top of page

A Forbidding Prospect

Ill at ease in Illinois’s wide open spaces

Illinois Times

November 16, 1979

Most of Illinois is mostly flat and mostly treeless. This is—and always has been—a cause of comment by visitors and despair among residents, as Charles Schweighauser explains here—although it was a more pressing issue in the past, when so many more Illinoisians lived in the countryside that their descendants only drive through today.


Among the deficiencies of life in central Illinois most often noted by its battalions of unhappy exiles is the land itself. It is not flat, as is often alleged, but rolling, but rolling, but even so its relative lack of variety offends visitors who often see its flatness reflected in our voices and in our lives.


It is true that the landscape of central Illinois is not as scenic as places with more ambitious terrains. But to say, as some do, that there is nothing there is stupid. W. G. Hoskins. who lectures on the history of the English landscape at Oxford, has written that when one looks at the land, "It is the detail which counts, the microscope and not the telescope." The reason people do not see things in the land is because they don't know how to look, not because there is nothing to see; any fool can appreciate a mountain. The main difference between landscape and mere scenery. Hoskins says, is that "landscape asks questions of the spectator, whereas scenery is there for quiet contemplation."


It was to learn answers to some of the questions posed by the central Illinois landscape I grew up with that I traveled last March to the office of Charles Schweighauser at Sangamon State University in Springfield. Schweighauser is Associate  Professor of Environments and People at SSU. He is an Illinois native, and so grew up accustomed to unobstructed views: some hint of the peripatetic nature of his intelligence may be found in the fact that he took his B.A. and M.A. in literature, was the first director of St. Louis' McDonnell Planetarium, and now is director of the SSU observatory, and helped draft a bill for the General Assembly to create agricultural districts to preserve prime Illinois farmland.


The eye can't cover much ground from inside Schweighauser's cubicle in K building. It is barely eight feet in diameter and it has no windows—an ironic confinement for a man who teaches a course called "Environmental Perception." Still, the intellectual view from Schweighauser's cubicle stretches in all directions.


"The early settlers in central Illinois had a negative psychological reaction to floating on a sea of grass," Schweighauser notes. "So they went to the woods, which then existed along the stream beds and in the form of hardwood groves that stood in the open prairie. They did this for sound economic reasons, of course: the woods supplied them with firewood and building materials and shelter for livestock. But they also did it because they were not used to wide open spaces. Of course, in the summertime they couldn't see the horizon, because the prairie grasses grew taller than a man and so hid the sheer vastness of the landscape. But in the winter the horizon did appear, and it was a forbidding prospect.

"After the invention of the moldboard plow, which made it possible for the first time to cultivate the open prairies, the grasses were all plowed under. The horizon now appeared in summer as well. The settlers felt unease confronting all this space, so they did some curious things. They left certain recognizable physical features in the middle distance by which they could orient themselves and break up this expanse—trees!


"All around the state, farmers left small clumps of trees standing in the middle of their fields. Their excuse in the early days was that the trees made a good place for the plow horses to cool off. But there was also a deep psychological reason for having those trees there. Look around even today. You see these fields, stretching for three, four miles in all directions, and smack in the middle of them there's a tree. Now farmers don't need that tree there anymore: tractors don't need to rest in the shade. If you talk to farmers they'll usually say. 'Well, my grandfather planted that tree.' Darn right he planted it. for very good psychological reasons, and his grandchildren leave it there for the same reasons."


This defensive repopulating of a landscape denuded in the course of exploiting it has been made even more imperative as technology and market pressures have combined to force most farmers' reach to equal their grasp. The process begun with the perfection of the moldboard plow is being finished today with awful precision as farmers' machines clear hedge rows, creek bottoms, and hillsides to put more and more acres into production. As a result the trees, the glades, the animals are gone. The most fertile land in the world is, except for the life we grow on it, a brown desert.


"Technology keeps adding layers of separation between the manipulators and that being manipulated," Schweighauser points out. "The typical 19th century farm was self-sufficient, independent, self-sustaining, and biologically rich. People, a diversity of stock animals, a variety of plants—all lent perceptual diversity to the landscape while also regulating both the spatial and temporal associations with the farm family that lived on it. The need for larger and larger surplus productivity has led to a need for specialization, specialization not only in terms of crops but also in the way in which the resource base is used.


"Technology has given us the means to manipulate the natural environment, and when we manipulate we simplify. Instead of the biologically rich and visually diverse landscape of the 19th century we've created what I call a 'big white room' into which we deliver energy inputs into one end and remove waste output at the other end. The perfect example of a big white room is the Apollo spacecraft. The big white room replaces the big green room of natural biological diversity."


As I listened to Schweighauser I was impressed at how little we have changed from our foreparents. Like them, we grow edgy and uncertain in the face of the sheer scale of this new world and take refuge in the groves so we will not have to see. Our forest groves are made of concrete now, of course, but they serve the same function of shielding us. supplanting a human landscape for the daunting natural one that surrounds us. This is especially apparent during the autumn, when the harvesting of crops again exposes the blank face of the land from beneath its green mask: in a way. corn is to us what the tall prairie grasses were to our forebears, and we miss its enveloping height just as much.


It is significant that few people in this flat corner of the world seek out the countryside for rest and relief from life in the crowded concrete groves. Instead they seek out other groves—wooded places, preferably near water and even more preferably with hills, places as unlike the open countryside as they can find. There is no solace in the countryside. We've made it an unfriendly place.


I suspect that people do not merely dismiss the landscape here because they find it dull but because they find it hateful in its indifference and its inhospitality. The open countryside is an intimidating place that offers no shelter from the wind, cold, or storms that periodically rake it; there is no safe place in the country unless one buries oneself beneath it. I always wondered what it feels like to stumble into a storm cellar when a tornado materializes like a banshee on the far horizon. Does it feel like re-entering the womb, safe and dark? Or is it like descending into the grave? ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page