from nature.

I was further drawn into Nora’s photgraphs in the act of photographing them myself. If you look closely, you will see in the reflection in the glass, me taking a photograph of a photograph of someone taking a photograph of themselves (or at least their hand) in the prairie. Cool.


Illiana is (not) for the Birds

no illianaAs if we needed another reason to oppose the Illiana tollroad, here’s one more - it would be disastrous for birds.

Roads are bad for all wildlife for the the reasons you’d expect: habitat fragmentation, pollution and collisions. Just this week, a second rare and radio-collared ocelet was killed by a motorist along a state highway in Texas. And today’s NY Times pins the population collapse of monarch butterflies on the loss of native habitat.

But it turns out that roads are “overwhelmingly negative” for birds for these usual reasons plus the simple fact that they are noisy. In a recent, first-of-its-kind study reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, researchers set up speakers in a remote, roadless stretch of Idaho wilderness during fall bird migration season. Every four days, they played traffic noise, followed by four days of no traffic noise. Not surprisingly, there was a 25 percent decrease in the number of bird species along the “phantom road” while the traffic noise was playing, with some species avoiding the area almost completely.

South Patrol Road Prairie

South Patrol Road Prairie

As proposed, the Illiana tollroad would run immediately adjacent to the Midewin complex along its entire southern border – a distance of about seven miles. Midewin already is bordered on the west by I-55 and bisected by Route 53, both of which boast heavy truck traffic. In my experience – as a volunteer bird monitor and one who spends quite a bit of time birdwatching out at Midewin – birds are scarce near these noise corridors. Adding Illiana into the mix would further shrink Midewin’s footprint as a refuge for some of the most imperiled birds on the earth.

And the extra noise, pollution and congestion would, well, simply suck for the human element at Midewin, as well. Part of the joy of Midewin is the fact that it is one of the very few places in the entire state where you can experience something akin to the wide open prairie landscape of pre-settlement times. Most prairie remnants are virtual postage stamps, some measuring less than an acre in size.

Upland sandpiper

Upland sandpiper

At 19,000 acres, Midewin affords the peace and solitude that were as much hallmarks of primeval prairies as was their fabled abundance of wildflowers, grasses and birds. The Illiana would permanently shatter that experience for everyone. Gone or greatly diminished would be the joys of listening to the subtle buzz of grasshopper sparrows, the sotto voce hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows or the burbling cries of state-endangered upland sandpipers.

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

There is nothing quite like standing in the midst of South Patrol Road Prairie at dusk,the early spring air thin and crisp, basking in the twittering mating calls of  woodcocks. Or shushing through this same prairie in mid-winter, sowing native wetland seeds, while the carillon from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery pierces the thin winter air to tickle your ear with its melancholy peal.

The route of the Illiana would run right alongside South Patrol Road Prairie, rendering these and inummerable other experiences as rare as the state-endangered loggerhead shrike. Or northern harrier. Or any number of threatened and endangered bird species who are just barely hanging onto existence because of places like Midewin.

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie



Illiana Illin’

131020 sprpFollowing the recent vote by the MPO Planning Committee to approve running a major tollroad through the heart of the Midewin complex, I simply had to come out to Midewin and relish the peace and quiet of the place before major road construction begins. In truth, there remains a slim chance that the tollroad won’t be built. It yet may prove too expensive for the much heralded (but still unidentified) private partners. The state yet may balk at having to backstop millions of dollars of profits for private interests.

But lost in all the raging debate about dollars and politics and legal challenges are the simple, unquantifiable joys of Midewin. And a late-autumn afternoon provides the perfect lens through which to relish them.

131020 aster131020 godenrodFor many, I would imagine, this time of the year the restored prairie lands of Midewin appear little more than fallow fields. Of weeds. Dead weeds. Of course, just below the surface, the roots of some 250 different species of native grasses and flowers are very much alive. And to the patient observer, there remain last, lovely snatches of life and color to be observed above ground.

131020 compass plant husk 2But even as their life energy recedes into the soil for a long, winter slumber, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to view the husks of towering prairie plants – some reaching more than ten feet tall – as sculptural works of art, set against scrims of scudding clouds.

Among the many joys of strolling through the 750-acre prairie husk gallery of South Patrol Road Prairie is listening to the subtle sounds of the prairie. Juncos and American tree sparrows delicately chirp their return for the winter. Crickets sing from hidden caches in the grasses. Grasshoppers, as you walk along the path, leap frog out your way, throwing their hard bodies against the dry, sandpaper paper leaves of compass plants.

Occasionally, a semi-truck will wend its way along River Road, that runs along the edge of South Patrol Road Prairie – just as the Illiana is proposed to do along nearly the entire southern boundary of Midewin. Just that one truck, its whining wheels like nails on a chalkboard in the otherwise serene soundscape of the place, is enough to drown out the prairie, to shatter the sanctuary that it is.

Mercifully, the truck passes. Your ears and eyes reatune themselves to the prairie. And you love it all the more in light of its potential loss.

131020 compass plant husk 3131020 big bluestem husks131020 compass plant husks

An open letter to Governor Quinn following the MPO Policy Committee’s vote regarding the Illiana Expressway

Dear Governor Quinn,

nighstand piece 2Less than one-tenth of one percent of quality natural land remains anywhere in Illinois. That’s roughly the equivalent of a small bedside nightstand in a 2,500 square foot home; provided you chop that nightstand into a thousand pieces and scatter them throughout theplace.

Less than one-tenth of onnighstand piece 1e percent. Chopped up into a thousand pieces.

One of the biggest and best remaining pieces is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and its sister sites – Goose Lake Prairie and DesPlaines Conservation Area.

Yesterday’s vote by the MPO Policy Committee paves the way for the Illiana Expressway to be built right through the middle of this last best stand of nature in all of Northern Illinois.

IDOT engineers assure us that there will be no adverse effects on the natural areas through which the Illiana will course 43,000 vehicles per day. Pardon me, but I’m going trust the ecologists, botanists and avian experts who are not on the state payroll.

Midewin LogoExperts tell me – supported by data that I help collect as a volunteer bird monitor at Midewin – that Midewin is a critical refuge for grassland birds. Over the past few decades, suburban sprawl has gobbled up farmland and grasslands at an explosive rate. As a result, “grassland birds have experienced steeper, more consistent, and more widespread population declines than any other avian guild in North America.” Populations of the eastern meadowlark, for instance, whose image is emblazoned on Midewin’s logo, has declined by 72 percent. To put it another way, there are 17 million fewer meadowlarks today than there were in 1970.

17 million.

Building the Illiana will drive a stake through the heart of Midewin. It will gobble up thousands of acres of farmland. Tens of thousands. For once the road is built, unchecked suburban sprawl will follow as it has throughout our history; the very thing that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and its Go To 2040 Plan was hoping to avoid in favor of smart, strategic, sustainable development for the entire region – not just the politically advantageous county of Will.

CMAP-GO-TO-2040If the Illiana is built – and I have no doubt that in the end the state, not the much heralded private partners, will undertake the lion’s share of financial risk in building it – Midewin will remain. But it will be decidedly less. It will be green, but comparatively devoid of the bird song that should fill it. This, too, will be your legacy. A perpetual Silent Spring save for the constant roar of cars and commerce. And so it seems fitting that I leave you with a quote from Rachel Carson:

“Why should we toleratrachel-carson-silent-springe a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Oh, de Odanata at Midewin

All those years of birdwatching? Turns out birds may only have been a gateway drug. These days I can’t get enough of Odanata. Dragonflies and damseflies.

There are about 5,000 species of Odanata worldwide, approximately half the number of bird species. But dragonflies have been around for nearly twice as long as birds, dating back more than 250 million years.

In Illinois, there are 99 known species of dragonflies and damselflies; about one-third the total number found in North America. With the record-setting rainfall this spring, the air at Midewin is teeming with more species than I can count today. They are devilishly quick on the wing, but every once in a while they take a rest from their voracious feeding or territory defending, allowing my camera a taste of their rich colors and stained glass wings.

Most dragonfly names have quite the dramatic flair. This male widow skimmer is distinct for its white and dark wing patches, combined with a dusky, bluish-grey abdomen (or tail.)

Most dragonfly names have quite the dramatic flair. This male widow skimmer is distinct for its white and dark wing patches, combined with a dusky, bluish-grey abdomen (or tail.)

Emerald Jewelwing. The name says it all about this damselfly that flits like a butterfly.

Emerald Jewelwing. The name says it all about this damselfly that flits like a butterfly.

This eastern ringtail is notable for its blue eyes. green striped thorax, and rusty ovipositor (the tip of its tail.)

This eastern ringtail is notable for its blue eyes. green striped thorax, and rusty ovipositor (the tip of its tail.)

One of the smallest dragfonflies in North America, this eastern amberwing appears to have learned to smile for the camera.

One of the smallest dragfonflies in North America, this eastern amberwing appears to have learned to smile for the camera. (Click on the photo for a close up view.)

If you're going to hang out in wetlands, you might as well enjoy the pickerel frogs, as well.

If you’re going to hang out in wetlands, you might as well enjoy the pickerel frogs, as well.

And green frogs.

And green frogs.

Even tadpoles that will emerge into bullfrogs, which eat just about anything they can catch, including dragonflies.

Even monster tadpoles that will morph into bullfrogs, which eat just about anything they can catch, including dragonflies.

Bullfrogs are not the only threat to dragonflies. This eastern pondhawk is not above eating other dragonflies, even fellow pondhawks.

Bullfrogs are not the only threat to dragonflies. This eastern pondhawk is not above eating other dragonflies, even fellow pondhawks.


Female twelve-spotted skimmers lack the white wing patches that alternate between the dark patches. But the yellow side stripes on their bodies (thoraxes) tend to be more distinct.

Compared to the males, female twelve-spotted skimmers lack the white wing patches that alternate between the dark patches. But the yellow side stripes on their bodies (thoraxes) tend to be more distinct.

Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? (Click on the photo for a close up view.)

OK. Full disclosure. I've long had a jones for dragonflies. This window skimmer lives year round in my home.

OK. Full disclosure. I’ve long had a jones for dragonflies. This window skimmer lives year round in my home.

If dragonfly wings are, perhaps, the true inspiration for stained glass, why not have stained glass dragonflies gracing your home?

After all, if dragonfly wings are nature’s stained glass, it only makes sense to honor them by incorporating dragonflies into some of the stained glass artworks I’ve crafted for my home.




Fire and Rain

“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” More than a refrain from a classic James Taylor hit, fire and rain are two fundamental life forces in ample evidence this summer at Midewin. One of which we have control over. The other, not so much.

photoBack in April, a controlled burn was conducted in South Patrol Road Prairie. Prior to European settlement, the prairies of Illinois burned regularly, perhaps once every one to five years. Set by lightning or, later, by Native Americans to drive game to slaughter, fires kept trees and shrubs from cropping up on the prairie, cleared away thatch, and returned nutrients to the soil without damaging native prairie plants, whose roots run deep and well protected.

The fire that was good for maintaining the health of the prairies, however, rightly filled early pioneers with “a terror easier imagined than described…at many times a prairie miles long and on fire with a strong wind was in a dense flame for hundreds of yards wide…while the prairie is in a general conflagration, a terrible roaring, something similar to thunder, is heard…the flame often rose many feet high and would destroy any animal, man or other that was caught in in it.”

Small wonder, then, that those who settled the prairie quickly strove to eliminate fires from the landscape. But with the advent of ecological restoration over the past few decades, the use of controlled burns has become one of the primary tools for maintaining the health of prairies, wetlands and even some woodland types.

Burn area is to the left of the red arrow.

Burn area is to the left of the red arrow.

I am  certified by Chicago Wilderness to serve on burn crews, but this is one job neither I nor any other volunteer are permitted do at Midewin. At Midewin, controlled burns are the  exclusive domain of the Midewin Interagency Hot Shot Crew. And what a great job they did, safely burning most of the 460-acre site in a single day. Within a week, like green phoenixes, the tender shoots of prairie plants were pushing up out of the ash.

controlled burn resproutsLast year, record drought conditions stunted the growth of most prairie plants in South Patrol Road Prairie. This year, with record rainfall following the burn, South Patrol Road Prairie has exploded in lush herbaceous greens and the full range of pinks, whites, purples and yellows of native wildflowers.

“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…”

The veins of a prairie dock leaf

The veins of a prairie dock leaf

Blue flag iris


Cream white indigo

Cream white indigo




Easter Blessing

IMG_0555Oh, good people. Let’s to the fields of Midewin. Spring is springing.

At first blush, the landscape may look rather grey and uninviting, but look first with your ears. The meadowlarks have returned and are among the earliest songbirds to fill the air with their melodies: sol-ti-do-mi-do. (For those of you who know solfege, feel free to sing along.)

Not to be outdone, song sparrows throw back their heads and let loose with a tuneful blend of whistles, chirps and buzzes.

If songbirds are today’s featured soloists, downy woodpeckers peep piccolo-like descants, the wing beats of wood ducks are fluttering flutes, red-winged blackbirds ratchet out a rhythm, and chorus frogs comprise the back-up band.

With its wings spread wide as it glides low over the prairie, a northern harrier seems less hunter than conductor. A coyote cocks its head and listens intently. For a mouse? A vole? Or, might she, too, be taking a moment out of her day to delight in the sounds, sights and smells of early spring?

For me, this moment, this clear, warming morning, this natural symphony is underscored by a leitmotif that runs involuntarily through my mind; the opening line of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Like Leopold, I cannot. And for that, on this day before Easter,  I give thanks for Midewin and the return, the recovery, the resurrection of my native prairie state. Amen.

Il Fait Neige Encore

110331 jim and ruthThe best Christmas present I get every year is a poem from my dear friend, Jim Ballowe. This year’s gift, as with most of Jim’s poems, is liberally laced with images from nature:

“At the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the blue heron, / gangly-legged in the kelp, whipcords an eel / against a rock, then bill pointing skyward / consumes the wriggling whorl in peristaltic comedy / we who lack such a neck can only imagine…”

In its entirety, Jim’s “Pas de Deux” is actually a love poem to his wife, with whom he shares a deep love and appreciation for the natural world and the beautiful drama inherent in it.

Over the years, I’ve written my fair share of poems to lovers, to nature, to lovers of nature. In my salad days, I even attempted one in French, tinged with German and English:

“Il fait neige encore. / Pourquoi? / Peut-etre parce-que la terre / La terre est fatigue / Und mude / And sad…”


Suffice it to say I’m no poet. But hiking through Midewin this winter recalls my youthfully pretentious poem to mind. “Il fait neige encore.” “It’s snowing again.” Not much snow, mind you, but it brings to an end a record 335 consecutive days without at least one inch of snow on the ground. This, coupled with below normal rainfall and one of the hottest summers on record last year has left the landscape of Midewin as dry, as arid, as sere as I’ve ever seen it.

121122 prairie creek pond“Pourquoi?” “Why?” Well, argue with the cause all you may, but this is what climate change looks like. Prairie Creek Pond, a relict ox bow of Prairie Creek, is fast disappearing.

The many ditches that yet run through Midewin, relicts of its farming and arsenal past, have gone completely dry. The mix of wetland and wet prairies that dot many of the restored areas of Midewin are devoid of, well, much of anything that’s wet.

chicago pedestrians in the snow 2Many people I meet are thrilled that we have “escaped” winter. No snow is first and foremost a matter of personal convenience. No shoveling. No messy commutes to work.

I, too, appreciate not having to shovel snow before commuting to my job downtown. But come springtime, will there be enough water in Prairie Creek Pond to support the full chorus of toads and frogs that fill the cool evening air with melodious mating calls?

Abandoned beaver dam on a relict drainage ditch

Will enough water return to the ditches to support the beaver that made this now-abandoned dam? Will there be enough standing water in South Patrol Road Prairie, Grant Creek Prairie and other restored areas to support returning flocks of ducks, geese, cranes and other water-loving birds?

Even more so than in the poetry of my youth, I see, I sense, I feel a great fatigue in the arid earth. A weariness. A sadness. But what to do? Getting your mind around something as big and complex as climate change can be a real brain cruncher. So much so that putting your head in the sand sometimes seems like a perfectly rationale response: “Ne pas a penser. Ne pas a choisir,” as I concluded in my poem. “To not think. To not choose.”

110127 cutting honeysuckleFortunately, there are many dedicated volunteers and staff at Midewin who remind me that restoring such a large, landscape scale site is one of the best ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. And so, I do what I can. I help clean seeds, plant prairie plugs, cut buckthorn, yank garlic mustard and monitor grassland birds.

If I were to write a French poem today about how it feels to help recover healthy populations of native plants and animals at Midewin, it might go something like this:




Of the male bobolink's song, Thoreau wrote, “It is as if he touched his harp with a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the strings…away he launches, and the meadow is all bespattered with melody.”

110731 iron bridge prairie

And the Walls Come A-tumblin’ Down

Unlike the fabled walls of Jericho, it takes more than blowing a trumpet to bring down the bunker walls at Midewin.  Knocking down walls meant to withstand – or at least direct – accidental explosions of armaments requires big bucks and heavy equipment.

From a distance, the bunkers – or igloos or magazines – of Midewin seem sort of natural. Like moguls. Or glacial kames. To those with a literary bent, they blend into the landscape as seamlessly as Hobbit homes of Middle Earth.

Up close, it’s easier to see them for what they were – each one a mini-fortress to cure TNT and harbor bombs. Each bunker is made of concrete reinforced with rebar. The walls are 12 inches thick near the rounded top and flare to 15 inches at the base below ground. The theory was that in the event of an accidental explosion, the force of the blast would be directed upwards rather than to the sides, which would lessen the likelihood of a chain reaction among neighboring bunkers.

All the interior widths measure 26 ½ feet, but the bunkers vary in length – between 40 and 80 feet – depending on what was stored in them. The bunkers on the west side of Midewin – the site of the Kankakee Ordnance Works – typically harbored “various chemicals and compound products that went into the making of bombs and other armaments.” Bunkers on the east side – the site of the Elwood Ordnance Plant – generally held finished shells and bombs.

Topping off each bunker is a layer of soil approximately 2 ½ feet thick. This helps keep the interior at a constant temperature, which was as good for storing ammunition as it is for over-wintering prairie plants.

When Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service inherited nearly 400 bunkers (along with about 1,500 arsenal-era buildings and related infrastructure.) To date, several bunkers have been demolished as part of an effort to restore a rare dolomite prairie.

Currently, the National Forest Foundation has secured the funding to help the Forest Service take down several more bunkers – the first of about 50 that need to be removed to restore a 2,000-acre inholding to its native prairie state.

Once this 2,000-acre parcel is restored, it will link existing restoration areas – South Patrol Road Prairie, Lobelia Meadows and Grant Creek – comprising the largest, contiguous stretch of tallgrass prairie in the entire state of Illinois.

Now that’s something to trumpet.