“I feel like it’s raining…all over the world.”—Tony Joe White
Rain lashes the tallgrass prairie.
Wet. Wild. Windy, with gusts of 50 mph. I plunge my hands deep into my coat pockets and put up my hood.
It’s a day for hiking. A day for contemplation.
I’m walking Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a small remnant prairie of 10-plus acres sandwiched between houses, a golf course, and apartment complexes. There are shopping centers and recreation parks. Railroad tracks and an interstate. This prairie remnant is a favorite of mine. It is as old as time itself.
It co-exists with the people and the trappings of civilization and development. Peaceably.
I think about the people who saved this tiny remnant prairie. They saw something special when they looked at it; something irreplaceable.
We don’t know how to replicate a remnant prairie that functions in the same ways as the prairies we create from scratch. Sure, we plant prairies. And that’s a good thing. I’m a steward on a planted prairie, and it is full of delights and marvels. But it’s not a remnant prairie. There are very few high-quality remnants left in Illinois. Each one is unique. Each one is a small masterpiece of survival.
As I hike, I think about the Bell Bowl Prairie remnant at Chicago-Rockford International Airport.
It’s slated for destruction November 1.
Less than one week away.
I’m no activist. I like to live without conflict. And yet. I can’t get Bell Bowl Prairie out of my mind.
The prairies have given me a lot over the past 23 years. Places to walk, to write, to go to when I need to sort out my thoughts. I teach prairie classes. Give programs on prairie. Write prairie books—and write about the tallgrass here each week. I sketch prairie. Take my children and now, my grandchildren on prairie hikes and prairie picnics. The prairies have always been there for me. Now, it seems, I need to be there for them.
The questions in my mind come thick and fast.
“Do you love the prairie?”
“Does the rasp of big bluestem and Indian grass swaying in the October winds send a tingle down your spine?”
“Do you delight in the crystallized compass plant rosin? Do you love to tell the story of how Native American children chewed it like Wrigley’s Spearmint gum? Do you marvel at all the stories these plants have to tell us?”
“Do you walk the prairie in the rain, admiring the way it brings out contrast in the grasses and seedheads?”
“Are you grateful for what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things” in the world, in a time when so much is conflict and unrest?”
I ask myself these questions and more. What kind of world do I want to leave my children and grandchildren? Am I willing to step outside of my comfort zone to leave them things that really matter?
So much about the future is unknown.
We build upon the past. But what happens when we lose our heritage?
There is a lot I don’t know. There is much that I don’t understand. But I do know this: Each small “cog” and “wheel” has meaning as part of the whole. The wild things—even those in the middle of developments, or maybe especially those—are worth caring about.
When we lose any member of the prairie community—plants, birds, pollinators—-we lose something priceless.
Aldo Leopold wrote in his foreword to A Sand County Almanac: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”
We have a finite number of prairie remnants in North America. There is no original prairie anywhere else in the world. Once each remnant is gone, it is gone forever. There are no “do-overs.”
I’m thankful people spoke up and this remnant I hike today—Belmont prairie—was saved. I’m thankful for so many other wild places, including the prairie remnants, that were preserved through vision and the power of people’s voices. I say a few of the prairie remnant names out loud, speaking them as a prayer. Nachusa Grasslands. Hinsdale Prairie. St. Stephen. Wolf Road Prairie. Great Western Prairie. It grieves me to think of Bell Bowl Prairie missing from this list. Losing these wild places hurts everyone. This is one wild place that doesn’t have to be lost.
As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to speak out, I owe the prairies this space today.
Thank you for listening.
How Can I Help Save Bell Bowl Prairie?
Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help! Make a quick call, tweet or FB a note to your friends. Time is running out.
Tony Joe White (1943-2018) whose quote opens this post was nicknamed “The Swamp Fox” and wrote a number of songs, including “Poke Salad Annie,” made famous when Elvis Presley and Tom Jones both did covers. He also wrote songs covered by Tina Turner (“Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues”). But my favorite is “Rainy Night in Georgia,” from which the opening line is taken. Listen to the beautiful version by Brook Benton here.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
It’s too bad that the term is “remnant” prairie. When sewing, the remnants are the scraps. Perhaps remnant prairies should be called “first growth prairies” (like “first growth forests”) or “original prairies.”
And it is so sad that developers look at open land and only see “wasted” space upon which artificial structures can be built (and produce revenue).
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Hi Paula —
By any name, we’re about to lose one of these last wild places — I hope we can find middle ground with the airport — I think they can have an expansion and a prairie too! Let’s keep our fingers crossed….. thank you as always for reading and taking time to share your thoughts. Cindy 🙂
A really touching entry, Cindy, fitting for this time of year and the situation in Rockford. Thank you for featuring St. Stephen Cemetery too; I hadn’t heard of that one. I’d love to visit all of these throughout IL and the region.
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Thank you, Steve, for reading and taking a moment to comment. I’m so glad to introduce you to St. Stephen prairie! Visiting remnant prairies is good for the soul…. Cindy 🙂
You’ve captured so well my thoughts and feelings…
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We’ll keep hoping and praying, Karen! Thanks for sharing and for all you are doing through your art and social media for this important remnant. Cindy 🙂
Hoping there’s a last-minute reprieve for Bell Bowl Prairie, Cindy. I shared your FB post in a couple places yesterday, including our Wild Ones page. 🙂
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Oh, THANK YOU so very much! I feel like this is very much a Wild Ones issue, don’t you? If we don’t speak up about prairies, who will? Thank you for all you do to share the beauties of the natural world, and thank you again for sharing this with your network. Ripples! Cindy 🙂
Thank you Cindy for your voice, your lovely photos and your eloquence with words. May they reach the right ears. I continue to share the petition and our Sierra Club local leaders continue to speak up at public forums. May their thoughtful suggestions for compromise and a limited footprint be heard.
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Oh, dear Connie, THANK YOU! I am so grateful for your work, and I appreciate your “activism” for the natural world! So grateful!