Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Midewin Means "Heal the Land"

On the last day of April, an acquaintance and I were talking about the Illinois landscape. She, raised in the Adirondacks, confessed she doesn’t quite get why so many Illinoisans find our landscape beautiful, especially in farm country in spring. What beauty? Where? Not much in the way of trees, mountains, or picturesque scenic diversity. I admitted that perhaps one must be raised here to appreciate it, and we agreed that perhaps “getting” the beauty depends partly on what one is “seeing,” when one looks at a landscape.

I thought of her the next morning when two other instructors, a volunteer naturalist, and I took a group of students on a field trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago. We left the miles of houses, roads, strip malls, and industrial buildings and arrived at 20,000 acres of…not much. At least if you didn’t know what to look for.

Some History
The land that comprises Midewin Prairie remained relatively unspoiled because it once, as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, belonged to the US Army as a site for manufacturing and storing munitions. Consequently there was no development, and the area was completely off bounds to the public. The vast acreage not devoted to manufacture and storage was used for grazing cattle. Unwittingly, in the midst of creating death-dealing weapons, the US Army gave safe haven to creatures and ecosystems that might, in the normal course of things, have fallen to destructive development.

During the 1980s, when the Army decided to vacate the land, it could have sold at a profit to developers and what we’d see would be yet more unnecessary strip malls and subdivisions. Instead, the US Forest Service took over the land: biologists had discovered that many species of grassland birds such as upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows, loggerheaded shrikes, and others flourished there, while they’d been declining elsewhere.

Unlike the familiar birds of parks and gardens that appreciate edge habitats formed by trees and shrubs around a grassy clearing, grassland birds, those of the vast prairies and wetlands that once dominated much of the Midwest, need space, and lots of it. They are as conservative as some of the species of the deep woods, for opposite reasons. The thousands of acres of inadvertently protected area had given many species that space.

In 1996 the Army Ammunition Plant became Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The name Midewin comes from an old Potawatomi phrase roughly translated as “heal the land.” The Mide was also a multi-tribal medicine society of healers believed to have close association with the spirits of the land. Today, there is an education center with dedicated staff, and it serves as a destination for naturalists, hikers and school groups. The area is so vast it may take fifty years to fully restore. In one sense it is like a very, very large garden, not natural at all. Yet humans have lived on the land for over 10,000 years, and at some point began managing it through fire, encouragement of desirable plants, and later, when corn and beans arrived from the south, through agriculture. The restoration effort is a return to large-scale management.

What We Saw
On that chilly gray morning, when we got out of the van, I realized we were in yet another Illinois landscape that might cause a visitor to say “and…?”

So what was there to see? A vast, tumbled-cloud sky that impressed itself upon one’s consciousness as it never does in the woods and savannas; a muddy prairie full of low green plants, giving little indication of lush summer growth that would culminate in the tall, glowing grasses and goldenrods of late summer; a rare dolomite prairie; a unique sand ridge; many species of birds; and old bunkers that had been used for storing TNT.

Yet we each saw different landscapes. We instructors, I think, had the most comprehensive, informed view, and helped each other see the parts where our specialties diverged. I know more about plants and history: the others, birds, geology, wildlife.

Some of the students seemed caught, and interested, especially when we saw the huge Cecropia moths in full amorous display, or the little garter snake.

But I could see that most were merely patiently waiting while we exclaimed over the ancient but decidedly plain and wet dolomite prairie (only 120 acres extant in Illinois, the dolomite millions of years old, drab in the extreme).

They perked up at the bunkers--which reminded me at first of a hobbit village, but then, considering their use, seemed more like ancient burial mounds at Troy, or where Frodo nearly got caught by the barrow-wights--built tough enough to withstand accidental explosions. We went in one, shivering in the chilly dimness, and walked among various relics of the old Army occupation arranged neatly along the floor. This sparked interest and comment in the students. Then it was back to patience, while we inspected the plants on the sand ridge.

But I wondered again, what do people see when they look at “empty” land? I think what we see depends of our worldview, on an abstract construct in our brains made of nothing science has been able to find so far. In some ways you can’t see what you don’t know about, or what you see depends on what you’ve seen before, or what you expect to see, based on culture, experience, knowledge, imagination and desires. Seeing involves interpretation. I’m thinking that unless imprinted early, many people won’t see “presence,” when in a natural setting. Some people may only see “absence”—as though what is not human made or built in some sense doesn’t exist. If one is only accustomed to human order, natural order might be invisible.

When I walked through the landscape at Midewin, I saw a place that was, in layers of human culture and natural ecosystem, simultaneously once and to come, a place I could love because much of my life has been spent in natural areas, playing there as a child, learning about them and working in them as an adult. I had scaffolding to support my new experience. I knew that bison had once lived here, and when humans first arrived, and that those anonymous low green leaves would be a plant ten feet tall and topped by yellow flowers in late August. What did the students see? Did some initially think, with Gertrude Stein, that “there’s no there there?” Were any of them caught by the extreme beauty of open space with birds flying? What would they think about the place later on? Would they seek out natural areas in the future? Did we help them see enough to want to learn more?
Photos courtesy Joe Beuchel

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this experience. I wish I could have gone there with you! I sometimes struggle to appreciate prairie environments as they exist today, but that may be because they are often just shadows of their former selves. It's not that "there's no there there" but more like a big part of it is just not there; it's missing in action. I haven't been to Midewin; perhaps there's more "there" there!

As for 21st-century human reactions, one can fault such a place for not having human entertainment and material satisfaction at its center. Inexplicably, such an ecosystem can and does survive just fine without us. We are not used to not being the center of attention, much less being superfluous. Ads and billboards tell us that it's all about us, but a natural ecosystem says otherwise. It's truly a reality check from Mother Nature. -- Judy E.

Anonymous said...

I am touched that by your truths--that we must know aout something in order to actually "see" it--whether a natural grassland or th ruins of civilization that seems to be just a pile of broken rock.
Niceand thought-provoking essay.
M.

Thomas said...

An inspiring and thoughtful post. I want to experience that place!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Judy, I understand exactly what you are saying about MIA. And that ecosystems can survive fine without us--at this point, maybe even better?

M. Thanks for the good words.

Thomas, subtle charms, but worth visiting if in Illinois.

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

What a worthy article! Many people need tall trees, big bodies of water, mountaines, etc. to consider a place to be beautiful. It depends on a person. I also like trees, hills and water, but I try to see a beauty everywhere. And I do see it everywhere. Just a huge openness of space is already something to admire. Plus all the colors, shapes, textures, smells, plus history...

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, This post really made me think about the ways that we learn to see and appreciate certain aspects of the landscape. When I first went to work in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I couldn't understand why people so often described its rolling countryside as beautiful. It seemed somehow barren to me, and it wasn't until I drove north to a meeting on a road that took me through national forest that I realized forest was what I had been missing. But I once met someone raised in the Midwest who suffered from claustrophobia when she moved to Maine because the trees always seemed to be closing in on her from all directions. Once, on a train traveling through North Dakota, I was startled to hear a woman sitting nearby lament the trees that farmers had been forced to plant as windbreaks; she felt that they spoiled the view. -Jean

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Tatiana, I also like trees, hills and water. One favorite place of mine is northern Minnesota, which has that landscape.

Jean, great stories. We are so shaped by the landscape we call home.