During my days as director and senior naturalist at the Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, I was deeply involved with the preservation of what natural areas that were left in the Cook County Forest preserves.
The prairie. No one can conceive the emotion that rises up in the bosom of the traveler as he stands on the broad prairie and sees the horizon settling down upon one wide sea of waving grass and can behold around him neither stone, nor stump, nor bush, nor tree, nor hill nor house. These vast prairies, though bearing a luxuriant growth of grass, would impress one with a sense of desolateness, were they not beautified with flowers, and animated with the songs and the sight of the feathered tribes. The view of the prairie, as it stretches before you, often appears like a perfect flower garden. Though we were too late to see these productions in their rich vernal beauty, yet often they stood strewn around us on every side as far as the eye could reach, spreading out their rich and brilliant petals of every color and hue!
My dear friend May T. Watts described a final visit to a narrow strip of prairie in Kendall County, Ill., just before it was plowed: “The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse, and the big bluestem waved its turkey feet of deep purple against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.”
Strange, the quotes and poems that stick in one’s mind over the years. Where I read or heard this I can’t remember:
“O fly to the prairie, sweet maiden with me,
‘Tis as green, and as wild, and as wide as the sea,
O’er its emerald bosom the summer winds glide
And wave the wild grass like the vanishing tide.
-K. Mitchell (1840)
The woodlands. This from a book on the Chicago Forest Preserves: “By the time the hepaticas are gone to sleep, the violets will be up in the woods along the Des Plaines and at Beverly Hills, and a little later in the ravines to the north, and later still the Palos Woods and Schoolhouse trails will be blue with them. . . And take all the children you know with you, lest one should ever send a pang to your heart by saying, as a young city child of 14 once said to me very wistfully, ‘But Miss Emily, I never saw violets growing.’ -Louella Chapin (1907)
“There is no other land in the world with autumns like ours. We pile the treasure of the year into a great burial fire. Tongues of flame go up to the sky, the garnet of black and red oaks, the leaping maples and the flickering aspens and out of the midst of it all, one exulting spire of light where a cottonwood shakes primal yellow at the primal blue of the American sky.
From the boughs pour down the glory of the vines-woodbine and corded grape and poison ivy. The thickets fill with the cymbal colors of the sumac-orange and scarlet and stain of wine, the leaning dwarf forest of the hawthorns begins to drop its shower of little pomes ruby color overcast with purple bloom.” -Donald Culross Peattie (1938)
And, of course, the marsh. “There is a certain grandeur about a big marsh with its reedy vegetation billowing out to a flat horizon. Even in a tamed countryside, it still holds itself aloof as a symbol of wilderness. Land going creatures are unwilling to flounder in its mud and grassy water.” -William J. Beecher (1981)
“Even to the casual observer, the marsh offers many living and shining things of great interest and beauty which are attracted to it by its springs of water and its friendly cover. But it is forever jealous of its real secrets which it guards with care, revealing them only to those who with love in their hearts, seek and find them.” -Samuel Harper (1928)
No landscape has undergone a greater change in the public’s mind than wetlands. They have been traditionally viewed as unwholesome places best avoided or better still, eliminated. John Bunyan’s seventeenth century classic Pilgrim’s Progress describes one of the most famous wetlands in western literature.
“This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended, it is the descent, whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond.”
And finally, a 1965 quote from Allen Eckert: “There comes a point in the existence of every living species, if its population drops extremely low, when it straddles a precarious line. If things go well and the forces of man and nature refrain from dealing it further deleterious blows, it may survive and increase and over the years return to a semblance of its former abundance. But one little push over that line in the opposite direction seals the fate of the species.”
Spare me one swamp
Ho! ye ditchers, ye drainers, go ye slow
Till I walk once more where the slough-creeks go.
Spare me yet one swamp where the marsh-hen breeds,
One deep old morass where the mink-brood feeds,
One sweep of great bog where the cat-tail seeds,
Are shorn and snatched from their heads by the winter gales.
-Liberty Hyde Bailey
One last thought: “What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” -Henry David Thoreau
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.