What Remains of the Prairie

27 Jan


When I first moved to Northern Illinois last August I didn’t know what to expect from the “Prairie State.”  I had never set foot on a prairie before, and my only experience with them came from the descriptions of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Aldo Leopold, and a few fragmented discussions about the ecological aspects of fire.

But the prairie of Illinois only survives in remnants.  Most of the land here was plowed and turned over to agriculture.  Because prairie plants are adapted to survive frequent fires, many of them rely on their underground root systems for re-growth.  Plowing disturbs these plants and opens up new holes in the soil where other plants can move in. Today it’s hard to imagine that tall grass rather than corn was once all you could see on the horizon.


Fortunately, one of these prairie remnants is close to where I live.  Much of the 3,000 acres of prairie and oak barrens at Nachusa Grasslands were preserved because the soil was too poor for crops and was instead used for pastureland, but the preserve also owes a lot to an incredible group of volunteer stewards that have worked to restore the native prairie.

When I first started exploring Nachusa back in the fall I found a lot to discover.  First it was the barn owl that we startled from the grass in the middle of the day.  Then it was this sandstone outcropping that immediately puts the theme from “The Lion King” into my head.


Then I looked down on the ground and realized that I was standing next to a cactus.


(Totally native Eastern Prickly-Pear Cactus) Courtesy of Allison Palser

Thanks in part to a kick-in-the-pants from my friend Allison, I started volunteering with the stewards who maintain the grasslands.  In the few short hours I have spent with them I have learned more about the prairie than I could have from a month of reading books about it.

During one morning work session one of the volunteer stewards led me through the grass, navigating by landmarks I couldn’t decipher.  Tucked in between the hills and the prairie grass a small stream started in a peculiar way.


It was a sand boil.  In many instances sand boils are considered bad news, caused by liquefaction during earthquakes, or causing levy failure during floods, but this one is simply the result of an underground spring pushing water up through bed of sand.  It was incredible to stand at the edge of this stream in the middle of the grasslands with the snow spilling all around and nothing but the occasional “plop!” to disturb the peace.  I think it’s safe to say that now I’ve gotten to know the prairie a bit more….


I still don’t know what to expect.



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