Green Fire at Midewin

It was a perfect trifecta: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, The Wetlands Initiative and a film about Aldo Leopold. Actually it was a perfect quadfecta, because the screening took place at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Midewin is the most ambitious tallgrass prairie restoration effort in the nation. The Wetlands Initiative – working in close partnership with the USDA Forest Service, which manages Midewin – is the driving force behind many of the individual restorations at Midewin.

Midewin doesn’t actually appear in the documentary Green Fire, Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time. But it embodies, on a grand scale, what Leopold stood for. Following the film, staff from TWI and the Forest Service described how Leopold’s land ethic, written more than 60 years ago, drives the recovery of Midewin today.

For me, it boils down to this: during the course of the past century and a half, the 20,000 acres of Midewin have been sorely abused; first in the production of crops, secondly in the manufacture of arms. Following the closing of the arsenal, it would have been an easy thing to pave the land over and throw up some subdivisions and strip malls. In fact, there were many that were itching for the dollars that would flow from that very thing.

But as Leopold pointed out in perhaps his defining essay, “The land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against…modern trends.”

At Midewin, a small but determined number of groups and individuals had a different vision: to restore the land to its native state. In so doing, they revolted against “the belief that economics determines all land use.” (Again, using Leopold’s words.) But rather embraced his idea that those involved in land use decisions should consider “what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

In the end , a part of the former Joliet arsenal was sliced off for a landfill. Another part for an intermodal transport facility. Another part for a union trade school. Another for a national cemetery. But by far most of the land – 20,000 acres – was reserved for nature. No, that‘s not quite right. Midewin is reserved very much for people, too.  Without people, the land could not recover. It takes people to heal an abused landscape. Lots and lots of people. From all walks of life. From professional staff to volunteers. To help return the native plants and animals to the land. And in so doing, they recover a close relationship to the land. They breathe life into Leopold’s concept of a land ethic as well as the very meaning of the word Midewin: healing.

The Hunt

Volunteers aren’t the only ones harvesting Midewin’s bounty this fall. For about a month now, hunters have been in the field in search of deer. And their effort is just as important to the restoration and long-term health of Midewin as that of we weekend seed-gatherers.

I, too, had intended to join in the hunt this fall. My first time ever. Last January, I successfully completed the state hunter safety training. I even went so far as to obtain a state license to own a firearm. A neighbor who’s been hunting since he was a kid was going to take me out to a firing range to get some practice. Although he would have preferred my taking up a bow and arrow instead. More sporting.

 

I wasn’t into it for the sport. Although Aldo Leopold – the dean of the modern conservation movement –was. In his later years, he hunted almost exclusively with homemade bows and arrows. Perhaps in part because of his youthful experience of watching the “green fire” go out in the eyes of a wolf he had shot with a rifle – a story he relates with heartfelt remorse and introspection in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac.

I certainly wasn’t looking forward to any green fire going out in the eyes of a deer I might shoot. Especially since deer are such magnificent creatures – spotted fawns, doe-eyed does and big bucks alike. But I was willing to give it a go because the restoration of our natural areas depends on the control – the killing – of white-tail deer. There are more deer in Illinois than ever. Largely because we people have created the conditions that allow their populations to explode unchecked by natural forces.

And deer are voracious herbivores. Without deer fences around the native plant seed beds, we couldn’t grow the many different kinds of plants we need to restore the prairie. And without serious deer control, much of what we plant in the prairie restorations would be nibbled to a quick and die.

But even within the conservation community, there are those who disparage hunting. And, more specifically, hunters. Nonetheless, the simple truth is conservationists need hunters. We need people who know how to carry and fire a shotgun safely. To set up in a tree stand before dawn on a frigid morning. To wait patiently for hours. And in the event that a deer ventures within firing range, to aim true so the animal doesn’t suffer. And then field dress the carcass. And then hike perhaps miles back to the parking lot with perhaps 200 pounds of deer meet on his or her back.

There’s nothing about the experience that is for the faint of heart or body. I might have handled the rigors of the experience well. I just never got in any practice with a firearm. To go out into the field without practice, I would have been a danger to myself and others. Maybe next year. Maybe never. But for those who do venture safely and successfully into the hunting fields, my blaze orange cap is off to them.

Prairie Pilgrim’s Progress, Pt. 1

I’m not a religious man. But I believe in pilgrimages. I believe in preparing oneself for a journey. Re-reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which continues to inspire A Midewin Almanac, I find myself in need of spending some time at Leopold’s beloved “shack.”

But like any pilgrimage worth the effort, there are important shrines to visit along the way. First up is American Players Theatre. To my mind, it is the North American equivalent of Delphi. Set in the exquisite, unglaciated hills of southwest Wisconsin, it attracts many fellow pilgrims from far and wide who seek the voice of the gods in the works of Shakespeare and other classical dramatists.

Nearly 20 years ago, I spent one of the best summers of my life as an actor at APT. Night after night, under the stars, slaying the bloody King of Scotland or standing firm against mob mentality in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

This night, I set sail on a production of The Tempest; the same show in which I appeared on the same stage all those many years ago. If I had remained in acting, I would have relished the opportunity to grow into the role of Prospero and command the elements:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.

As a volunteer restorationist at Midewin, my skills and abilities are considerably less dramatic. But they’re enough that I can deeply appreciate the hillside prairie restorations that are a vital part of the APT experience.

 

 

 

Next up on the pilgrimage…Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen.

Sky Dance

Not two weeks ago I came across a dead woodcock in a downtown flower planter. The victim of a collision with a skyscraper. The dead bird, for me, was a double sadness because I had never seen a live one.

Today, hiking into South Patrol Road Prairie, I expect to see lots of ducks. I am not disappointed. Countless mallards accented by a few northern shovelers and blue-winged teals. I expect to see a few more meadowlarks and harriers, some tree sparrows and killdeers. Check. Less expected are the scores of common snipe and a lesser yellow legs that lands with a piping whistle not ten feet from me.

Totally unexpected is the chunky, long-billed bird I flush from some short grasses. An American woodcock. As with common snipe, woodcocks afford you a few seconds at most to identify them before disappearing back into the grasses or, in this case, a nearby island of woods. But the bird’s plumpness and clearly visible rust colors among the otherwise excellent camouflage strongly indicate woodcock.

To be sure, I return to the site at dusk. Normally, Midewin is closed at dusk. But as this is my first calling frog monitoring night of the season, I am permitted by the Forest Service to be on site in a particular area after dark. The place where I saw the woodcock is near to where I monitor frogs. And so, in the fading light, I stand at the edge of the island woodland, staring out over the adjacent grassland.

And then I hear it. Peent. Peent. At first, it sounds to me like the buzzy flight call of a nighthawk. But scanning the skies, I see nothing. Then I realize that the sound – or the many sounds, now – are actually coming from the ground in both the woodland and the grassland.

And then I see it. The dark silhouette of a chunky bird, fluttering straight up, higher, higher, all the while twittering melodiously away. And when it is nearly out of sight – in spite of the biggest full moon I can remember seeing (tonight, I would learn later, marks a perigee moon; the biggest in almost 20 years) – the bird flutters back to earth. Not like a crippled plane, as Aldo Leopold described. But rather as a large autumn maple leaf.

For a taste of the experience, here’s a video clip, taken from Heller Nature Center: woodcock sky dance. (For those who prefer their woodcocks set to pop music, I’d suggest: you’ve got to move it, move it, mr. woodcock.)

Crippled Planes

Here’s another reason I volunteer at Midewin. Every year, thousands of migrating birds die by crashing into downtown Chicago buildings. I found this American woodcock today in a planter on Michigan Avenue near Randolph.

Every spring and fall, thousands of migrating birds collide with downtown buildings, confused by their bright lights; this in spite of a fairly successful Lights Out, Chicago! campaign, by which building owners voluntarily turn out or dim their lights during spring and fall migration season (http://lightsout.audubon.org/lightsout_home.php.)

And there’s also a dedicated band of volunteers who patrol the streets of Chicago pre-dawn to rescue migrating birds that have crashed into buildings over night (http://www.birdmonitors.net/intro.html.)

I applaud these efforts. I’ve even helped rescue wounded birds one spring season. But if our birds are to survive long-term, they need more than triage and minimized dangers. They must have large, healthy habitats in which to rest and feed and rear their young. I’ve yet to see an American woodcock at Midewin, but others have. I look forward to what Aldo Leopold describes as their “sky dance:”

In late April/early May, At daybreak and dusk, the male “flies in low and at once begins…a series of queer throaty peents. Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting sound.”

Were he alive and writing today, Leopold certainly would have chosen a different metaphor to describe the descent of a woodcock attempting to impress a mate. Describing anything as tumbling out of the sky like a “crippled plane” in a post-911 world is dicey, even if so many woodcocks and other migrating birds literally do so given the exponential increase in the number and height of skyscrapers over the past 60 years.

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.

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.

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.