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The photos above are from the savanna restoration site along the Mackinaw River at Merwin Preserve near Bloomington, Illinois. The site is managed by the ParkLands Foundation. The savanna portion of this natural area is maintained by periodic burning which thins the understory but keeps in place the mature trees. Illinois was, until settlement by Old World colonists, over ninety percent prairie and prairie-savanna. Now, about one tenth of a percent of the original habitat remains, and maybe one tenth of that is in “good shape.” So small islands of remnant habitat, such as the one we visited, serve both as reminders of the past and as critically important habitat for today’s native biodiversity.

All around, the land has been ploughed, revealing the famously productive soil that underlies the region. The soil is the color of dark chocolate. Just gazing at the soil made me hungry: here is land that can feed. The soil’s richness was built by the plants and animals of the prairie. But that very richness expelled these creators from most of the landscape. Now the former prairies grow corn and soy, in fields whose size is measured in thousands of acres. That food sustains many people and, lately, our cars. Nearly half of this year’s corn crop will be poured into gas tanks. So as we drive over this land to see its native species, we’re powered by the work of those species’ ancestors.

Even in its plowed state, central Illinois has an open beauty, a beauty that was magnified many times in the savanna itself. The wind loves that openness, so the sound of air against grass (whether prairie grass or corn) and trees (in savannas or in farm windbreaks) forms the acoustic frame for an experience of the land. And, like the soil, the wind now also powers our technology. Copses of wind turbines stand at the edge of town, hopeful new savannas, twisting electricity from the sky.

I am very grateful to Given Harper at Illinois Wesleyan University for arranging my visit. Thanks also to the students, staff and faculty for greeting me with such warmth.

10 thoughts on “Savanna

  1. Denise

    I think next to forests, prairie are my favorite natural habitat. I remember the first time I went to Minnesota for a prairie project. It was June, and I’ve never seen so many butterflies, birds and flowers in my life—seemingly millions of them, all around me. The prairie was only a few acres, though, a tiny remnant of the once great continuous tall-grass prairie the settlers likened to a waving green ocean. Like ancient forests, prairies are mostly gone, and once they are cut, or plowed, they’re basically gone forever…or at least for a very long time. A good reason for preservation.

  2. Gretchen Knapp

    I’m delighted that you found the Merwin savannah so enjoyable. Thank you for highlighting its beauty in your blog this week.

  3. jkonick

    Thank you for the images, in both words and photography. I like the way you talk about the “acoustic frame of the land” – it makes the wind so much more palpable as something than can be seen and heard, and not just felt. I live in the Ka’u desert on the Big Island of Hawai’i which is sparsely populated by lava rocks and ohi’a trees. You can see and hear the wind here almost as if it were a river running along a course, moving from tree to tree and whooshing around you. Are you familiar with the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams? His work is an attempt to capture the scenery of Alaska in sound. He actually created an installation called The Place Where You Go to Listen, which composes at the whims of atmospheric and environmental readings. Here’s more information if you are curious:

    Thank you for this blog! I am actually a literature student, but I think I have more in common with your writing than many literature scholars. I read your profile in the New York Times and it was very inspiring. I maintain a very similar meditative practice to yours, and I think that kind of subtle and intuitive observation of the natural world gives one a unique and wonderful point of view that can’t be attained any other way. Please check out my blogs if you are interested in seeing what literature and philosophy can offer to an understanding of the natural world!

    Jeremy Konick

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Jeremy! I’m at a conference/retreat now, but will check out these links on my return. I love how you describe the wind. The air *is* a substance, not an emptiness. Sounds makes that manifest also, I think.

      I’m very grateful to you for connecting here and for the kind things you say. I look forward to reading your blog.

  4. Laura C

    What a lovely place. That “open beauty” you describe reminds me of being on the North Dakota prairie. And the acoustic environment you mention I remember distinctly there, too. It does something to you, to be there, hearing the wind in the grass with the horizon laid bare in all directions. Thanks for your words!

  5. Peter Thoem

    Lovely. In the fall of 2011 we rode the Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago. In the last half day somewhere between Milwaukee and Chicago we passed by large tracts of oak savanna. I wondered how much of it was in good condition. I would have liked to ask the engineer to stop and allow me an hour or so to explore, but alas we had a schedule to keep.


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