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Rainy Day on a Remnant Prairie

“I feel like it’s raining…all over the world.”—Tony Joe White

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Rain lashes the tallgrass prairie.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

It co-exists with the people and the trappings of civilization and development. Peaceably.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I think about the people who saved this tiny remnant prairie. They saw something special when they looked at it; something irreplaceable.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I think about the Bell Bowl Prairie remnant at Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

It’s slated for destruction November 1.

Belmont Prairie Parking Lot, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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?”

Monarch migration, Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

“Does the rasp of big bluestem and Indian grass swaying in the October winds send a tingle down your spine?”

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“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?”

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“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?

Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii), remnant at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2018).

So much about the future is unknown.

We build upon the past. But what happens when we lose our heritage?

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with tiny pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Citrine forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

When we lose any member of the prairie community—plants, birds, pollinators—-we lose something priceless.

Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

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.”

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.”

St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie remnant, Carol Stream, IL.

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.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to speak out, I owe the prairies this space today.

Thank you for listening.

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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.

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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.