Chicago's Home-Grown Prairie

Biologists, volunteers re-create the Midwest landscape of pioneers

DOZENS of Midwesterners recently gathered in a meadow splashed with purple, white, and golden wildflowers to find their ``lost landscape'' and a big region of themselves.

The conservationists came together to dedicate the new prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Biologists and volunteers created the 15-acre site from scratch in an 11-year, $750,000 project.

Across the small, lush tract, breeze-tossed blossoms wave atop tender green stems like Van Gogh's brushes, swirling exuberant, dazzling colors against white-canvas clouds.

The man-made prairie is meager atonement for the millions of acres that settlers have plowed under since the middle of the last century. Only 2,300 acres of natural prairie remain across Illinois today, just a scattering of petals compared with the 22 million acres of virgin grasslands that covered the Prairie State 150 years ago.

The new suburban prairie huddles like a fragile oasis in a tar-and-gravel plain of malls, highways, and office parks.

The trumpeting by Canada geese descending into a lake alongside the prairie falls mute beneath the roar of jetliners landing at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The whisper of breeze through the dense, fragrant growth of golden rod, silky aster, and other wildflowers yields to the rush of traffic on the adjacent, six-lane thruway named - with inadvertent sarcasm - Edens Expressway.

Despite the onslaught by man and machine, the creators of the prairie have achieved one of their primary aims by affirming to Midwesterners their natural history and heritage.

``Before I began working on the prairie, I somehow always felt that people who lived near mountains or oceans had some natural heritage that we lacked,'' says Lee Schmitz, a volunteer prairie builder at the garden.

``It's so good to find we do have a natural heritage in Illinois,'' Mr. Schmitz says. After the dedication, he stood over a model of a 19th-century plow and described how settlers used it to turn over the grasses. He wore black trousers, a black vest, a white shirt buttoned to the chin, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a straw hat.

Biologists and volunteers built their Midwest prairie enclave from the ground up, turning Skokie River marshland into five kinds of prairie found in Illinois. While advancing a prairie project of unprecedented range and scale, they learned it's not easy to emulate Mother Nature.

In making the Gravel Hill Prairie, the builders had to mimic the glaciers that released sand and gravel in rivers and streams across parts of North America while receding 12,000 years ago. They hauled in 400 cubic yards of gravel and sculpted a rolling hill.

During the heavy lifting, the biologists took on nature's delicate task of constructing a spring for the Fen Prairie. They buried two tanks into the gravel hill, which they connected by pipes to a nearby pond on one end and the fen on the other.

Now they pump water a quarter of a mile from the pond and allow it to filter through gravel in the tanks and seep into the fen. As the pond water passes underground through the gravel, it becomes more like the cool, pure spring water needed by bottlebrush sedge and other fen plants.

The prairie gardeners also had to duplicate the action of time and decay, recreating the deep, rich peat that builds over millennia with each leafy generation. They brought in truckloads of topsoil, providing the loam vital for the deep-rooted grasses.

To seed the garden, biologists and volunteers took on the role of wind and beast. They gathered seeds from prairies in the area, germinated them in greenhouses, and planted them one by one. So far, they have transplanted more than 250,000 prairie plants representing 250 species.

LIKE nature, the prairie growers destroy what they propagate. Each year they duplicate the ravages of lightning and set the prairie afire to wipe out woody plants that would shade and crowd out grasses. And they regularly mow the prairie, stirring plants and soil together like bison, badgers, prairie chickens, and other animals that could not survive on the cramped plot.

While expiating some of man's environmental sins, the prairiemakers must cast out leafy opportunists from the garden. They spend much of their time attempting to keep out weeds that thrive around Chicago but are not native to the five re-created prairies.

``Garlic mustard, buckthorn, purple loosestrife: Those are the top three on the hit list,'' says Joanne Schmitz, a volunteer who helps catalog blooming flowers.

Standing in the Wet Prairie and wearing a traditional beige-and-brown prairie dress with matching bonnet, Mrs. Schmitz occasionally casts a quick glance at the nearby lake shore where purple loosestrife is trying to establish a beachhead. Whenever an unwelcomed immigrant plant rears its seed head, prairie tenders yank it from the soil.

The biologists and volunteers have found it humbling to create a rich ecosystem on a suburban barren.

``You have to have tremendous patience,'' says David Sollenberger, the biologist directing the project.

``It's frustrating because the prairie for a long time will look like a big perennial garden'' before it becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem, Dr. Sollenberger says. He has found it especially challenging to provide soil with the proper consistency, nutrients, and moisture level.

Equally difficult is the effort to convince Illinoisians of the value of the prairie. Like rain forests and the sea, the vigor of the prairie gauges man's relationship to nature and his future well-being.

``A lot of people say, `Oh, that's just a weedy old field,' '' but a prairie is not at all like a weedy old field; it takes patience to explain why it's different,'' Sollenberger says.

While illustrating a state of nature, the man-made prairie reveals how many Midwesterners have disowned the prairie state of mind. It shows that as Midwesterners wipe out the prairie, they deny themselves not only the soil for their identity but also a proving ground for virtues like the pioneering spirit and simplicity.

At the end of the dedication at the Botanic Garden, as the sun dipped into a bright golden haze behind tall wisps of compass plant and big bluestem, the Schmitzes dusted off their prairie garb, climbed onto an electric cart, and cradled the toy plow on their laps.

Looking backward, the couple waved and then watched the prairie flowers recede as the cart pulled them from the Mesic Prairie, through the Fen Prairie, and back to the modern-day frontier with a relentless electric hum.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.