The Borderland

After a day of storms, today is sunny and humid. Over to the west, cumulus clouds build.

Just south of Bloomington, Illinois, lies Sugar Grove Nature Center, a nature preserve, and the largest remnant tract of prairie grove in the country. (I stand corrected: it is the largest tract in Illinois).  The preserve occupies a rare ecological niche, combining prairie and patches of ancient woodland. Walking through the prairie, never far from the forest, one hears a torrent of birdsong, even now at midsummer. Butterflies and other insects are present in abundance. Out here on the prairie the sun beats down and the humidity quickly saps any ambition from the walker, save the desire to retreat briefly into the coolness of the woods.

Look up and the Midwestern landscape is dominated by the great arc of the sky, dwarfing even the tallest trees in each grove. Closer to hand are the flowers and grasses of the prairie which form dense thickets that average about four feet tall; occasionally sunflowers and mullein shoot up eight or nine feet above the prairie floor.

When the first European settlers arrived they viewed the prairie world as both beautiful and threatening; they also grasped its potential as a source of grain. Immediately they began to till under the wildflowers, quickly transforming a magnificent landscape into farmland. Soon the bison, elk, and most of the deer were gone, as were the Native people.

Standing in the tall prairie one finds oneself situated between Earth and Sky, and between two vastly different ways of understanding the land. Where Europeans saw farmland to be tilled, Native people saw a landscape rich in beauty, food, and culture. All too soon the settlers’ vision of tidy farms would rule the plains, and one of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems would exist only in memory, and in small, remnant, enclaves.

The settlers imagined the Native people of the Midwestern prairies did nothing to manage the prairie. What they missed was the prairie being managed in an entirely unique way; while the Indigenous people tilled only small plots, they burned the prairies regularly, stopping the advancement of forests and maintaining the complexity and vibrancy of the prairie ecosystem. What the settlers saw as negligence was simply a different form of land use and management. Now a few dedicated descendants of those early settlers strive to bring back the prairie, sans large herbivores and predators.

Standing here, under the high dome of the sky, the songs of birds and buzzing of insects creating an immersive aural surround, we are at the boundary between cultures, worldviews, and ecosystems. Standing in this remnant prairie, thinking about journeying lightly upon the Earth, is a good place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “The Borderland

  1. Sugar Grove is the “largest remaining intact prairie grove in the state of Illinois”, according to their website. There are much larger prairie remnants further West. “Remnants” and “intact” imply that these places have never been plowed. “Restoration” and “reconstruction” mean that the native plants have be re-introduced. Prairie restoration and reconstruction is trending in the Midwest now, even in places (like the 56 acres I live on) where prairies didn’t actually exist pre-European settlement. I think it makes an attractive transitional option between agriculture and woodland. It takes a very long time for crop fields to return to forests, especially ones that have had herbicides and pesticides dumped into the soil for decades. But sowing some prairie seeds makes those open fields much more natural-looking and hospitable to wildlife. Eventually, the woods will fill in…if people let it alone.

    • Thank you for correcting this. Given how far east it lies, I imagine only burning kept it from foresting. The prairie grove ecosystem is fascinating. I should try to figure out how far west it extends.

      My Australian friends remind me that most of Australia was carefully managed by Aboriginal people. The same was true here. Management of landscape over thousands of years leads to stable, and often complex, systems.

      • That is if the management is not overly dominant. Our managed monocultures of cropland will not last on the landscape for thousands of years. Even the ancient Hebrews figured out that you should give the land a rest every 7 years. Our current culture has a hard time recognizing the wisdom of getting out of the way and letting Nature lead.

    • Andrea, Yes, management for diversity and complexity would have made an enormous difference. In order to do that, settlers would have had to work constructively with place, and with the people they found living there. They would also have had to adapt a certain generosity towards each other and the land.

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