“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson
Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.
Probably the holidays.
Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.
Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.
Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.
On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.
Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.
Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.
Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.
Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.
A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.
White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.
I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.
But the magic of the switchgrass…
…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.
After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”
We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.
This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.
Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.
Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.
But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.
Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.
I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants. Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value. Its history. And because of this, it survives.
This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds. We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.
Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.
Hope for the future.
The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Nature, once for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.
Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!
Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26. Details and registration here.
Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.