Day 57: Back to Illinois, and Return of the Prairie….

After that terrific little visit to St. Charles, we left Grandmama and Aunt Karen at the door with hugs and kisses and See you soons, and headed back to Illinois to finish what we’d started- a little North this time to see something more than city.

I have to admit that, as I was getting into the backseat of Rachel Carson, and waving goodbye to my aunt, I did for a moment have sort of a flight response… a fleeting but very real flash of how i could bail and let the boys finish this job. And we are not even a 6th of the way through.

I was still considering ditching as we drove North but forgot about it once we got to the University of Illinois and were met by friendly Rob Kanter, who introduced us to the very animated and lively Bob Vaiden. Bob walked us through the well-kept garden and lawn of Meadowpark, Urbana, right into an incredibly rare American ecosystem – a reconstructed tall-grass prairie. Bob told us that wild prairies were once the commonest sight in the Midwest, inhabiting 40% (or about 142 million acres) of the American plains, but that by 1900 most of the prairies were gone – burned/chopped for farmland. Presently only 1% of North America is still prairie.

sigh. So, we will never again see American prairies grazed by migrating elk, deer or buffalo, or dancing with wolves but, if Bob Vaiden has anything to do with it, we will at least see the grasses of the prairie returning, perhaps a little at a time, and see what comes from there.

He walked us though seemingly endless late summer over-your-head fields of indian grass, bluestem, canadian rye, ironweed, sunflowers…with monarchs, tiger swallowtails, painted ladies and buckeyes floating by, and explained how the former cornfield had to be “killed,” several times before it could be seeded with the prairie grasses. When I asked how you “kill” a field, he laughed, “Round-up!”

Yikes! Oh my poor organic ears. And this coming from a conservationist! What’s a girl to think? “Aren’t you worried about pesticides?” I asked. “Not at all,” Bob laughed, telling me that Roundup’s chemical components don’t hang around for long once they’ve been sprayed, and are fairly inert. Oh man, am I on the other side on this one but i love what he’s doing so much, I am going to needle him and see if the next prairie they plant can’t be done organically. I bet it can! I asked him if he’d heard that the surfactant of Roundup (what makes the powder stick to the plant) is a carcinogen. He hadn’t. Hmmm.

Anyway, once the corn was all “killed,” the seeds were bought in great amounts and spread over the soil, and BOOM. Magic Prairie. Ok, well slow-motion magic boom as it takes 3 yrs for a prairie to mature enough to be considered grown. And Bob said that, although there are over 100 species in his prairie, it would still take many years for its diversity to come close to the ones we lost. OH! i was looking up the names of the grasses we saw and stumbled on this really cool website where you can Build your own virtual prairie! It’s so cool, I am about to try it as soon as i finish this…

Bob seems to be really looking forward to watching prairies return, as he helps educate people in Illinois about their native land. I asked him, “What critters would live in a wild prairie that aren’t here?” “Oh, foxes, some rare birds, skunks…” “What kind of critter would you most like to see here?” Bob didn’t hesitate, “Oh, Franklin’s Ground Squirrels, for sure.” He told me they’re also called whistlepigs for how they call. So then i’m thinking, where do i get Bob some whistlepigs??? surely we should be able to get this man some squirrels.
If anyone’s wondering what to get Bob Vaiden for Xmas, I am thinking a couple of mating whistlepigs would be well-worth the pennies. He is not the first person we have encountered on this trip who has said, If you build it, they will come. I really, really hope he’s right.

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