May 29, 2014
Prairie plants are starting to bloom. Cornflowers and purple cone flowers and lobelia and brown-eyed Susan and wild daisy and wild grasses and milkweed and rattlesnake master and dandelions and hemp, and more, are pushing up and setting incredibly deep root systems. They will peak in July, with taller flowers and native grasses reaching twelve feet high. Butterflies peak at the same time, no surprise there. This morning I saw the first skippers and purple hairstreaks, two vital species of tiny butterfly, their health and numbers a crucial indication of the health of the environment.
Ninety-seven percent of the native tallgrass prairie of Illinois is gone. Ninety-nine per cent of the remaining prairie is in CookCounty, in the 70,000 acre forest preserves which ring Chicago, lovingly restored and preserved by volunteers. Had our European ancestors not plowed, they could have harvested the renewable prairie for free and made their bread from whole grains. They should have asked the Indians instead of killing them. “Amber waves of grain” pale in comparison to the riot of color of prairies.
In 1999, the fledgling, 20,000 acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, on behalf of the National Forest Service, commissioned me to write a play, “Water Brought Us and Water’s Gonna Take Us Away,” which premiered at Prop Theatre and ColumbiaCollege in Chicago. The play traces a fictional escaped slave’s adventures as he wanders from Kentucky across the Illinois prairie, and eventually reaches Canada. (If you love wildflowers you must travel to the Midewin, a Potawatomi Indian word meaning “healer,” outside the town of Wilmington, on the Kankakee River. 7000 acres of the park have been restored to the way the land looked in 1840.)
Wilmington was a hub of the Underground Railroad, so I spent a lot of time there and in southern Illinois, researching actual UR conductors and making them into characters (including Peter Stewart, of Wilmington, who, with fellow townsmen, held some slave catchers at gunpoint, allowing slaves to be escorted on to Chicago) in the play. One of my guides was Mary McCorvie, of the National Park Service. It was she who told me how we know what plants are native to Illinois.
One person traveled through the vast Illinois prairie and took note of every flower, plant and wild animal she saw. She was an unwitting ecologist before there was such a word. Her name was Eliza Steele.
In July of 1840, Mrs. Steele, of London, set out on a journey with the intention of, as the English say, taking in the views. She traveled to Chicago then across the prairie by stagecoach to just north of Peoria, and made her way down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. She kept a diary and wrote letters, having no idea that her writings would become the bible for modern ecologists. “Summer Journey in the West” is a must read book.
“I started with surprise and delight. I was in the midst of a prairie! A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever. Acres of wild flowers of every hue glowed around me, and the sun was arising from the earth where it touched the horizon, was kissing with golden face the meadows green. What a new and wondrous world of beauty! What a magnificent sight! Those glorious ranks of flowers! On that you could have one glance at their array! How shall I convey to you an idea of a prairie. I despair, for never yet hath pen brought the scene before my mind. Imagine yourself in the centre of an immense circle of velvet herbage, the sky for its boundary upon every side, the whole clothed with a radiant efflorescence of every brilliant hue. We rode thus through a perfect garden.
Mrs. Steele wrote that alligator gars were so abundant in the Illinois River she and fellow sailors petted the fish. She saw packs of wolves along the riverbanks, and bears and mountain lions vanishing into the tall grasses. At each port, she dined with luminaries including our own Benjamin Godfrey. Locals, upon hearing of her arrival, would gather along the riverbanks and cheer the plucky Brit. She saw slavery firsthand, in St. Louis. She wrote that women should not offer opinions on affairs of state, yet we may infer from her hosts along the way that she was approving of abolition.
(Altonians take note: Eliza Steele did not see a “Piasa Bird,” for there wasn’t one. The earlier Marquette and Joliet observations were about petroglyphs high up on the bluffs, not visible from the water. We’ll have to take comfort in our other claim to fame, being the most haunted city in America—if you believe cable TV.)
“A Summer Journey to the West” is out of print, but there are always copies on Amazon.com. Or you can borrow my copy. Take it to the Midewin, or to Nachusa Grasslands, on the Rock River near Oregon. Read and see and smell.