The tallgrass prairies are all gone, cut up, as they were, by John Deere’s earth razor.
For good reason. The soil underneath, deposited by ancient glaciers, was rich and stretched for thousands of miles.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” - Aldo Leopold
The land that built American was once a tallgrass prairie. At least some of it was. Some of it was shortgrass and some of it mixed. Much of it, from the rivers of the east to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is steppes, cold steppes.
There is not far from us a remnant, 19,000 acres, of tallgrass prairie. It’s called the Midewin, (pronounced mih-day-win) and you’d miss it were it not for a national designation and signs along Illinois 53.
We rode our bikes through parts of the Midewin, the parts along which the Iron Bridge Trail runs.
It’s a sandy trail, so heavy in spots that your bicycle tires will sink in an inch or two.
At other spots, it’s wind blown and bare and the dirt is packed and hard. And you fly along next to waving stalks of big bluestem, prairie drop seed and Canada wild rye.
In the fall, when the grasses have browned somewhat and the wildflowers like pasture rose, purple prairie clover and the coreopsis stop competing like colors on the rainbow, the effect is a mottled, earthy pallete of beige browns, damp greens, flaxen purples and harvest yellows.
The weather has just turned, as it is expected to do in early October. The air from the north is bitter and biting.
A small garter snake seeks whatever warmth the sandy trail soaked up in the daylight hours. I swerved to miss it.
My wife noticed a small raccoon sleeping in a girder on the iron bridge. I thought, that’s a smart little creature, hiding out from the wind like that.
The Iron Bridge Trail winds through rehabilitated prairie, claimed, as it were, from row cropping. The native grasses slowly choking out the invaders. But it’s difficult to completely buy the premise with the man-made lines just barely visible under the beginner prairie.
Woodlands intersect the prairie in spots, providing windbreaks and a change of scenery and homes to a host of creatures.
The frog chorus is not as bright as it might have been in summer, the refrain a little more urgent with a hint of sadness, but it’s there as a backdrop nonetheless.
Crunching leaves is the dominant sound until a Swainson’s hawk lets loose a piercing shriek before diving off a tall branch above our heads and making for a better vantage point less crunchy and with fewer humans.
When the trees gave way to the prairie again, the wind was in our faces, and it burned us red like the sun is prone to do.
The cold gray ceiling of clouds was flat and featureless, casting irrelevant shadows around us. A northern harrier hawk winged over us looking for movement on the prairie floor.
The solitude felt good. There were cars at the trail head, but we never spotted another human along the path. We rode through about 6 miles of the prairie, before the cold wind bit down too hard and for too long.
Coming out of the eastern lands, the tallgrass prairie must have seemed somewhat insurmountable to the early pioneers, with grasses reaching over 9 feet in some cases, a good patch of prairie could be as rich in life and diversity as a tropical rainforest.
I can imagine the sighs of relief when the Midwestern tallgrass prairies finally gave way to the mixed and shortgrass prairies farther west.
And I’m glad they’ve set aside this small patch of prairie to enjoy. It being a work in progress, it’s not the beauty that draws me in, it’s the rough concept taking place in my head.
It’s the connection to another time.
“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” - Aldo Leopold