Monday, February 27, 2012
It is Not Just a Bunch of Weeds
In perfect keeping with the strange winter we have been experiencing, yesterday's temps were in the very high forties, affording us the perfect opportunity to hike out over the prairie. Trudging through slush and tall grass is vastly preferable to stomping on a treadmill, so I didn't even bat an eye. Steve was even game, which is unusual for him in the cold!
Nachusa Grasslands is the perfect prairie in which to hike, because, unlike most state parks and recreation areas, they are no rules about sticking to a trail, staying on the path, avoiding the best places on the prairie. In fact, they promote "freestyle" hiking at Nachusa, and the only real trails they have are the two-tracks on which the vehicles drive when need-be. Coupled with the fact that all we have to do is duck under the fence to be on Nachusa property, this is very convenient for us.
I love the prairie. Growing up in Vermont, the landscapes of my childhood were a lot of trees and forests, granite spills and verdant fields. Grasslands were a foreign concept to me until out arrival in Illinois in 1997. I still remember the day I fell in love with the prairie...
I was driving up the long, winding road that leads from the main road to the Forest Preserve building and museum. I had heard they offered preschool classes there, and since I was in the market for one for Phillip it was time to check it out. When you top the hill and make the turn into the parking lot, you are on one of the highest spots in Byron, and the prairie open up at your feet! The Nature Center and Museum squats atop the hill and overlooks the prairie like a grounded sentry, and I was instantly smitten. When the wind dances through the grasses is like being at the ocean again; an ocean of grass. And no one can call it boring; the russets and golds and browns combine to create the most freeform and dynamic quilt you might ever see. Tall-ies like compass plant, Indian grass and prairie dock offer texture along with the short-ies like little bluestem, prairie clover and goldenrods.
Now, being here in this home, we have come full-circle, so-to-speak. It is a matter of steps to bring ourselves in intimate contact with a unique and diverse ecosystem. As Steve and I head across the grass, I am always looking down. Not only must you watch where you are walking lest you turn an ankle, there are so many fascinating plants to see and discover, even in winter. I readily recognized leftover Round-Headed Bush Clover, Grass-Leaved Goldenrod and Bergamot among myriad others. Even after a winter of wind and moisture many of these plants can be plucked from their stems, crushed between your fingers or rolled between your palms, and they will still release their pungent and earthy fragrance. In addition, there are about seven distinct types of habitat and Nachusa, and a lot of cross-over among them, as well. The terrain varies from very easy to extremely rugged in places, lots of rolling hills, wetland areas, woods and savannah.
Our first steps are high on a “knob,” or hill, of sorts. Where the soil is poorer or drier the plants become shorter, more conservative and cautious. Little bluestem abounds, but the high places can also be where you find some of the coolest and rarest prairie plants. It is easy to walk through shortgrass prairie, for there is little to hinder your movement. You must watch out for patches of wild raspberries, though! My heart rate increases right away because I am still so out of shape, but that is good. Feel the burn! Burn those calories! We stride across the shortgrass for quite a while before the way starts to drop. Where the shortgrass is careful and cautious, the tallgrass is exuberant, reckless…uninhibited. Plenty of moisture allows the inhabitant plants to throw their roots deep, sometimes as deep as 10 feet! A massive root system allows for tremendous top-growth, hence the name “tallgrass” prairie. Some of the tallest species are ten feet tall! This is where walking can get tricky. Much of the plant material is already flattened down from wind and snow, but you must pick your feet up high to avoid tripping. It is also a good idea to walk with an arm before your face, to avoid getting smacked in the eye by grass. We trudge through the tallgrass. Ascending another knob, the grasses go short again, and my heart really starts to pound as we clamber uphill…yes! Feel the blood pumping through my veins, the crunch of dry grass beneath my feet, recognition of leftover (but rotted) prickly pear cactus as the grass gives way to rock. Massive outcropping of sand stone and St. Peters limestone dot the prairie, and even these rugged places provide a unique environment for very specific plants like shooting stars, stiff aster and gentians.
On our way back down the knob we pass an infant savannah…an area of combined grassland and minimal trees. Whichever trees survive prairie fires and browsing by deer will create their own little open forest-like area. Here are a few 15-foot bur oaks surrounded by their children, in various stages of life and death. Their corky bark is uniquely suited to sustaining the whoosh of a prairie fire and the drying winds they encounter. Their twisted limbs reach for the sky and out over the field of oak-children, ancient even in their youth.
As we climb back over another ridge and head back toward the house we pass by some of the sedge meadows, wetter places that offer their own protection from those who do not wish to get their feet wet or stuck. Some really elusive birds live in the sedge meadows in summer, like the bobolink, sedge wren and swamp sparrow. Their songs and calls taunt you from their dense hiding places, well-protected from the prying eyes of humans and predators.
Finally, we climb Schafer knob just before reaching the house again. Schafer is a highly diverse area, a good portion of which has never been plowed and probably minimally grazed in the centuries since man has been here. Prairie Dropseed and side-oats grama grasses live here, among the little bluestem, silky asters, thimbleweed and, if you are really lucky and looking carefully, some native orchids. This is a precious place.
I am always a little sorry to reach and be ducking under the fence back onto our little homestead property again. Time out on the prairie can come to a standstill of sorts, where the clock means nothing, but the rising and setting of the sun means everything. I have escaped into another world for a few precious minutes, and now it is time to come back to reality. But this is home, my sanctuary and shelter. My husband is beside me; what more could I want?