Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.
Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…
… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.
You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?
So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.
As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.
Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.
Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.
Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “
What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.
I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…
… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.
Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.
I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.
The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”
The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.
It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.
Thanks, Dr. Betz.
You made a difference.
Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”
For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.
“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard
Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.
For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.
Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.
If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.
Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.
And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.
Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.
While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).
I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.
Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”
The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.
When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.
How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.
Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.
University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.
A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”
Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.
What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.
I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!
Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit,a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!
Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.
The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.
On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.
Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.
Too tired to read?
Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.
If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.
There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethicin previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.
Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:
The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!
What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.
Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.
The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.