One place I love is twelve acres outside the town of McNabb, in Putnam County, Illinois. It is there that the Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has its spiritual and practical center. The 19th century meetinghouse, austere and beautiful, sits on a rise that only in Illinois would be called a hill, surrounded by vast fields with distant farmhouses marked by their groves of trees. The subtle height of the rise gives distinction to the view and strength to the wind. To the west the land gets more variable as it slopes to the wetlands and running waters of the Illinois River system, but this isn't visible from the meetinghouse.
Once this area was prairie, and then small farms, the fields bordered with hedgerows. Today all is planted to corn and soy, the two industrial crops on which the Illinois rural economy depends. Some of the houses are empty. Mostly the hedgerows are gone, and with them most native plants. There's little room here for wildlife, whether plants or animals. Yet the contours of the land, the fields, the wind, the space, the changeable sky--all engender deep love in those that spend time here.
As it happens, I am a member of the Yearly Meeting's Environmental Concerns Committee. We have regular landscape maintenance days, which seem to be timed such that whenever I'm feeling especially claustrophobic in town, with its sky-cutting houses and pinched-together yards, there's a call to go out to McNabb and do some work in the open air. On a recent Saturday eleven of us met for a fairly ambitious day of work. Among other things we were to cut down overgrown bushes, overseed a small prairie we've established, burn a brush pile, and grub out some old stumps. After a short meeting, we headed outside into a clear, chilly, and surprisingly windy day.
One part of the property was recently acquired and includes an old farmhouse. Sometime in the past a previous owner had planted a generic selection of bushes around the foundation and along the path to the kitchen door. These included some yews, a couple of boxwood, a spirea, and six euonymus, or burning bushes, that were now ten feet high and seemed like they could form part of Sleeping Beauty's hedge. These are the kinds of bushes that serve no purpose: they lack beauty, they provide food to neither human nor animal, nor do they function as a viable part of the eco-system. They are the kinds of green placeholders stuck in around houses throughout the U.S. by people who've gotten some "nice foundation plantings" from the nearby big box garden center. The effect is to take away any hint of regionalism or feeling of place from the house. While looking at the house and the random collection of bushes, one might ask, like Dorothy, "Toto, where are we?" and the answer is not the distinctive Oz, but might be Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, New York--or Kansas.
We plan to eventually replace them with native shrubs, but at the moment, they had to be trimmed, and trimmed they were, aggressively and with pleasure. Two of us did the deed, and then several people helped carry the branches over to the brush-pile fire at the edge of a corn field which others were superintending, and near where some had marked some stumps for removal in an area that is called "the old field." I stood and watched a farmer in the distance, or rather a large machine, presumably containing a farmer, move across the field. As the machine worked the ground, a large plume of topsoil lifted in the wind behind it, something like the long scarf rippling out from the dancer in a dream sequence in Singing in the Rain.
After lunch we worked more, and for me one highlight of the afternoon was when we mixed up a huge batch of grass seed--big bluestem, little bluestem and indian grass. As we mixed, I listened as two men talked who remembered when the local farms were smaller, when oat, wheat and hay were among the crops, when the farms had animals. During the sixties, with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and mono-cropping, they all went away--animals, varied crops, and family farms--replaced by the large fields of corn and soy, mostly genetically modified, and men in large, fabulously expensive machines rumbling across the land.
We overseeded the prairie restoration by hand, looking, as an observer noted, like old-time peasants, perhaps in some picture by van Gogh, walking and casting our seed to be caught in the wind and dropping where it would. The area had been burned three weeks earlier and we were all pleased to see the rate of re-growth, though the only thing in bloom were some golden Alexanders. Several people planted trees, including some pin oaks, which are native to the area, being one of the primary species in the Illinois River valley. One hopes they'll do well in this prairie soil as well.
Our work that day was all part of a larger landscaping plan that we and others have developed for the property. The program is one of conscious reconciliation ecology. We have set out to tie that twelve acres back into the ecosystem by landscaping with native plants and trees, by considering the native wildlife--the birds and pollinators--even as we improve the buildings to increase their sustainability, and follow good habits such as composting. Besides planting, we have done such things as leave
snags in the hedgerow where some red-headed woodpeckers make their home. Yet this isn't a wildlife preserve or conservation area, but an orderly human landscape we are steadily working to make more hospitable for other species. The local Monthly Meeting, Clear Creek, uses and maintains the property year round. On weekends there are additional meetings, gatherings and retreats.
In this industrial farming zone there's need for this kind of ecological landscaping. Sometimes I look at the fields surrounding the property and like to imagine that perhaps in the future farmers might start restoring the hedgerows, or might go a bit further and plant "prairie rows" along the edges of their fields, broad swaths of native forbs and grasses that could do so much to help maintain land and ecosystem health.
That Saturday, we finished our work with a good potluck dinner at and interesting conversation that included, among other things, the attributes of prickly ash; how red-osier dogwood got its name (osiers are slender stems good for making baskets); experiences with making maple syrup and the differences between sugar maple syrup and silver maple syrup (someone had brought a sample); and the botanical characteristics of Jack-in-the-pulpits, along with various business matters. At dusk, as the sky deepened in color and the stars lit up, we headed for our respective homes, in my case on a road that gets progressively busier as you near Chicago.