Return of the Bastard Toadflax
Putting the prairie back into the Prairie State
About the ambivalence felt toward by most Illinoisans toward the prairie aesthetic, and, of late, toward those who insist on its virtues. Although restorationists' determination to make the best of being in Illinois is to be admired.
A homeowner who cultivates a tallgrass prairie on her front lawn will not be embraced as a patriot in most jurisdictions in the Prairie State, but is more likely to be summoned before a magistrate as a vandal. Any day now, some native plant enthusiast in the suburbs will be the victim of a midnight mowing—the tidy-lawn gang's version of the drive-by shooting.
Plants native to presettlement Illinois are as rare in the gardens of postmodern Illinois as members of the Grange are in the General Assembly. Admittedly, this does not prove anti-prairie bias on the part of the populace. However, as every Illinois schoolchild ought to know by now, less than 1 percent of the tallgrass prairie that covered this state in 1820 survives. There is even less of the state's original savanna, a cousin ecosystem in which prairie-type plants are shaded by mature, widely spaced trees (usually oaks).
There is no Prairie School of landscape painting to rival the Hudson River School or the Barbizon School. Of the 101 images in Larry Kanfer's popular 1987 book of photographs, Prairiescapes—shot almost entirely in the old Grand Prairie of east central Illinois—only one depicts anything that might be described as a prairiescape; the rest are farmscapes, cornscapes, soybeanscapes and dyingsmalltownscapes. As used in Illinois, "prairie" now means flatness and treelessness; ask 'em down at the barbershop what is Illinois' most common prairie plant, and they will say, "Corn."
All the more remarkable then that there should sprout from such soil a movement to restore tens of thousands of acres of prairies and savannas (about 54,000 acres of Cook County Forest Preserve District holdings alone) to Illinois' roadsides, parks and nature preserves.
Putting the prairie back into the Prairie State on this scale has mobilized the intelligence and the energy of thousands of citizens and dozens of public and private agencies. Come spring, so many volunteers are collecting seeds and clearing brush around Chicago that if Sandburg were to pass by again, he would dub it the City of Stooped Shoulders.
After roughly a quarter-century, the tallgrass restoration movement has matured into a persuasive presence in public land use policy. Its richest harvest to date is the 19,000 acres of the former Joliet arsenal, recently deeded to the U.S. Forest Service to create the Midewin National Grassland.
Reviving a revival
Today's prairie revival is in many ways a prairie-revival revival. Landscape architect Jens Jensen proposed a national tallgrass prairie preserve such as the Midewin fully 85 years ago. Jensen was a leading innovator of what was dubbed the "prairie style" of design that enjoyed a vogue in the Midwest from the turn of the century until the 1930s. The premises of this predecessor prairie movement were artistic rather than ecological. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright mimicked prairie landforms and plants in his early Oak Park houses, and landscape designers such as Jensen incorporated faux prairie vistas in parks and estates all around the Chicago area.
That earlier prairie movement is remembered mainly as a footnote to Frank Lloyd Wright's career. As with so many reformers in Illinois, its leaders' wisdom proved premature. Wright complained as early as 1914 that his prairie house design had become merely the thinking person's Colonial. Most of Jensen's park layouts were turned into playgrounds within a decade; he probably has more influence today, at least as a designer, than he did when he was alive.
Jensen argued in effect that Illinois prairie is beautiful because it is ours. Organizers of the Illinois Nature Conservancy's North Branch Prairie Restoration Project (to pick one of the first and biggest of today's movements) argue that prairie is beautiful because it is nature's. This is savvy marketing, considering that unenlightened opinion does not think that prairie is beautiful because it is beautiful.
To most such Illinoisans, the recurring efforts to bring back the bastard-toadflax must seem noble but a bit nutty, like attempts to restore Gaelic to Wales. As the scope of restoration expands, nature will increasingly compete with other—mainly recreational —uses of public lands, and public opinion will play a larger part in the largely coterie politics of the modern prairie movement. Public opinion of prairie thus is politically pertinent.
Taming the landscape
Critic Ronald Blythe has written about people's "instinctive and unlettered" feel for a local landscape. But the only people who had these sorts of ancestral ties to the Midwest were driven out of the state by the 1840s or so. Some restorationists believe that taste in landscapes is rooted much more deeply than memory. They assert that all humans have a visceral preference for savannas of all kinds as a result of the race's evolution in the open grasslands of Africa. As author Richard Manning puts it in his book, Grassland, "Because humanity's deepest memories were formed in grassland, this is where our deepest knowledge and love lie."
A latent love of prairie is hard to posit in a state that destroyed 99 percent of it. The grassland that elicits the deepest knowledge of Illinoisans is the field of corn. Similarly, the standard subdivision streetscape—mown grass beneath scattered tall trees, decorated with flowering shrubs—is Jensen's wild "prairie grove" of the 1890s tamed by suburban manners.
Opinion surveys consistently find that a prairie looks to the typical suburbanite the way a Bartok quartet sounds to the musically unschooled—not music, but random noise. As in the suburbs, so in the country. In much of the rural Midwest, tidiness is next to godliness. Folks generally assume a messy place is uncared for. A neat orderly landscape on the other hand is "read" as a sign of neighborliness (which in the United States means consideration for community property values), hard work and pride.
A recent study of private owners of rare ecosystems in Minnesota found that owners of oak woodlands tend to appreciate them and maintain them. Owners of wetlands or prairies—swamps and weeds, in the vernacular—tend to do neither, and often try to "improve" such landscapes in ecologically inappropriate ways. This complicates the working lives of conservationists in a state like Illinois, where ecosystem protection almost always requires the cooperation of private landowners.
Joan Iverson Nassauer of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota thinks often on the topic of rural aesthetics. "We identify nature with beauty," she writes. "Consequently we assume that healthy ecological systems are beautiful." The 19th century wilderness preservation movement, from which today's environmental movement derived, was in fact a scenery preservation movement, and scenery according to the Romantics was mountains, water and trees. The fact that Chicago set up a forest preserve district in 1915 and not a prairie preserve district confirms the prevailing opinion of the time.
What the larger public understands as ecological quality is in fact mere prettiness. The more perfectly natural a restored prairie is made to be, therefore, the less it recommends itself to the eye of the typical passerby. It may indeed be true, as Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, once complained, that a definition of "scenery" that is limited to lakes and pine trees represents an "underage brand of aesthetics." Underage or not, it gets to vote. Most taxpayers accept nature as a valid use of public land, which is why nature preserves are set aside even at the cost of potential motocross trails or picnic grounds or ball fields. But much the way that taxpayers expect welfare recipients to be virtuous as a condition of their generosity, they expect their subsidized nature to be beautiful.
Loving the unlovable
Notions of natural beauty, like all notions, change with the times. The mountains whose portraits grace the bank calendars hanging in a hundred thousand Illinois kitchens struck 18th century travelers much as American big cities strike many Americans today—ugly, unwelcoming, terrifying.
How to induce a love of the unlovable? Jensen organized tours of the countryside. As most prairie forbs tend to be gawky even when their flowers are comely, they make their best impression when arrayed on the township scale. Unfortunately, Illinois' surviving prairies are pathetic affairs—patchy, boasting only a handful of species, often in unlovely settings such as rail yards. The biggest is the 1,537-acre Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County, owned by the Department of Natural Resources.
Refined taste in nature, like refined taste in wine or paintings, demands refined knowledge. The Illinois tallgrass is to Yosemite what Jackson Pollock is to Van Gogh. To grasp it, one must abandon familiar aesthetic standards that define nature as beauty, beauty as order and order as natural.
To see beauty where others see only weeds—is that not the true test of the discerning eye? In his fine book, Nature's Keepers, Stephen Budiansky writes about the 19th century: "Nature was something that only the cultivated, trained through an appreciation of fine painting and landscape gardening, could truly understand and value."
The American way out of the conflict between educated tastes and democratic values is to educate everyone into a connoisseur. Nassauer suggests turning the landscape itself into a pedagogical tool: "[We should] label ecological function with socially recognized signs of human intentions for the landscape." Installing these "cues of care"—a groomed path, signs—is a bit like hanging a sign on the soup can that says "Art."
Over the past decade, the Chicago Botanic Garden has recreated such exotica as fen and gravel prairies that flourished at one time in the Chicago area. Such study aids may do no more than make a bunch of weeds into a bunch of interesting weeds. But with a half-million visitors a year, the garden may come to do for the prairie what the Art Institute has done for the French Impressionists.
Making knowledge the condition of any experience tends to narrow its audience. Status is a more dependable incentive. The prairies in Jensen's day carried the contagion of bumpkinism, as they survived outside the city as farm pastures. Yet planting native Midwestern flowers in home landscapes enjoyed a vogue in the early 1920s nonetheless, because it was inspired less by love of prairie plants than the love of imitating the swells in the pages of the home magazines.
In the same way, Chicago Botanic's decision to display its mini-prairies gives them a crucial imprimatur of class. Today the tall grass whispers of the historic, the natural, the authentic, the "distinctive," and that gives prairie a cachet that appeals to marketers of upscale housing projects such as Prairie Crossing in Lake County.
There is of course a greater good than Beauty—Truth. Aldo Leopold noted that there is value in any experience that reminds us who we are and where we come from as a people. A prairie in every Illinois town can provide that experience. In 1915 Wilhelm Miller, a turn-of-the-century professor and prairie propagandist, published a manifesto for citizens of the Prairie State. He imagined a future in which Illinoisans, inspired by the natural beauty of the place, would help produce here "one of the greatest races of men in the world." The expectation was as unwelcome as it was extravagant. Like prairie plants, most of us are opportunistic travelers from other places, scraggly interlopers who aggressively make themselves at home, often at the expense of native species, impressive only en masse. When asked by outsiders who we are, we point not to our countryside but our skyscrapers, which are untypical of us in aspiration as well as form. Perhaps we fear to hear our visitors say, when gazing at our ancestral landscape, "Is that all there is?" ■