Romancing the Prairie
Nature, nativism, and prairie restoration
The original subhead given this essay when it appeared in 2007 read, "Illinois would seem to offer scant rewards compared to the outback or the veldt, but even here nature provides escape." That was misleading. The piece in fact expressed what by 2007 was my evolved skepticism about the prairie restoration movement, in particular the tendency of advocates to project onto the ecosystem social attitudes that would be considered untoward in most other polite settings. I was pleased to see that when the essay was posted on II's web archive it was given a new and more accurate subhead: "Nature preserves are refuges for endangered attitudes."
I elaborated on the same theme in Illinois Times in "Thriving on disturbed ground."
Nature is a foreign country to those raised in the city. And just as advanced cultures have always sought out foreign countries—especially primitive ones—in which they might indulge themselves in ways forbidden at home, nature-lovers of this country often find satisfactions in doing and thinking things in nature's world that are forbidden in their own.
The Romantics sought in nature the wildness and solitude their too-crowded and too-orderly society had banished. Today, those of us of a certain age visit nature through the wonders of the wildlife documentary. The appeal of the genre is the opportunity it affords to briefly purge the mind of the everyday by stirring the primal emotions.
The Illinois prairie would seem to offer scant rewards to the prurient compared to the outback or the veldt, but even here nature provides escape from the polite and the politically correct. Many a modern environmentalist, prideful of her advanced views on all other matters sexual, still sees nature in terms that even her grandmothers would have found condescending. The novelist Louise Erdrich, in rhapsodizing about the prairies of her native Minnesota, noted that the grasses there "grow lush in order to be devoured or caressed, stiffen in sweet elegance, invent startling seeds. . . . Provide. Provide. Be lovely and do no harm."
And it is the rare writer who, faced with conveying the beauty of a prairie in flower, does not compare it to a comely lass, a species otherwise all but extinct. Donald Culross Peattie, who is widely regarded as a poet of the prairie, once wrote of the savanna he knew at today's Kennicott Grove in suburban Glenview. "There is something about flowers carpeting between old boles [tree trunks] that is like the passing of a woman's skirts." What exactly that something is, Peattie does not explain, but women often confuse men that way.
Then there is the thrill in what might be called plain old garden-variety sex. Steven Packard is a pioneer in the practical science of restoring prairie and savanna ecosystems. He figured prominently in the 1995 book Miracle Under the Oaks by New York Times science writer William Stevens about what was then known as the North Branch Prairie Restoration Project in the Chicago area. "They entranced me with their sexiness and their delicacy," he says to Stevens about the flowering plants in the prairie/savanna herbaria. Flowers are, of course, the plant's sexual organs, so the comparison is apt. It also is persuasive, and not only to males. At least one female volunteer quoted by Stevens was excited to redouble her efforts to save these plants after realizing she and they were sisters.
As for the men, their impulse is to protect what Packard once referred to as "fair damsels." If the idealized Victorian woman has disappeared from our suburban kitchens, she has been reincarnated in their remnant prairies and savannas. Nature is imagined as the swooning female on her divan, secluded in her boudoir; the suburban nature preserve has taken on virtually all the virtues of the Victorian home, in which the woman is protected from an aggressive, importuning, corrupting male.
Such a wife needs a husband to protect her. No wonder then that the ethic of the restorationists is described in the same words that describe the dutiful Victorian husband; Packard has done it, and so did Stephanie Mills in her 1995 book, In Service of the Wild, when she wrote, "The discipline's fidelity to the original ecological communities of the places being restored is a profound obeisance to Nature."
It is not only female nature's physical self that is thought fragile. So is her virtue. When the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission surveyed the state in the 1970s for natural areas worth placing under public protection, degraded savannas were officially deemed not worth saving. Like a seduced virgin who had been rendered unfit for marriage, they were abandoned to her fate until citizen-ecologists took them in. When Steve Packard—who for a time worked for the nonprofit group that advised the commission—first encountered the prairie/savanna remnants along the Chicago River that had been ecologically degraded by aggressive invaders, he did not turn his back scornfully on the fallen virgin, but sought, as did reformers of that day, to restore her to self-respect.
These days it is not the traduced virgin that expressed the dilemma of our natural areas but a more literal sort of conquered territory. Roughly a third of the vascular plants growing in Illinois are not native to the region but were introduced from abroad. A few of them, like garlic mustard, have made themselves rather too much at home in the region's remnant prairies and savannas. Consider Rhamnus cathartica, the European buckthorn. Introduced to this country as an ornamental tree and hedge plant, it is a stubborn and aggressive spreader that is heartily detested by restorationists who spend many a weekend in bloody hand-to-hand combat with it. Densely leafed, it darkens a savanna floor so thoroughly that in a few brief summers once-diverse neighborhoods are turned into ecological slums.
Opportunistic plant species like the buckthorn are known by several generic terms. "Non-native" is the most accurate, followed by "introduced" for those like the buckthorn that were imported for a purpose. "Exotic" carries with it a whiff of the strange; its cousin "alien" adds to that a hint of menace.
Most freighted of all is "invasive" and its variants, which hints at malevolent intentions. The late Jerry Sullivan, author of the Field and Street column in Chicago's Reader, routinely referred to European buckthorn as "a nasty alien shrub." Stevens called it "the number one scourge, ecologically, of the North Branch preserve sites." Native plants, he added, "had no chance in the face of this invasion."
Reading such complaints can sometimes be like listening to a speech by Pat Buchanan on immigration policy. There is an unmistakable echo of nativism of the social, human kind (no doubt unconscious) when non-native plant species are described. Native plant species such as dogwood and hawthorns also are invasive on disturbed ground, but it is the plants of foreign origin that excite the direst rhetoric. Here and there, one even picks up hints of the ancient fear of miscegenation; Peattie, in his 1938 chronicle, A Prairie Grove, equated the immigrant with the sexual despoiler when he describes "virgin prairie … unsullied by a single foreign weed." Thus does biologist James Brown (quoted by author Stephen Budiansky in Nature's Keepers) liken the detestation of exotic plant species to "irrational xenophobia" of the sort that stems from people's inherent fear and intolerance of foreign races, cultures and religions.
Might there be a displaced anxiety behind the rhetoric? The ecological dilemma faced in the Chicago area's forest preserves in the 1970s was very similar to the social dilemma that has confronted Chicago since it became a city of immigrants in the latter 1800s. Stevens at one point refers to weedy species that had taken over whole swaths of the forest preserves as "opportunistic species that run riot in disturbed ground." No ground was more disturbed than Chicago while a 19th century mercantile center was being torn down and a modern industrial city was taking its place. In 1938, Peattie wrote with an almost audible relief that the city of Chicago's "great commercial destiny" never took root in his little patch of prairie, with the happy result that he did not have "three million neighbors, most of them Italians, Swedes, Poles, Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs and Negroes." Immigrants are fine in their place, but that place isn't in the green suburbs.
A nature writer of more recent vintage, Peter Friederici, took up the issue in The Suburban Wild, his 1999 book about Lake County. "Without concerted control efforts," he wrote, "these opportunistic plants and animals may wipe out many native species that have evolved . . . in conjunction with particular places." He could be reprising the immigration debate that began in Chicago a century ago and never quite ended. The solution proposed by many—to throw a fence around the United States to keep the newcomers out—is the same solution preferred for decades by nature-lovers who sought to preserve native landscapes by isolating them in nature preserves.
Neither approach worked. In the past 30 years, prairie and savanna restorationists have mastered a third approach—aggressively intervening in nature's processes to restore not a pristine ecosystem but the process by which ecosystems themselves adapt and evolve. The project, which aims to restore tens of thousands of acres, is benign in intent, but, as less adept gardeners have learned in Iraq, rebuilding even a degraded community often means a resort to violence. The first step toward restoration is a biological version of ethnic cleansing, during which interlopers such as European buckthorn are pulled up or chopped down, poisoned or burned so that the ground may be returned to the rightful original owners. For many volunteers whose politics tend to range from the pacifist to the really nice, this comes hard.
Such methods persuaded a faction of opinion that it is the restorationists who are the aggressive foreigners who have invaded the forest preserves. Waging war against non-natives in the public's preserves has gone down especially poorly in a city of immigrants. Friederici paid a visit to a resident of Chicago's far Northwest Side who in the 1990s was a vocal critic of eco-restoration in the Cook County forest preserves, one of which abutted her property. As she explained, the non-native trees screened her view of traffic, and as long as they were green and leafy, she didn't care whether they are native or not and didn't see why anyone else should care either. "We're all immigrants from somewhere," she told Friederici.
Immigrants from political correctness? Some of the mostly boomerish prairie restorers seem to be seeking in the forest preserves ground for ways of thinking and acting that are scorned, if not banned, by the larger society. For example, ambivalence about, if not antagonism toward, capitalism still reverberates with the many boomerish restorationists, but their values have been resoundingly repudiated by the new nation they gave birth to, and they feel alienated from a culture that is capitalist to the core.
The forest preserve system was a creation largely of people who recoiled from the mess their own greed had made of what had been a city in a garden. Their spiritual descendants are no less ambivalent about the effects of capitalism on the land; according to reporters and chroniclers of the movement over the years, dismay over development may be the only thing that this very disparate bunch of amateur ecologists have in common. For restorationists of a certain age, the work is a final gesture by a fading generation that once promised to change the world for the better, but now struggles to change a few ragged patches of it.
Of course, nature itself must seek the preserves to express itself, having been denied that in any original forms elsewhere in our cities. The people who would repair nature must go there, too, and not only because that is the field of action. Many a volunteer steward has confessed a deep emotional identification with the ecosystems they are trying to bring back to full functioning. Their words suggest that often they see nature in themselves; when they talk of a pristine nature being threatened by aggressive outsiders, therefore, are they talking to some extent about themselves? Is the plea for biodiversity a tacit plea to make space on the planet for people like prairie restorationists?
Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field and Street by Jerry Sullivan. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
In Service of the Wild by Stephanie Mills. Beacon Press, Boston, 1995.
Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America by William K. Stevens. Pocket Books, New York, 1995.
Nature's Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management by Stephen Budiansky. Free Press, 1995.
Nature's Restoration: People and Places on the Front Lines of Conservation by Peter Friederici. Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2006.
A Prairie Grove by Donald Culross Peattie. Simon and Schuster, 1938.
Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
The Suburban Wild by Peter Friederici. University of Georgia Press, 1999. ●