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.