Report from Illinois's Sand Country
Cactus? In mid-Illinois corn country? You bet.
November 10, 1978
A catastrophic flood event long ago buried the east banks of the Illinois River under sand. On it developed what is by local standards an oddball ecology. The sand country extends south to the Beardstown area, where I partly grew up, and the crops (melons), the weeds (sand burrs), and the trees were all very different from those around Springfield, 40 miles away. A day spent outdoors with one of Illinois’s public scientists—and I enjoyed several over the years—never disappoints.
The summer landscape outside Bath, Illinois, differs in no striking way from that in the rest of the state's agricultural mid-section. Country roads are flanked by phalanxes of corn, and through breaks in those walls of green the traveler can see the ground off toward the rolling horizon in gentle swell, and he is reminded again why the first Europeans to see Illinois compared the prairies to an ocean. But the soil here is yellow, not the rich brown found elsewhere. This is sand country, a region of sand terraces and dunes that abuts the east banks of the Illinois River south of Peoria.
"Do you know how those things are powered?" The driver of a white station wagon with State of Illinois plates shouts over the wind rushing into his open window as he steers down a narrow asphalt lane: he is nodding in the direction of a spindly-legged irrigation rig set up in a bean field. "I've always wondered. We had a pond over here dry up last year. I thought irrigation might have lowered the water table." The driver's name is Bob Schanzle and he works for the state's Department of Conservation. He is a biologist by training and a Conservation Resource Manager by profession. At the end of the lane is the Sand Prairie Scrub Oak nature preserve, 1,460 acres of sand dunes in southern Mason County covered by bunch grasses,, scrub oak forest and cactus.
Schanzle noses his car onto a dirt road. Sand Prairie is three miles west of Bath down a mostly unsigned road, well out of the way of travelers and difficult to find without a map. "Most of the preserve used to be a farm," explains Schanzle. Speeds are slower on the dirt and conversation less strenuous. "Parts of the farm were farmed until just a few years ago. These trees are black locusts. They're an exotic species around here. The farmers probably brought them in to begin with. They're often seen in disturbed areas like strip mines. They're usually the first plants to colonize." Schanzle pulls his car to a stop and gets out. He is tall, with sandy red hair, dressed in unbureaucratic blue jeans, worn ankle-top boots and a yellow baseball cap. From a canvas rucksack he pulls binoculars, a compass and a plastic squeeze bottle of chigger repellent. "We were out here a few days ago," he explains, "and they ate us alive." The compass is an equally prudent precaution. The sand prairie is confusingly alike, and Schanzle tells visitors that, unless they have a guide, they should take a compass in with them to find their way out again.
Once unpacked, Schanzle leads, taking loping steps into the woods. The roadside borders of the preserve are guarded by scrub forest. Black oak and blackjack oak are among the few types sturdy enough to survive in such inhospitable soils. As much rain falls on the preserve as falls on the rich farms all around it, but it is soaked up quickly, leaving upper soil layers dry. The uppermost layers of sand are discolored brown by generations of decaying leaves; with each step, Schanzle's boot turns up lighter sand beneath, leaving a trail of bright yellow footsteps.
Oak forests of this type are common in Illinois sand country. The trees look stunted and there are few whose trunks are so large that one can't encircle it with two hands. Most of the trees in this stand have two or even three trunks, sprouting from the soil like bouquets. "We surmise that at one time they suffered damage from fire, or perhaps from grazing," Schanzle notes as he walks by. "When the new shoots are killed back to the soil line they resprout with two or three new shoots like this."
After a hundred yards, the seamless forest gives way without warning to acres of openness, startling in its brightness after the shade of the forest. This is the sand prairie. In some places along the Illinois the sand layer is one hundred feet thick, and individual dunes can be anywhere from twenty to forty feet thick. Most are covered with bunch grasses that grow in knee-high clumps and whose roots help hold the ordinarily wayward sand in place.
As Schanzle moves across the prairie, immature grasshoppers by the hundreds swirl up in alarm around his legs. Here and there he stops to identify some of the commoner denizens of the sand prairie. The partridge pea is one, as are the blue-blossomed spiderwort, the seed box, (one of the bee balm family, so called because of its reputed curative powers against bee stings), fragrant sumac, gray dogwood and starry campion.
The sand prairie is an apothecary of exotic plants. The prickly pear cactus is one of the more common; the spines on its teardrop-shaped leaves are stout enough to pierce the canvas shoes of careless hikers. The meadow parsnip, which still is found along some old fields in the preserve, holds its own dangers for those who don't know it; "Get the juice of that on you and then expose your skin to sunlight," Schanzle warns, "and you can get a rash that's worse than poison ivy."
The sand country, in fact, can be downright inhospitable to intruders. No plant is less polite to visitors than the sand burr. These barbed, pea-sized burrs are among the most accomplished hitchhikers in nature. The story around Mason County is that the burrs were imported by a traveler from Ohio in the fall of 1830, whose livestock dropped seeds which sprouted and matured near the Illinois river at Havana. Livestock feeding near that first patch carried them all over the county. They spread quickly: "It was no use, how poor and sandy the land where the seed was dropped, they would always grow." wailed one historian. Farmers with burrs in their fields had to harvest and bind wheat with heavy gloves to avoid being scarred, and the judgment of the historian who swore, "There never was such a plague or misfortune ever happened to the settlers of Mason County as the sand burr." was very nearly unanimous.
Schanzle pauses on the shoulder of a small dune. In unstabilized sand the winds sometimes scoop out the side of a dune, leaving a large hollow wound called a blow-out. In one of these Schanzle finds the shriveled remains of a muddy-brown Earth star. "It's a fungus," he explains, turning it over and over in his hand. "In the same family as puff balls. When it's mature, it swells up after a good rain and pops open. When that happens, the outer covering curls back and ends up looking like a star, which is how it got its name. When it pops open it exposes its spore sac at the surface, where the wind can catch the spores and distribute them, and since it happens only after a rain, the spores stand a better chance of survival when they land. It's a very ingenious system."
Sand Prairie Scrub Oak is one of fifty-nine nature preserves in Illinois (the third largest in the svstem) which together comprise the more" than 15.000 acres in the state's nature preserve system set up in 1963. Illinois has been settled since the 1800s (subjugated might be a better word) and by the 1920s virtually all the vast expanse of prairie was gone, along with much of the deep hardwood forest which in 1838 looked to one traveler "like islands in the oceans" of grass. Such natural areas as survived man's clumsy stewardship lived on in forgotten corners of private farms, on isolated stream banks or along unmowed railroad rights-of-way. Of Illinois' more than thirty-six million acres, only 26,000 acres—less than one-thousandth of the total—remains as it was a century and a half ago.
It was to protect the increasingly precious acres that the state passed its nature preserves act in 1963. to be administered by the Department of Conservation under the eye of a nine-member Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The program has blossomed. Indeed, the responsibilities of the deparment's natural areas section have grown so quickly that Schanzle now spends much less time in the field and more in supervisory work at his office in the DOC quarters on East Washington in downtown Springfield. It is not a happy trade for someone who loves to be outside; Schanzle's office is at most eighty feet square and the only nature he can see from his second story window is the weeds growing in the cracks of the derelict parking lot next to Springfield's Amtrak station. It was in that office—where, in accordance with nature's rules of protective coloration, he dons the usual creased slacks and necktie—that he talked recently about the department's most recent and most ambitious natural areas project.
When the nature preserves program was begun, DOC wasn't sure just how much natural land was left in the state, or where it was; many of the parcels it had acquired had been brought to the department's attention by lay people like landowners, nature lovers and research scientists. To remedy this ignorance, DOC three years ago commissioned an inventory of natural lands which the department has characterized unblush-ingly as the most comprehensive in the nation's history. It took three years to finish, at a reported cost of $692,000 and the results were released on October 30.
Schanzle had a hand in the work. "First, aerial photos covering nearly every square inch in the state were reviewed by scientists for potential sites," he explains. "We first eliminated those sites which may have been disturbed by farming, strip mining, construction—things like that.' The sites that were left were flown over by biologists who made an inspection from the air. You can cover a lot of ground that way, and since Illinois covers something like 56.000 square miles it was the only way we could do it. Besides, there are a lot of things you can't tell from an aerial photo. The aerial fly-overs enabled us to eliminate more areas from the list."
The third step was actual visits to the remaining sites. We involved ecologists from all over the state, who divided the state into districts for their investigations. "The goal of the nature preserves program is (to quote from a DOC report) "to preserve adequate examples of all significant types of natural features occurring in the state." These "natural types" include landforms (glacial moraines, limestone bluffs), soils (gravels, sand dunes), streams and lakes, plant and animal communities and archeological sites. To aid in the definition and cataloging of the bewildering variety of Illinois land, plant and animal forms, the department staff under the direction of John Schwegman divided the state into fourteen "natural divisions" or regions and thirty-three sub-regions according to the topography, soil types, plant types and distinctive fauna common to each. This classification system was then used in arranging data collected by the surveyors. Some two dozen varieties of data about each location was fed into a computer. "We developed an entirely new program to allow the computer to prioritize the sites according to their natural quality, their rarity and whether there is a similar site already under state ownership.
"For example, if we found an undisturbed bog in Lake County, that would get a high mark, because that's a rare natural type in this state. A totally undisturbed natural prairie of, say, one-hundred acres would get a superhigh rating. We'll use all this information in planning our acquisitions in the future. We can't save everything that's left, but this will help us save the best."
The final report of the inventory lists 1089 natural sites left in the entire state, totaling an area of less than forty square miles. Tacked to the wall of Schanzle's office is a poster with a color photo of the Middle Fork River on the top and, across the bottom, a phrase from Theodore Roosevelt. "The generations have been at work on it," it reads, "and man can only mar it."
Schanzle enters a grove of scrub oaks at Sand Prairie Scrub Oak, then emerges on the other side into another effusion of openness. This is an old farm field (on the maps it is tidily square, a hint at its past) abandoned some ten years ago. The plant cover here is different from that of the older sand prairie a few dozen yards away, being made up of fewer grasses and more of what are commonly called weeds. The weedy area is gradually being succeeded by the forest, whose inexorable progress across its expanses, acorn by acorn, season by season, can be seen on the field's edge. There tiny oak saplings stand in perfectly ordered ranks, the higher, older individuals standing nearest the parent forest, the younger, shorter ones edging tentatively in descending order into the open space along the forest edge. The field is returning to its natural state—with a little help from friends like Schanzle.
"The farmer planted some pines on the north and west side as windbreak. We came in here with chainsaws and cut them down," he says. "We figured they would have seeded the field if they were allowed to stand and we never would have gotten them out of there."
In time the oak forest will take over the field. The debate about why some parts of the sand country remain prairie and others turn to forest still engages biologists. For a time it was thought that fire was the agent of the divorce. Prairie fires were common in the days before the white men came. Indians occasionally touched off fires to flush out game, and lightning set others. Fire burned off tree seedlings, while the tougher grasses, whose roots extended deep into the earth, survived to sprout again. Others maintain that summer drought, not fire, kills tree seeds unlucky enough to have been dropped onto sand prairie. Once disturbed, however, by plowing or farmers who extinguish prairie fires to protect their buildings, crops and livestock, the prairie is no match for the determined colonizers of the forest.
Heading back toward his car, Schanzle's noisy progress through the woods startles a six-line road runner lizard and, a few yards deeper into the trees, a doe. Given a chance, nature's' invention outdoes man's interference. Partly to make the area more accessible to hikers, birders and others, Schanzle cut some foot trails through the preserve a year ago. They are invisible now, swallowed up, grown over. In this small corner of Illinois, at any rate, as in an all-too-small number of others like it, nature still makes a mockery of man, instead of the other way around. □