[TEXT ARCHIVE WEB-PUBLISHED
ORIGINAL PRINT PUBLICATION DATE: SUMMER 1998.]
most of the last few thousand years, two seas converged
on the spot where Chicago now stands. One was blue, the
other green. The blue sea, Lake Michigan, still pounds against
the shore as it always has. But of the green one, the prairie,
little remains. To see it as it once was, we have only the
accounts of awestruck settlers.
view beggars all description," confessed W.R. Smith, traveling
through the Wisconsin prairie circa 1835. Smith was not
alone in his opinion. The prairie confounded every 19th
century diarist, letter writer, and scribe who sought to
render its grandeur in prose. Here's what the plucky Smith
came up with:
ocean of prairie surrounds the spectator whose vision is
not limited to less than 30 or 40 miles. This great sea
of verdure is interspersed with delightfully varying undulations,
like the vast waves of the ocean."
must have been a stunning landscape to produce such breathless
and ineffectual description. The irony is that the same
settlers who preserved it for posterity in their journals
plowed and grazed it nearly to oblivion. Tallgrass prairie
once covered 60 percent of Illinois. Today, less than one-tenth
of one percent of the landscape fits that description.
Mountains trap weather. They catch the prevailing wind and
bind it into clouds, corral those clouds, and fatten them
until they rain. To the lands leeward, mountains serve as
a giant dehumidifier, draining the air of all its moisture
before letting it pass. They cast what is called a rain
shadow. Around 20 million years ago, give or take an eon,
the two tectonic plates that met along the western half
of North America collided, crumpling what had been a relatively
smooth section of a relatively smooth continent into the
jagged wreckage of the Rocky Mountains. It was in the rain
shadow of the Rockies, five to seven million years ago,
that the North American prairie probably began to evolve.
Conditions are tough in the rain shadow. It's dry. Temperatures
regularly top 90 degrees F in summer and drop below zero
in winter. Then there's the ungulate problem. The appearance
in the fossil record of long-legged beasts with high-crowned
teeth good for grinding vegetation coincides with the appearance
of the first prairie plants. That's the thing about natural
selection. As soon as you come on the scene, something else
evolves to eat you.
plants of the prairie, under the ruthless guidance of natural
selection, adapted to these new conditions. They developed
ingenious techniques to convert as much of the sun's light
into energy as was possible without simultaneously overheating.
These included growing their leaves small and thin to maximize
both surface area and the wind's convection-cooling effects,
blanketing them with hairy spindles to diffuse the sun's
rays, or coating them in waxy residue to prevent water loss.
prairie grasses use a distinctive chemical pathway that
allows them to photosynthesize quickly and use water efficiently
at high temperatures. And the roots of many prairie plants
burrow deep into the ground, some as far as 20 feet. This
serves the dual purpose of storing water and nutrients during
drought seasons and facilitating regrowth after grazing.
But desert grasslands would have turned to scrub and tallgrass
become forest except for one lively characteristic of this
planet: lightning starts fires.
the rain shadow, dry winds and cyclic drought turn grassland
to tinder, making wildfires sparked by electrical storms
a frequent occurrence. By locating their buds underground,
where they are insulated from the flames, the prairie plants
evolved to withstand these semi-regular torchings.
calling the prairie fire-adapted is like calling human beings
oxygen-adapted. It's not that the prairie survives in spite
of fire. The prairie needs fire to survive. Fire keeps the
prairie free of faster-growing, sun-stealing weeds less
tolerant of immolation. Fire clears the prairie of brush
and allows sunlight to penetrate to the young grasses and
flowers below. In years without fire, excess organic matter
accumulates, plant populations decline, and the prairie
slowly chokes on its own detritus. But after a fire, the
prairie produces twice as much biomass as it did the previous
other ecosystems, plants' parts decay rapidly, leaving little
behind to fuel a fire. Maple leaves, for example, melt quickly
into the forest floor soon after falling. Prairie plants,
by contrast, might as well cover themselves with dried newspaper
every autumn. Their stalks persist brittle, stiff, and highly
combustible for seasons on end. The grassland was made to
burn. On flat land, in almost any climate conducive to periodic
wildfires, it flourishes.
prairie was a huge place and species varied widely depending
on soil conditions, drainage, temperature, and rainfall.
Even within a one-acre plot, conditions could shift from
wetland fen to dry gravel prairie. Generally, though, the
entire prairie biome can be divided into three distinct
regions shortgrass prairies to the west, tallgrass prairies
to the east, and mixed grass prairies where they overlap.
Shortgrass prairies, which dominate from the base of the
Rockies to central Nebraska, consist of plants a foot or
less in height and requiring less than 20 inches of precipitation
a year. Further east, the rain shadow starts to blur, precipitation
increases, and the tallgrass prairie rules.
The tallgrass prairie incorporates species from the shortgrass
prairies to the west, but also drought and fire-adapted
species that evolved on the dunes, plains, and oak or pine
savannas of the Atlantic seaboard. This mix, combined with
higher precipitation levels, produces taller plants, some
up to six or eight feet in height.
higher precipitation also favors non-grassland ecosystems.
While the western edge of the shortgrass prairie has held
stable at the Rockies for millions of years, the eastern
edge of the tallgrass prairie has surged and receded in
a constant battle with the hardwood forests across the Mississippi
River. Ice ages, periods of warming and cooling, precipitation,
and drought all contribute to the boundary's continuous
redrawing. Most scientists agree that our current prairie
arrived in Illinois about 8,000 years ago, when a period
of dry, hot weather called the hypsothermic interval probably
gave the prairie the edge it needed to roll east, forming
"the prairie peninsula" through most of Illinois, and parts
of Wisconsin, Indiana, and even Ohio.
to Dr. Roger Anderson, a biologist at Illinois State University,
"[M]ost ecologists believe that prairie vegetation in the
eastern United States would have largely disappeared during
the past 5,000 years had it not been for the nearly annual
burning of the prairies by the North American Indians and
the prairie fires set by lightning." Early settler accounts
describe Native Americans using fire to hunt bison. Other
experts theorize that pre-settlement peoples ignited the
prairie with the less direct goal of resource management.
Grazers such as elk, deer, and bison prefer newly burned
prairie. Perhaps tribes in the region burned to maintain
the productivity of their hunting grounds.
have played both steward and scourge to the prairie. This
ancient ecosystem's survival into the 21st century requires
our mastering a new role savior.
a photograph, taken in 1907, of a meadow east of where Brookfield
Zoo now stands, in Cook County, Illinois. Bluestem and June
grass bow in the wind, wild onions droop petaled globes,
and compass plants align their fan-like leaves to face the
sun. A 1947 photograph from the same vantage point shows
a different landscape: a field mottled with hawthorn thickets.
The journey from the photograph of 1907 to the photograph
of 1947 from primeval wilderness to young brushland is chronicled
in a small paper published in 1959 in the American Midland
Naturalist. It's titled "The Disappearance of an Area of
Prairie in the Cook County, Illinois, Forest Preserve District."
was surprising about the disappearance of this field, called
the Riverside Prairie, was that it was not sacrificed on
any of the typical altars: cropland, cow pasture, or strip
mall. In their quest to find out why it still died, the
authors of the paper, the eminent ecologist Victor E. Shelford
and his colleague G.S. Winterringer, demonstrate how in
the face of thunderous and widespread human impact on the
environment, doing nothing to the land can be just as destructive
as covering it with parking lot. One would think the prairie's
demise would have started in 1870.
that year gouged a wide, arching corridor of dirt out of
the prairie's eastern half, the beginning of what they dreamed
would be a tree-lined street in a wealthy residential neighborhood.
But when the development scheme tanked at the collapse of
the Chicago real estate market, the prairie surged back
to reclaim the bare earth. By the time the spot was photographed
in 1907, only the slightest grade in the land gave any hint
the prairie ever suffered disturbance.
prairie's downfall came later, but not when the authors
say it did. They trace its decline back to 1926, when a
particularly bad year for mosquitoes provoked an unfocused
but intensive abatement program. The authors describe one
of the measures taken this way: "[O]n or before 1934 the
mosquito abaters made a ditch about two feet deep east of
the shoulder of the First Avenue pavement." "Mosquito abaters"
and their ilk continued to work, digging more ditches, paving
roads, constructing a retention pond. Although the prairie
itself was not touched, cumulatively the modifications wrought
profound changes on the area's hydrological dynamics. The
scientists' conclusion: "The invasion of the prairie by
scattered trees and shrubs was without doubt largely due
to a general lowering of the water table and weakening of
identifying hydrological tampering as the principal culprit,
the authors picked the wrong guy from the line-up. Many
years of research later, any expert will confirm that prairie
flourishes in a wide range of soil moistures, but to survive
it must burn regularly.
dependence on fire is a challenge for conservationists.
What do Americans think of fire? It burns down houses and
scorches lawns. If consumed by flames, humans and our belongings
don't sprout anew in spring. Much of what people construct
on the landscape roads, irrigation ditches, bluegrass lawns,
and fire departments intentionally or accidentally retards
the progress of flame across field. Thus modern humans deprived
the prairie of an element critical to its survival. Today,
scientists realize, had the forest preserve managers simply
set fire to the Riverside Prairie once every couple of years,
they could have saved it.
this prairie was not saved. Today it's a thick tangle of
European buckthorn, an inverted distortion of the diversity
there before, and a lesson that we as a species persist
in not learning: even in a "hands-off" forest preserve our
actions have consequences beyond what we can see.
Fe Drive runs through an industrial park at the confluence
of I-55 and I-294 near Hodgkins in southwestern Cook County.
Vehicles that can't be operated with a standard drivers
license rumble up and down its length. Football-field-sized
hangars with names like Petrovend Chemical, Sealed Air Corporation,
and Wonder Bread line its sides.
there are other sights along Santa Fe Drive. Between the
gravel berm of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (BNSF) train
tracks and the frontage road along the Des Plaines River
lurks one of the last virgin wildernesses in Illinois, the
Santa Fe Prairie.
1979 Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) identified
this 10.8-acre site as grade A mesic and dry mesic gravel
prairie. This means it's a pristine prairie growing on gravelly,
moderately wet soil. The INAI originally identified three
prairies of this type. One has since disappeared beneath
the wheels of progress. Santa Fe is the largest of the remaining
two in Illinois, perhaps in the world.
Santa Fe Prairie survived initially by belonging to the
Santa Fe Railroad. Railroad rights-of-way are typical places
for prairies to survive. The first railroad companies generally
acquired land in its pristine state.
young Ph.D. candidate by the name of Robert Betz gave Santa
Fe its second break. He was led there by the legendary plant
taxonomist Floyd Swink, who had discovered the Santa Fe
Prairie in 1946. Betz would later become "Mr. Prairie,"
and his visit in 1959 as part of a field trip initiated
the prairie restoration movement much as the apple falling
on Newton's head gave birth to the science of physics.
grown up in Bridgeport in Chicago, playing on vacant lots
that we called prairies," says Betz, now a retired professor
of biology, "but when I got to Santa Fe and saw what an
actual prairie was, why, I guess you could say I got prairie
fever." Betz continued his official career in molecular
biology, but put most of his spirit in a parallel volunteer
career. He developed an apostle's passion for locating and
restoring prairie remnants throughout the Midwest. In the
mid-1960s, when BNSF considered covering the prairie with
fill from the newly constructed I-55, Betz intervened. His
appeals eventually persuaded the railroad not to develop
forward 20 years to Stan Johnson, a semi-retired research
chemist at Argonne National Laboratories by day, executive
director and chairman of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National
Heritage Corridor Civic Center Authority (CCA) in his spare
time. Johnson had heard about the Santa Fe Prairie, understood
that it fell within CCA's jurisdiction, but knew no one
with first-hand knowledge of it. "In 1989," he says, "I
went to a natural areas stewardship conference at Moraine
Valley Community College expecting to find the people representing
the prairie. I kept asking around, but there was no group
associated with it."
volunteered his organization to coordinate advocacy efforts
for the prairie, and some weeks later, accompanied by several
stalwarts of the prairie restoration movement, he visited
the site. "We were horrified to find that a giant oval track
for off-road vehicle races had been carved in the middle
of the prairie," Johnson recalls. Following a certain amount
of negotiation, the railroad generously granted volunteers
permission to begin managing the land. The volunteers blocked
vehicle access, put up signs, and began the process of restoring
the degraded areas. Johnson started writing inch-thick grants,
wading through multilevel corporate and governmental bureaucracies,
and traveling down numerous dead ends. After a decade of
Johnson's hard work, a relatively intact Santa Fe Prairie
finally concluded its passage from post-glacial landscape
to 21st century wilderness haven when BNSF donated the land
to the CCA. On June 16, 1998, a ceremony commemorated the
site's official dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve,
a legal status that should guarantee its survival in perpetuity.
Why does it deserve such a status? According to Karen Stasky,
one of Santa Fe's volunteer stewards, because it's "the
Midwest's equivalent to a patch of rain forest." Santa Fe
harbors more than 250 plant species, including lilies, orchids,
coneflowers, and wild grasses, most of which won't grow
anywhere but high-quality prairie. Amid the loading docks
and asphalt lots, the prairie persists much as it has for
centuries, perhaps millennia.
of the Prairie
Robert Betz says every sentence as if it has a time limit.
If the common name of the plant he's describing doesn't
come to him, he'll use the scientific name instead. When
he talks excitedly about something, which is pretty much
all the time, he suggests a priest challenging the record
for fastest Latin mass. It's the verbal quirk of a man always
trying to do more than he can in the time allotted, and
the biggest project he's been working on for the last 20
years is no exception. On 1,000 acres of cropland turned
research facility at the Enrico Fermi National Laboratory
in Batavia, Illinois, Betz seeks to create in one lifetime
something nature took eons to assemble a Midwestern tallgrass
years, Betz had practiced a particular form of prairie restoration
called remnant restoration. He searched the back roads and
train tracks of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri for pieces
of the landscape that somehow escaped two centuries worth
of plowing, so-called "prairie remnants." He often discovered
them lurking in old settler cemeteries never planted with
crops tiny islands of native vegetation amid a patchwork
sea of European and native cultivars like corn and wheat.
Even if these unplowed cemeteries were overrun with weeds,
the original vegetation hid out. One or two good burnings,
a bit of strategic weeding, and the exotics faded out, the
native species resurged. "The prairie was there, you see,"
Betz explains. "You just had to give it room to come back."
He traveled the state convincing local cemetery boards to
let him light fire to old cemeteries, sprouting one- and
two-acre pieces of prairie in his wake.
one- and two-acre patches scattered among the corn fields
do not make an ecosystem. The larger the prairie parcel,
the greater diversity of fauna it can support. At the moment,
not one high-quality black-soil prairie remnant exists in
Illinois large enough to support a single pair of prairie
birds. Betz dreamed of a restoration that could one day
sustain a small herd of bison. He persuaded Fermilab to
lend its grounds to his vision.
the Fermilab grounds had been previously farmed, the techniques
of remnant restoration would not work there. Betz and his
volunteers would have to attempt a plowed-ground restoration.
The difference between the two types of restoration is the
difference between healing the sick and bringing the dead
back to life.
do you grow an ecosystem from scratch? First, volunteers
gathered seed from every prairie remnant in the area. After
sowing them in the fall, Betz and crew returned in the spring
to find, as he says in mock horror, "a whole field of weeds."
Specifically ragweed, amaranth, witch grass the same exotic
and native opportunists you'll find on every abandoned lot
in Chicago. But hidden throughout, like grains of rice in
a shag carpet, poked minute seedlings of the big bluestem,
Indian grass, prairie dock, and other species the volunteers
had actually planted. "I knew that these plants held a long-term
ecological advantage," remembers Betz, "and would eventually
push out the weeds." By the third year the balance had shifted,
and that fall there was enough dried material to support
a burn. "That's when things really took off," Betz recalls.
Based on his experience in degraded corners of the cemetery
prairies, Betz predicted the prairie would return to Fermilab
in three stages. The first stage consists of what he called
"matrix species," those prairie plants with wider ecological
tolerances, able to compete with nonnative weeds and shrubs
on plowed and open ground. The 20-odd matrix plants include
prairie dock, big bluestem, Indian grass, and wild quinine
to name just a few. Once the matrix establishes itself,
more conservative species like rattlesnake master and prairie
dropseed begin to appear amid the original mix. The third
stage prairie most closely resembles the presettlement landscape:
an intricate jumble of 100 to 150 different species. Betz
recites the names of the third stage plants "the gentians,
the lilies, prairie clovers, Mead's milkweed" in a reverent
litany, the way a child might describe the things she wants
most for Christmas.
poignancy is enhanced by the fact that Christmas still has
not come to Fermilab. If one throws seed of a stage-three
species like white prairie clover (Petalostemum candidum)
into a degraded remnant prairie, within five to 10 years,
Betz explains, "you get them blooming in flocks." But after
nearly 25 years, not one stage-three plant has propagated
on its own at Fermilab. The few that grew from the original
sowing will stay alive and scatter their seed year after
year, but they don't spread; they don't penetrate into the
system. Betz's high-quality remnant restorations, like the
Markham Prairie in southern Cook County, now bloom throughout
the summer in successive waves of conservative stage-three
flowers. At Fermilab, he concedes, "the best plots, the
very first plots that we planted, are still only 40 percent
of the way there." Betz proposes an explanation cautiously,
affecting a scientific restraint at odds with his ebullient
manner, "It would appear that it has to do with the mycorrhizae."
Mychorrizal fungi typify a category of microscopic organisms bacteria,
fungi, and their ilk on which certain stage-two and three
prairie plants seem to depend. In earth that was never plowed
or grazed, these organisms still teem much as they have
for millennia. In earth below cropland, pasture, or pavement,
however, they're largely absent. These organisms appear
to form symbiotic relationships with the more conservative
prairie species the lilies, gentians, and clovers from Betz's
litany. These relationships seem to boost the plants' ability
to carve out territory from the more ecologically tolerant
matrix species, although no one can really say why or how.
The soil below Fermilab is devoid of these crucial fungi
and putting them back is much harder than making them go
Bob Betz isn't panicking, so neither should you. In the
world of prairie restoration, where success is measured
by the quarter acre, the Fermilab prairie is nothing short
of a miracle. In 1974, Betz sowed his first 10-acre plot
with prairie seed. Today, more than 1,000 acres rest beneath
a swaying carpet of native grasses and wildflowers. A dedicated
group of Fermilab groundspeople and volunteers manage the
land carefully, conducting prescribed burns and quashing
invasion by exotic weeds. Betz points out that "the soil
folks [scientists from Argonne National Laboratory] have
finally gotten together with the prairie people," in a collaboration
he's certain will reveal new ways to improve and accelerate
the restoration process.
the species count grows every year. Betz projects the confidence
of a man who, eventually, solves every problem he faces.
Sure, remaking an annihilated ecosystem is a task similar
to what faced a certain king, when a fabled egg took a great
fall. But one suspects that if Bob Betz had been there at
that wall, Humpty would by now be together again.
Blumberg works as a freelance print and radio journalist
in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Chicago Reader,
The Seattle Weekly, and on the national public radio
program, This American Life.