This week I've been participating in a program with our friends at the Office of Sustainability here at the university. The Prairie Project 
...aims to create an open and supportive environment for faculty and instructors from all disciplines to interactively engage in mutual learning about sustainability and to brainstorm and experiment with novel and interdisciplinary educational approaches. The project will use the local prairie environment, from the natural prairie to the highly modified urban and agricultural prairies, to illustrate how a place-based perspective allows consideration of the interconnected social, environmental, and economic issues surrounding sustainability.
In a future semester I'll ask creative nonfiction students to do immersion writing on this theme, but in the meantime I hope to post occasionally about other good works of the project.
Today we were bussed us out to a prairie park I know well. Here's an essay I wrote, a couple of years ago, on that park and my ambivalent feelings about this part of the Midwest. It got its start here at the blog and was published in full in Ninth Letter .
When can we ever say in good faith that we know a place well? Most places we know as we do most people, by mere hints. After eight years here I still find where we’re at a difficult place to know.
Many believe the state of Illinois is all the same, top to bottom. But if you pulled north-south Interstate 57 out of the state like a core sample, you’d see the strata of difference—in geology, topography, biology, culture—between Chicago and Cairo. I’ve lived in both ends of the state, and I can tell you that the City of Chicago, currently in its Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry phase, peers south past Joliet and sees only The Sticks. Down in Southern Illinois, a heavily-forested arm of the Ozark plateau, they don’t look north and see The Sticks, because there aren’t any on the bare clods.
Central Illinois, stuck between that postmodern city and those Carboniferous uplands, is disdained by both. Yet its open flatness—and the dull uniformity it represents, as if it’s a geography of mind—is what most think of when they think of Illinois.
Eighty-percent of the state—28 million acres—is agricultural fields. It’s not the most hospitable place unless you’re a soybean or an ear of corn. Under the depth of the sky, the wind is like a strong underwater current, and ceaseless. In winter the raw damp and frequent ice storms make it seem that the glaciers that ground everything into rockflour have only just receded. Summer heat indices can reach 125 degrees, due in part to the humid breath of crops to the horizon. (“An acre of corn gives off about 3,000-4,000 gallons…of water each day,” says the USGS.) Dust plumes rise behind the big tractors, and we’re in the nation’s worst 10-20 added risk of cancer for air pollutants.
But it isn’t personal dislike of topography, weather, or flora that hinders understanding. It’s that there’s hardly an inch here that’s been left alone. What isn’t plowed is mowed, and what isn’t mowed is ditched, bordered, mulched or paved. In any case, it’s all owned, foursquare and police-patrolled, just as it should be. Visitors especially call this rural countryside, but it’s more over-determined than any inner city, and a whole lot less anarchic.
The result is that there’s almost nowhere to take your ease, to rest, loaf, daydream, dawdle, flop, climb, hide, observe, or even piss in peace. Chicago, now supposedly the “greenest city on the planet,” has its public lakefront and parks, its architecture and public art to make life richer. Southern Illinois has many places for contemplation, such as Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, Shawnee National Forest, or the banks of two enormous rivers. Central Illinois, midway between forest and city in more ways than one, represents the Industrial Age as applied to agriculture and is both anti-human and anti-nature. We don’t even benefit directly from agribusiness cultivation: 75% of what’s grown goes to cows, cars, and (more) corn, and Illinois must import 90% of its food.
Illinois is ranked dead last among Midwestern states for acres protected per capita for conservation and recreation—only one percent is owned by the state—and only about 2,000 acres of high-quality, relatively undisturbed prairie (about 0.01% of the original) remain. But as Thoreau famously implied, it’s not wilderness so much as wildness that’s necessary to our lives, and I’m always looking for small details, burgeoning and fading to their own plan, that will allow me some elemental understanding of place.
It’s as hard to find the salvation of intimacy in shorn fields as it is on the blank face of the sea, but on the edge of town there’s a 130-acre prairie park called Meadowbrook that we’ve used for quiet adventures. Two summers, I double-dug and tended an organic garden plot there, which taught me many things. Our black lab, straining on his leash, once flushed nine pheasants from a patch of switchgrass and wild carrot and later that day gobbled a pile of underfur where a warren had been—he learned of heaven. My wife and I have strode along Meadowbrook’s concrete paths to induce her labor, keeping eyes open for mole salamanders, wood frogs, trout lilies, snow trillium, and other signs of new life.
That slow taking-in of the natural world, its rhythms, processes, is what I want my sons to discover for themselves. Our first-born is five now and interested in science and the natural world, and when I took him to Meadowbrook this spring we followed a swollen stream so he could imagine a beaver’s dam at every jumble of flood wrack. We sat in a copse, ate a snack, and pretended to be deer hiding from joggers. A wild turkey called; another responded at great distance. Mourning doves hooted.
At first I took the jumble of bones for a big dog’s, but the spine was longer than a man’s, the ribs bigger, and the skull had no canines—a real deer then. My son stood somberly a few feet away, despite his great love of dinosaur and other bookish bones, while I snapped a couple of pictures. The skeleton was largely intact, but as we walked on I saw vertebrae and other small bones deposited 200 yards away by something hungry. I didn’t mention them.
My son suddenly wanted every odd noise—rattle of seed pods, screech of bird of prey—explained to his satisfaction. Half a mile away at the edge of the park’s big playground, a clumsily laminated sign fallen from a post said, “Sorry about the smell,” and explained that dead animals were left to rot, unless they posed a danger to public safety, to complete life’s cycle for both prairie and people. The sweet stink of education.
By bedtime, my son had tamed the bones and seed pods and raw Illinois wind by putting them into stories of our adventures for his mother and little brother. As I turned out the light, he stretched luxuriously between flannel sheets and heaved a great sigh of satisfaction at his new and valuable knowledge, having seen for himself how lightly uncultivated death sits on our little landscape.