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Posts Tagged ‘Big Bluestem’

With Maple Lake and its forested splendor just a few miles south, the Wolf Road Prairie is equidistant north of our Cutoff. It sits, quietly hidden, just off two bustling metropolitan thoroughfares. I’ve been wanting to take a walk there for quite some time.

On Sunday afternoon, we took that walk.

Illinois is known as The Prairie State, and for good reason. 70% of Illinois was native prairie two centuries ago. Early explorers wrote of a “sea of grass” as far the eye could see. It was not uncommon for men to become lost on the prairie, whose miles of grass stood twelve feet high. Children of pioneers sometimes disappeared, never to be seen again, as the tall grasses would seem to swallow them up. The prairie was a perilous place to raise children.

Today, there is precious little native prairie left in Illinois; much of it was claimed as farmland during the great migration westward, for here lies the richest soil in the country. Bustling towns, housing developments, shopping malls, interstate highways, and the folly of man captured the rest of Illinois’ prairie. Fortunately, the Wolf Road Prairie, 80 acres of meadowlands, oak savannah, and wetland, was saved from a planned housing development, plotted for 600 homes, in the 1920’s, by the Great Depression. As we entered the prairie, we walked for a short spell on sidewalks originally laid for that development.

We parked our car at one of the two car banks, checked out the map of the terrain, and entered the trail, passing through the coolness of the oak trees.  The

Big Bluestem. Image from museum.state.il.us

sidewalk abruptly ended, opening onto the prairie path. Under the sky blue canopy and the warm glow of the sun, it was easy to imagine the Potawatomi moving slowly through the big bluestem , hunting deer, gathering seeds, and fishing in the nearby creek. One could almost see the ghosts of pioneers, the ruts from their wagons forming all but hidden paths like the one we were walking, wild indigo brushing their long skirts and homespun shirts, the vast sea of grass before them and behind them for days on end.

I feel yet another reading of  “LIttle House on the Prairie” coming on.

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As we left Morris on Saturday, we took a spin around its quaint streets with well-tended turn of the century homes and an old stone church, sitting quietly on a corner. How interesting that it is now divided into condos. We passed a long footbridge we saw earlier while at  the 3 Hens Market, then pointed the buckboard, aka mocha VW, to the road out of town.

Off we went, Ma and Pa, taking in the colorful display of Autumn kissed trees blushing in the sunshine. It was such a splendid day and we were so enjoying the scenery  that we just meandered along, like the slow moving I & M Canal we were leaving, and neared the confluence of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers.

We’ve been lucky of late. We seem to be finding the loveliest of places as we’ve wandered  on those roads less travelled. Such was the case on Saturday as we found ourselves coming upon the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area. Tom stopped the car, we rolled down the windows, and sat for spell, listening to the ancient peace of the Illinois prairie.

As I looked out at the more than 2,500 acres of reclaimed prairie, “the largest remnant of prairie left in Illinois”, I felt just a glimpse of what early pioneers must have felt and seen as they traveled westward in covered wagons, seeking a better life and some land of their own. I could smell the scents of the tall grasses, some over ten feet in height, and I could  hear the music of the wind in the prairie cord grass. The rusts and golds and bronzes were glorious with the goldenrod and asters peeking through. It was a panoramic vista and we were one of only a dozen or so pilgrims on the prairie.

The day was starting to cast its shadows, so, we took the shorter Tall Grass Nature Trail, which led us to a small marsh and replica of one of the first log cabins in the area.

There is no lake on the Goose Lake Prairie. Settlers drained the 1,000 acre lake for farmland in 1890, which proved to be a folly, for the land remained too wet to farm. The clay, so prevalent in Illinois, was used for pottery, the land mined for coal, and later, strip-mined. In 1968, the first 240 acres were purchased by the State of Illinois, with more land being reclaimed through the following years, giving us all the 2,500 prairie today. Thank goodness for the foresight and determination of those early environmental pioneers who saw the vision of returning the prairie.

We walked along, finch flitting about in their search for seeds, some butterflies looking for nourishment, and a chorus of crickets and frogs.

The reconstructed Cragg Cabin, was, according to the preserves’ brochure, “A predecessor to a truck stop. The Cragg cabin served as a stop on the old Chicago-Bloomington Teamster Trail.”  The Cragg family lived there and often put up twenty or more teamsters a night.

Well, dear reader, Ma and Pa’s pioneer adventure is over for now. The 21st century has crept back in as I hit the “publish” space.

Snip, snap, snout – this tale’s told out.

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Imagine a place to sit and write about your experience in a prairie; the Big Bluestem and Shooting Star, Common Mountain Mint and Culver’s Root,  Asclepias tuberosa, known as Prairie Milkweed, which is the plant monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs. Imagine a place to  sit and draw a monarch flitting about, searching for nectar or warming in the sun. Imagine identifying insects teeming in prairie plants. Imagine this place. A simple log and a sundial measuring the passage of time, all centered along a busy street with airplanes overhead and school bells ringing. Imagine a quiet respite as you experience the once great prairies that covered much of the midwestern United States.

Imagine.

I told you a little bit about the Churchville Middle School’s Diversity and Prairie Gardens earlier this week when I spoke about our garden club’s meeting. This morning, I had the opportunity to see it as part of a dedication/ribbon cutting ceremony at the school. It was rewarding to hear those involved, from the writing of the grant to its being awarded and the actual work that was done. I was impressed by the circle of supporters that included school and park district, forestry district, foundations, faculty, parents, our garden club and especially students involved in this project aimed at moving children “toward environmental citizenship”.

The log above is part of the diversity garden, which is near the schoolyard prairie. It was provided by the park district and is one of several forming a circle providing places to sit. A sundial will be its centerpiece, its base constructed by industrial arts students. It was amazing as we all filtered from inside the school to the diversity garden, the skies heavy and threatening rain, the students walking with a purpose toward the logs where they promptly sat. It struck me that the students from Churchville have already claimed the space as theirs. Some of these youngsters have already moved toward environmental citizenship.

Illinois is known as the “prairie state”, and for good reason. Before settlers to the area, there were some 22 million acres of native plants.  Only 2,00o acres remain today. This little prairie is to me a living, moving, breathtaking outdoor museum and classroom. I was impressed to learn that more than 50 species are catalogued here, with many more not yet recorded. What a remarkable environment this already is for not only students here and now, but those to come.

Imagine. Nestled in a bustling area of traffic and noise and busyness, sits a little bit of Illinois prairie and a center for honoring our diverse populations. Adults who care and children who have an opportunity to learn and grow in a simple way surrounded by a complex world.

Imagine.

Segment of the Diversity Garden.

The prairie garden.

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