December 23, 2012
Jersey County, in Illinois, borders the Mississippi River. St. Louis, via a new superhighway, creeps ever further northward toward this hill and bluff country, and a rural way of life is slowly disappearing, displaced by suburbs.
I have hunted Indian artifacts in the region for decades. I follow streams as they merge and flow to the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers. Indians have lived in the Great Confluence for 20,000 years, from the Paleolithic to the Mississippian eras. I have found arrowheads, spear points, stone and clay pipes and every kind of stone tool imaginable. One cornfield has yielded an Innuit harpoon carved from wooly mammoth ivory, a fossilized conch shell with a drill hole, and axes ground of stone not native to Illinois. The First People traveled to Three Rivers for the purpose of trading goods over hundreds of generations.
Over the last decade, I have encountered bobcats, alligator snapping turtles, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, barred and great horned owls, hawks, hummingbirds, timber rattlesnakes, coyotes, foxes, tens of species of butterfly, scores of deer and wild turkeys—and yes, a black wolf. Farmers swear they are seeing cougars (a friend set up a trip wire camera in his woods and got a photo of a cougar dragging a dead buck along the ground) and armadillos. The latter have been confirmed in newspaper photos: armadillos crossing the river on bridges, from the Missouri side.
Wolves and cougars were part of the Illinois landscape in 1800. They were exterminated by 1860. The DNA of the reappearing animals reveals kinship to wolf packs in upper Wisconsin and lions from western states. Instinct tells me that these animals, mostly males, are being pushed from their natural territories, searching for mates.
Christmas, 2006. I wade in a JerseyCounty creek. The temperature is 70 degrees. The water roils with tadpoles. Many of the tadpoles have legs—in December. Earthworms are coiled under rocks. Water striders skate and flies buzz my head. A rattlesnake den holds no hibernators. Redbud trees are showing blooms and the forest floor is a watercolor tapestry of wildflowers popping out of the ground. I marvel and shudder at the day. Tadpoles are not Christmas miracles.
In January, winter hits with force. The temperature drops into the 20s and intermittent snow falls. The creek freezes solid and all that teeming life dies out. “It will come back,” a laconic farmer friend says. “Won’t it?” It will come back. Won’t it?
Southern Illinois is more temperate than other parts of the state. Summers are typically hot and humid. Spring often arrives in early March. But this new, not yet annual winterspring, a fifth season, makes me fearful.
As much as I would like to see wolves and cougars come back to Illinois, I know these stragglers are not part of some natural healing process. Meanwhile, the armadillo prophets follow the warming, arriving in Missouri a decade ago, now expanding their range into the Illinois hills. Eastern diamondback rattlers will be next, along with scorpions and other desert animals. The new in sport is Asian carp hunting, the carp having been introduced a few years ago, now overwhelming the fragile river ecosystem.
The rural folk, once celebrants of the temperate place Illinois has become, now shake their heads at these portents of Christmas Future. Global warming is part of their vocabulary. Cotton is discussed as a crop alternative. There is much talk about wind and solar power and water conservation. Will talk turn into action, and will those actions change what has begun?
Winterspring will tell us.