By Katherine Millett
Photography by John Weinstein
Fifteen families are making a rural wilderness in their own back
The door is open, the sound of laughter enticing, so I let myself into the
living room where the Harvard Seed Group is celebrating the return of summer
with a potluck dinner. Open windows admit musty, floral scents and an occasional
In a corner I see Martin Ford, a robust Englishman with a beer in his hand,
greet George Johnson, the gregarious fellow who invited me.
“So, how are the seeds doing?” George asks, raising his own beer in salute. “Did
Rich and Renée Dankert, and their implements
of restoration. The first step is to cut out invasive trees and brush.
Martin looks perplexed. “Seeds?”
George’s face collapses into a lugubrious, comical, frown. “You
should have a bag about yay-big,” he says, holding his hand and his
beer can a grocery bag apart, “full of seeds and seed heads, all chopped
Martin looks skeptical and shakes his head.
“Oh, no,” George laments, and without further warning careens backward
and falls over the arm of a chair. Before Martin or I can move to steady him — George
turned 80 last May — he returns to vertical with a grin on his face. It’s
like a sight gag in a silent movie. “Then I’ll drop a bag by your
place tomorrow,” George says calmly, “with about a billion seeds.”
Marilyn and George Johnson, with a backpack sprayer.
Early in the restoration process, the neighbors kill the weeds — especially
the carpets of young buckthorns.
Martin’s eyes twinkle with amusement. “And what, exactly, should
I do with them?”
“Just mix them up with a little sand or sawdust,” says George, “and
fling them around your best mesic site.”
Everyone in the room, except me, has a mesic site. (In my Chicago suburb,
gardeners raise petunias, and dandelions raise eyebrows.) Less wet than a
wetland, less dry than an upland prairie, a mesic site occupies the middle
ground. A wide variety of grasses, forbs, and wildflowers can grow there,
and the Harvard Seed Group intends to see that they do.
The group’s members, for a variety of reasons, bought land near Harvard,
Illinois, not far from the Wisconsin border, a decade or three ago. Only the
Johnsons, the Evans (who requested their names be changed for this article),
the Bangerts, and Randy Stowe had restoration firmly in mind.
“For us,” says Orrin Bangert, “it was wanting to support wildlife
and restore natural areas. It helps that the government pays us rent to plant
prairie on some of our former cropland. Our neighbors have gotten interested,
because when you have a choice between mowing a huge lawn and restoring a
prairie, restoration seems very attractive. It isn’t easy, especially
at first, but it’s so worthwhile.”
Tom and Marie Evans gather rare seeds. Literally
millions of rare plants now grow on these former cornfields.
George welcomes new neighbors by giving them bags of native seed as house-warming
presents. He defines the group’s goal as “maximum diversity everywhere.
We want to get every fragment of land we can back to its original condition,
before settlement by Europeans.”
Martin was recruited into the seed group by his wife, Hillary, who took
their dog for a walk and met Marie Evans, who was out walking her dog, and
who had been restoring her land with her husband, Tom, for many years. (The
Evans have been stalwart members of the group almost since it began in 1992.)
Such informal encounters have added up, over the years, into a loose coalition
with a strong spirit.
They regard the hard work of restoration as creative. At first, I could
understand this only in a Rauschenberg-erases-DeKooning sort of way. (Artist
Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning and signed the smudgy
Erased by Rauschenberg.”) Likewise, clearing
away the crops and tiles of agriculture seemed like a laborious effort to
remove what someone else had made.
As I came to know the group, I realized that to clear brush and sow seeds
effectively, one needs to learn plant names and understand ecological processes,
like how water travels and when seeds drop. Applying the knowledge to one’s
own land is a creative form of cultivation, an endeavor that demands a steady
commitment and a humble attitude. In the company of good friends, it can also
2001 aerial photograph: The neighbors have patched together a mosaic of woodland,
wetland, and prairie — 800 private acres with the owners as live-in
stewards. The McHenry County Conservation District took notice too, and is
seeking to preserve land that will augment the high-quality habitat.
Photo: County of McHenry Geographical Information System
The group’s collaborations seem as fundamentally Midwestern as barn-raisings.
At tonight’s potluck supper, women are working away in the Evans’ dining
room, uncovering dishes to release aromas of barbequed chicken, garlic mashed
potatoes, and stewed rhubarb. The owner of a nursery passes out bur oak and
walnut seedlings. A sign-up sheet circulates, soliciting volunteers to work
the next prairie burn.
“I’m the pyromaniac,” says Richard Kirchner, by way of introduction.
A tall, trim man, he likes to make people smile. His wife, Diane, says he
started burning the thistles and reed canary grass growing around their bur
oaks long before George told him it was a good thing to do. Richard, who owns
a fire protection company, helps Tom Evans supervise the group’s periodic
burns. Every year, a well-trained team uses controlled burns to tip the ecological
balance in favor of prairie plants, away from invasive grasses, shrubs, and
Members of the seed group own more than 800 acres and commit about half
of them to restoration. Within a five-square-mile area of McHenry County,
their holdings are interspersed with a golf course, a monastery, a few farms,
and a 1,200-acre chunk owned by movie producer John Hughes. As Marilyn Johnson
is quick to point out, this is not joint ownership. “These are people
doing things on their private property,” she says. “We cooperate.”
Each spring the controlled burns welcome in another growing season.
Photo courtesy of George Johnson.
Most of them are retirees who moved north to escape the congestion and
commercial bustle of Chicago’s environs. The Johnsons came from Wheaton,
the Evans from Long Grove Village, the Bangerts from Woodstock, and the Dankerts
from Wayne, where they grew weary of fighting development proposals. Although
McHenry County is growing fast, gaining 40,000 people and 13,600 housing units
during the last five years, the stampede halts well south of Harvard.
Hilly by Illinois standards, the neighbors’ terrain includes the highest
point in the glaciated part of the state. “Highpoint” reaches
High means young, geologically speaking. The land is a hodgepodge of clay,
silt, pebbles, stones, and boulders deposited by melting glaciers from Canada
about 11,000 years ago. The moraine forms a ridge between the Rock River and
Fox River watersheds, an elevated area that has not yet had time to carve
gulleys and streams. Eventually, its drainage system will mature, but until
that happens, rain will collect every spring to make ephemeral
wetlands, or vernal pools.
Marsh phlox appeared unexpectedly.
Photo by Mary and Lloyd McCarthy.
Because the pools dry up later in the summer, they cannot support fish.
Instead, they provide critical habitat for frogs and salamanders that need
water to reproduce, lay eggs, and grow through the tadpole phase. Without
fish to prey on them, these amphibians thrive. The area around Highpoint,
containing about 70 vernal pools, hosts one of the highest concentrations
of ephemeral wetlands in the Midwest.
To share their wealth of native species, members collect dry seedheads
of their most desirable plants, rated on a scale from 1 to 10 according to
the quality of the environment needed to sustain them. Stems and all, they
run the plants through a machine that chops them coarsely and preserves their
microbe and insect cohorts. Next, they sort the results into site-specific
combinations. (George made 136 different mixtures one year.) Then they eat
Most years, the chili is served at the home of Renée and Rich Dankert.
Standing almost anywhere on their property, one is surrounded by a plethora
of colors and textures, clusters, clumps, branches, blades, stars, trumpets,
orbs, and cones. The day after the potluck, Renée leads George and
me down the slope in back of the house. The pond, she says, attracts sandhill
cranes, wood ducks, and snipes. Once, she saw a painted turtle lay eggs in
Finding downy gentian (also called prairie
gentian) on one’s property is cause for a party.
Photo: Casey Galvin
Renée feels a special fondness for porcupine grass, because as it dries,
it curls into a spiral. She has to move fast to collect its seeds, which drop
in a single day. She also collects seeds from gentians. When she and Rich
discovered five types of the prairie flower growing on their 25 acres, they
hosted a celebration known to insiders as The World’s First Gentian
When we turn a corner, George lets out a yell. “Renée, you have
a marsh phlox!” This rare flower, an “8” on the Swink-Wilhelm
scale of prairie quality, started out as a thimble-full of seed the group
tossed around a few years earlier.
George’s enthusiasm is, to put it mildly, contagious. Before the end
of the day, news of this celebrity will spread throughout the group. “Marsh
phlox” will be recorded in George’s extensive notes and on Marie
Evans’ computerized inventory. Another party may be in the works.
The clearing of brush and the elimination of invasive grasses pose the
group’s greatest challenges. With chain saws, burns, herbicide, the
right seeds, and 13 years of hard work, Marie and Tom Evans have changed their
Each fall brings in a bigger harvest of seed — to
restore even more land.
“You couldn’t see the oaks for the buckthorn at first,” says Marie, “but
as we pushed back the garlic mustard and the box elders, native plants started
to come back. Sometimes the seeds lie dormant for a few years. Then, suddenly,
you have something new. It’s exciting.”
Today, 319 native plant species thrive in their sedge meadows, wetlands,
and oak-hickory woodland. The Evans’ land was added to the Illinois
Natural Areas Inventory in 2005, a tribute, wrote the site evaluator, to the
Evans’ “capable and conscientious care.” They are further
blessing 54 acres as a Land and Water Reserve.
Another high-quality property contains four “marl seeps.” As we
walk through a field to see one, high grass tickles our chins, and tussocks
try to trip us. We reach a drop-off. In a small hollow at the bottom of a
slope, cool water seeps out of the ground and sparkles as it runs over rocks,
stones, and the white film of marl, the calcium carbonate clay that gives
the seep its name. There are not many seeps like this in the Midwest.
The land belongs to Frank and Margo Blair, who bought the property to give
their children a pastoral experience. Their land has also been designated
a state inventory site.
Orrin and Pat Bangert, like so many others, are
learning the names and habits of bugs, plants, birds, and other wild neighbors.
“A marl seep is kind of magical,” says Margo. “It has water all
year round, so it is used by lots of animals.” The experience has not
been lost on the children. “I loved growing up there,” says Alexandra,
25. “It dictated who I am now and what I want to do with my life.” She
earned her college degree in sustainable architecture.
For those who cannot do the hard physical work of restoration, the neighbors
are ready to assist. Betsey Bobrinskoy, described by her friends as “a
dynamo in her 60s,” is actually 78. She spends weekends in one of the
first active solar houses in Illinois, which she and her husband built in
1979. Since her husband died in 1991, she has relied on neighbors to help
her maintain her property.
“The burn group comes in and burns my land whenever it needs it,” she
says. “They are so wonderful. Prairie restoration has gotten me involved
with my neighbors, and I love that.”
Her 20-acre prairie acts as a filter for the headwaters of the Nippersink
Creek, one of the cleanest waterways in Illinois. All the land around Highpoint,
in fact, has enough ecological significance to command the attention of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the McHenry County Conservation District,
which are helping the group apply for grants to finance large-scale brush
clearing next spring. “When the neighbors see this,” says George, “they’ll
be impressed, and we hope they’ll join us.”
Betsy and Joe Sternberg experimented by planting
at first in easy-to-maintain circles. The Harvard seed sharers have developed
a deep connection with the land and each other.
As new members embark on the mission, they help create a legacy for their
own children and those of others. Some are working with the conservation district
to prevent future development by establishing conservation easements. Others
are discovering the spiritual connection to land that germinates during restoration.
“I walk two miles every morning in my prairie,” says Martin Ford, “and
it’s never the same way twice. It’s my substitute for going to
There is a sense of “rightness” one feels in a well-restored site.
Perhaps the creative impulse resembles the urge to dance, to take one’s
place in a dynamic setting, collaborating but not controlling. Given patience
and the right conditions, the land’s inhabitants, connected again to
each other, proliferate.
for Seeds, CW, Fall 2001. Includes more on the
seed collecting practices of the Harvard Seed Group.