Paving Over Oxfordshire
The demise of the Illinois countryside
August 10, 1979
In which praise is sung of the humanized landscape of the working countryside of the sort that sends tourists in Tuscany or England into raptures. The countryside of Illinois, alas, has been industrialized. The fields are massive, tidy, and bare—perfect for cultivation by massive machines.
My title is poorly chosen; it should have read, “Plowing over Oxfordshire.” It is a point not explored in this piece, but official attempts to save farms such as those described below do the countryside little good when farming is what threatens the countryside ecologically and aesthetically.
I here quote someone who knows the countryside of Britain who describes it as the result of cooperation between man and his environment achieved "slowly and patiently." "Slow" and "patient" do not describe how humans have developed rural Illinois.
The corn is well up now in central Illinois after a saving rain, and farm magazines are again offering advice to subscribers about how to solve the happy problem of selling another bumper crop. But the countryside is more than a corn factory. It is a place to live for something like a half-million Illinoisans, an environment, a refuge, an economic subsystem. It also—if one learns to read it right—is a record of geology's shaping hand on the landscape and of humans' more recent emendations.
The countryside—Britain's, not Illinois'—is the subject of an interesting book by Keith Mossman, The Shell Book of Rural Britain (David & Charles, 1978). Mossman's subject is the landscape, crafts, and economy of rural England, Wales, and Scotland, but much of what he says is true of settled landscapes generally. "The countryside is not an artifact as a town is," Mossman observes in a passage as relevant to Sangamon County as to Staffordshire, "nor is it a manifestation of unaided nature. At its best it is the result of cooperation between man and his environment, achieved so slowly and patiently that the whole seems more of an organic growth than a construction."
Clues to past cooperation are visible everywhere in central Illinois to the alert eye. Cass County offers several examples. One is the Chandlerville Road which meanders along the shoulders of the bluffs overlooking the Sangamon River valley between its namesake and Beardstown. To the stranger. the road is a scenic but inefficient ramble that defies sense until one recalls when the road was first laid out the valley floor often flooded when the nearby Sangamon overflowed its banks. Today the river bottom is leveed and drained, but the road up on shoulder of the bluffs remains.
There are many such anomalies: To the south of the Chandlerville Road the traveler encounters occasional stretches of pine forests—ecological interlopers, planted a generation ago as part of erosion control experiments. Roads occasionally take unfathomably circuitous routes around forests that have since been cleared. Houses perch on hillsides surrounded by flat, buildable land all around them, but not for the view (a common modern assumption) but because the hillsides were above the mosquitoes and miasmas that infested the lowlands before they were drained. Churches stand in the middle of nowhere where they were within easy rides of their rural congregants, leaving the churches stranded on the countryside like some bit of flotsam after the human tide that once bore it receded to the cities.
The countryside is forgiving of civilization's insults; as Mossman notes. "Human intervention has a way of being assimilated into the picture provided it is not too extensive or extreme." Nature compensates. and when necessary, improvises. Unfortunately. the changes we are making in the Illinois countryside are both extensive and extreme. The curse of Illinois's land is its fecundity, which has made it worth farmers' whiles to cultivate every available square yard of it until they ingeniously exhaust even its richness.
With their machines, Illinois farmers can farm great stretches of land—must farm it, in fact. to pay for the machines. Unfortunately, machines are impatient of hedgerows,. small plots, pastures, and other features still common to rural Britain. Except where terrain prevents it, the Illinois countryside is plowed, scraped, and mowed. Chemicals keep weeds out, the streams are clogged with silt and (where the silt isn't so bad it blocks out the sunlight) algae, and hedges and ditches are mowed down or burned off. All life except what we plant in it has been crowded into the margins of the countryside; we have turned the most fertile land in the world into a brown desert.
The countryside can recover from even these insults, given time. But some injuries will take centuries to heal. In the spring when the ground is bare, one can see light brown spots atop rises and knobs, like a bald pate showing through darker hair around it. In most cases the lighter soil is a hint of previous occupation; groves of trees that used to stand on such high places typically produce lighter soils because they are less generous with the darkening humus deposited in such quantities by the grasses of the open prairies.
But in recent years light spots have appeared where there was no forest. Erosion is rearranging the landscape, chewing topsoil off exposed plowed hilltops and washing it down their slopes., leaving it in ever-thickening layers in low places while gradually exposing the lighter, less fertile subsoils above them.
Farming paints the countryside with the brush, but other changes are crowding in. Transplanting bits of the city such as roads and houses into the countryside exacts costs in diminished food production capacity and pollution, among other things. The process Mossman complains about in Britain is no more welcome here. "If we continue to sterilize an area the size of Oxfordshire every ten years, by covering it with roads," he writes. "we can hardly expect to preserve either the beauty or the utility of the countryside."
The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission is working to rewrite the county's agricultural zoning ordinances to stem these urban incursions into the countryside. Indeed, in Illinois a veritable posse of government agencies is riding to the rescue of the countryside. The state EPA and farm soil conservation districts are drafting regulations to control erosion. The Department of Conservation encourages rural landowners to plant trees by selling them cheap saplings. Laws are being put onto the books to restore mined land. Tax laws are being reviewed to find ways to make it easier for farmers to keep their farms. The General Assembly has passed laws enabling a farmer to preserve his land against being converted to some other use.
Mossman is sensible enough to warn, "We have also to take care that in our desire to protect the countryside we do not embalm it. Its viability depends, as it has always done, on work and change and growth." It is worth noting that the hedgerows, a feature of the British rural landscape so widely admired by people appalled by the antiseptic plainness of American farm country, are not natural. They date only from the 18th century, and stirred the wrath of preservationists of that day who bemoaned the trussing up of the open grazing lands.
This is no argument for inattention. however. The British hedgerows are a benign intervention. offering wildlife habitat, windbreaks, and stock control while adding an aesthetic dimension to the experience of the countryside. Our local interventions—our superhighways, our suburban condos, our flood control systems—are not nearly so salutary. As Mossman points out. ultimately "lunacy is apt to be more expensive than sanity," no matter how one reckons the costs. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.