Resurrecting Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again. “–Thomas Wolfe

***

Pulling sweet clover and giant ragweed from the prairie on hot June mornings can seem endless. On one workday, sweating and tired, a volunteer turned to me and sighed. “Tell me again–why are we doing this?”

I can’t remember exactly what I said. But this is what I wish I’d said.

Just a few hundred years ago, more than half of Illinois was prairie.

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Settlers moved in,  looking for adventure and a better life. Agriculture and the John Deere plow soon turned prairies into acres of corn and soybeans. There was good in this–we need places to live, and food to eat. But we didn’t remember to pay attention to what we were losing.

And when we forget to pay attention, our losses can be irreplaceable.

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For a while, it looked as if the prairie would become nothing more than a ghost. A distant memory.

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But, just as the tallgrass had all but vanished, a few people woke up to what we had. They panicked when they saw how little of the Illinois prairie was left…

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Then, they sounded an alarm to save those few thousand acres of original tallgrass that remained.

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They persuaded others to reconstruct prairies where they had disappeared, and to restore degraded prairies back to vibrant health. Soon, prairie wildflowers and their associated insects returned. Purple milkweed and bees…

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Wild quinine and tiny bugs…

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…the prairie’s roses and crab spiders…

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The drain tiles that piped the wet prairies dry were broken up.  The land remembered what it once was.

Dragonflies returned and patrolled the tallgrass.

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The rare glade mallow raised her blooms again in the marshy areas, with a critter or two hidden in her petals.

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These reconstructed and restored prairies are different, of course. Bison roam…

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…but within fenced units. Power lines and jet contrails scar the skies that were once marked only with birds and clouds. Today, you may see houses along the edges, where once the tallgrass stretched from horizon to horizon.

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It’s not perfect. But when we made a promise to future generations to bring back the prairies for them, we crossed a bridge of sorts.

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We put aside our own instant gratification.

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Every weed we pull; every seed we collect and plant, is in hopes that the Illinois prairie won’t be a ghost to the children who grow up in Illinois in the future.

Rather, it will be the landscape they love and call home.

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Photos (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; old barns, Flagg Township, Ogle County, IL; moon rising over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Scribner’s panic grass (Dicanthelium oligosanthes), The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo or false indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture rose (Rosa carolina) with a crab spider, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; child crossing the bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, I; sunset over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The introductory quote is from Look Homeward Angel, by Thomas Wolfe, an American novelist in the early 20th Century. This quote is used to describe the lost prairie by John Madson in his seminal book on tallgrass, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.

2 responses to “Resurrecting Prairie Ghosts

  1. so poignant, Cindy…I will miss the Illinois prairie, but have so many memories: sights, sounds, textures, and smells to remind me of its beauty

    and your Tuesday walks in the prairie, as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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