“Illinois has no genesis, no history, no shoals or deeps, no tides of life and death.”
Aldo Leopold, Illinois Bus Ride
It’s not true, of course, as Leopold well knew when he penned his essay in the 1940s. What is true is that for most people Illinois’ creation story lies buried beneath endless acres of soybeans and corn or the incessant sprawl of track housing and shopping malls. Speeding along its highways, it’s hard to imagine the landscape of Illinois submerged under a shallow salt sea, as it once was, or alternately scoured and sculpted by the advance and retreat of massive glaciers. Or part of an Edenesque expanse of flowers and grasses that extended from Canada to Mexico, Indiana to the Rocky Mountains.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a 20,000-acre book where the rich history of Illinois still may be read. Peeking here and there through the richest soils on earth is bedrock born of that ancient sea. The glaciers are long gone but they left behind signature creeks, moraines and other geologic landforms. The native people who lived here before us left their own landform signatures on the landscape, as did the pioneer homesteaders who first plowed under the prairies. As did the federal government when it bought up the farms to establish the largest and most sophisticated munitions manufacturing facility in the world.
The next chapter in the book of Midewin is its return, its recovery, its resurrection as tallgrass prairie. Given the scope and scale of changes over the past 150 years, it’s going to take a lot of people a long time to heal the land. But that’s shaping up to be one of the best parts of the story. Midewin was named for a healing society among the Pottawatomi, who used to inhabit this land. The Midewin healing society of today includes people from all walks of life who generously volunteer their time to cut brush, pull garlic mustard, sow and harvest native seed, plant native “plugs,” and monitor rare plant species and endangered grassland birds.
I first began volunteering at Midewin soon after its establishment in 1996. In 2010, with the cooperation of the USDA Forest Service, I decided to use my volunteer experiences as a lens through which to more deeply explore Midewin’s multi-faceted history. This blog is the on-line diary of my experiences, my research, my observations. At the end of this year, I’ll build upon them to write a book celebrating the once and future tallgrass prairie (and everything that came in between) of Midewin.