Illinois's own Southland, introduced
Nature of Illinois
Illinois is a big state, and I bought a lot of groceries over the years by writing essentially tourist guides introducing different parts of Illinois to Illinoisans who had never seen them. This guide to far southern Illinois has a distinctly natural resources slant, appropriate to a magazine devoted to that aspect of Illinois.
On hazy, humid summer days, the gorges where the fern forests grow are always cool. But the upland rivers often slow to trickles, and only the bigger swamps—where cottonmouths curl between the cypress trees—never dry up. The hills provide only poor farming, although sorghum does well enough and the apple and peach crops are fine if it isn't too cold. There are jobs in the tripoli mines, but cheap imports from Mexico have made the future doubtful for the fluorspar miners.
Louisiana? Kentucky? No, Illinois. The southernmost 16 counties of the Prairie State comprise the warmest, lowest, hilliest, treeiest part of Illinois. Nestled in the arms of the Mississippi, Wabash, and Ohio rivers, the region is Illinois in a cartographic image. But geologically, climatalogically, and ecologically it is closer kin to the border-state South.
To its historically minded residents, southern Illinois is still "Egypt," the nickname attached to it in the 1840s in honor of its fabled (and ultimately short-lived) fertility. To the rest of the state, southern Illinois is no particular place at all. One of the standard guide books to Illinois—the one authored by the old Works Progress Administration, published in 1939 and revised in 1974—profiles only one southern town of the 22 Illinois towns and cities which get special mention. Even that one—Cairo—interests the authors more for what it once was than what it then was.
Part of the problem is that southern Illinois is physically remote from the economic and political centers of Illinois. Geography is destiny, and Carbondale, the region's largest city, is 331 miles from Chicago. That puts Carbondale farther from Chicago than Chicago is from Indianapolis, Dubuque, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Detroit.
The war of water and stone
It is not mere distance which explains southern Illinois's distinctiveness but nature. Repeated invasions of glacial ice physically transformed most of the rest of the state during the Pleistocene Age. More than 90 percent of Illinois (including the northern edge of southern Illinois) lies in what geographers call the Central Lowland of the United States, a physiographic region which is about as interesting as its name suggests. By comparison, the unglaciated south of the state is a riot of topography. The Shawnee Hills (the northernmost extension of the Ozark Mountains) are part of the Interior Low Plateau which peeks into Illinois from the east. The Ozark Plateau reaches into southern Illinois from the west, and the Coastal Plain—coastal as in “Gulf coast,” a bit of the bayou country gone upriver—forms the extreme southern tip of the state.
Glacial ice repeatedly interrupted erosional processes in the north, obliterating old landscapes and depositing new and flatter ones, most recently about 12,000 years ago. In contrast, the south's hillsides tend to be steeper, valleys deeper than elsewhere in Illinois. As Richard Berg, an environmental geologist with the Illinois Geological Survey explains, "Mother Nature has had a long time to operate on it and carve it out. The land is much more dissected and the streams are more entrenched." The thin mantle of surface deposits has been washed or blown away to reveal bedrock in many places; once exposed, that rock has been carved into steep canyons, even natural stone bridges.
Time and physiographic variety combined to produce a local landscape of exhilarating diversity. There are clay plains, sandstone ravines, muddy floodplains, gravel hills, cliffs, caves, and swamps—each feature a treaty of sorts in the wars which have been fought for tens of thousands of years between water and stone.
If geology supplied the canvas on which southern Illinois's face was drawn, climate provided the brush. Harrisburg, Illinois, lies farther south than does Louisville, Kentucky. Mean annual snowfall on southern Illinois is only nine inches, compared to the 30-odd inches which usually fall every winter on northern Illinois. Season by season, the southern counties are 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their upstate cousins. They are also wetter, a fact owed partly to terrain. As Wayne Wendland of the Illinois Water Survey explains, the hills in southern Illinois push moist air masses upward as they pass, cooling them and making local precipitation rates roughly ten percent higher than they would be otherwise.
Together, geology and climate define not just the landscape but the possibilities for life in any region. Diverse habitat explains why five of the 14 "natural divisions" identified in Illinois are represented in southern Illinois even though the region encompasses only 11 percent of the state's land area. The plant and animal life which has come to occupy these niches is as different from that of the rest of the state as the terrain. The Shawnee National Forest sprawls across parts of ten of the 16 southern Illinois counties. A recent study found that the forest was home to more than 500 wildlife species, many of them rare Many creatures are found in Illinois only in these counties. A few, such as the crayfish Orconcetes illinoiensis, are found only in these counties period, being known nowhere else.
In the 1970s, Illinois Natural History Survey botanist Robert Evers (now retired) and fish taxonomist Larry Page described a few of the region's riches in Biological Notes No. 100, "Some Unusual Natural Areas in Illinois." They described insects which stroll about in the snow and grasshoppers which look like lichens, grass that grows eight feet tall and plant communities which dwell on floating logs, cavefish and rice rats and bird-voiced tree frogs and beetles bigger than some mammals, and mosquito fern so thick that it makes open water look like a manicured lawn.
Because southern Illinois sits on the continental cusp between north and south, east and west, its flora and fauna comprise quite cosmopolitan communities At Jackson Hollow, filmy ferns grow in the shady, moist undercuts of cliffs on whose sun-baked crowns rock selaginella grows on solid sandstone The local staphylinid beetle is a truant from its original eastern habitat, as are relict populations of northern fishes who have found refuge in the cool spring-fed waters of Hardin County's Big Creek. Visit LaRue swamp in Union County, however and (in the words of Evers and Page), "The plaintive calls of the chuck-will's-widow and the mockingbird remind one that he is now in the southland."
Why the ranges of certain plants and animals are limited to these counties is not well understood. Some explanations are obvious. As Page puts it, a swamp creature will usually be found where the swamps are. But Glen Sanderson of the Natural History Survey notes that even though stream bottom habitat suitable for southern Illinois's swamp rabbit, for example, exists in other parts of the state, the animal has never strayed far from its present home. "We just can't put our finger on it, although it's probably the climate,” Sanderson suggests, speculating that differences in the species' enzyme system may leave it less adaptable to cold.
Southern Illinois was the most heavily forested part of presettlement Illinois. The oak-hickory forest common to the rest of the state occurs here, but so does beech-maple forest from the east and such southern species as cypress. pecan, tupelo, and catalpa. Most of the present stands are second-growth timber at best and thus pale shadows of their 19th century ancestors, but a few majestic patches of presettlement forests survive "Certainly there are places which have never been lumbered," confirms Louis Iverson, Natural History Survey botanist. Cypresses have reached 100 feet, and some sycamores in the Wabash River bottomland stand 150 feet tall.
Extracting the past
To drive through southern Illinois is to take a tour of Illinois's past. Southern Illinois today probably looks much the way the rest of Illinois looked before it was buried under the thick blankets of sands, silts, and gravels left behind by the glaciers. The major plant communities in turn constitute a museum of climatological change. Remnants of the northern boreal forests which covered Illinois during cooler eras survive in the shade of cliffs. Prairie openings on blufftops are reminders of warmer, dryer intervals, while relicts of more recent moist forest types still grow in ravine bottoms.
Here and there, the traveler can glimpse an even more ancient past. The bedrock of the Illinois Basin is cupped, the strata of succeeding geologic ages stacked like spoons. Buried under hundreds of feet of glacial debris elsewhere, the edges of these strata emerge at or near the surface in western and southern Illinois. The exposed rock is Pennsylvania-era sandstones and limestones mostly, along with older Mississippian, Silurian, and Ordovician formations.
In these fossil landscapes are hidden minerals which are no less exotic in their origins than the modern plants and animals which dwell atop them. Tripoli, or amorphous silica, is a very fine-grained quartz used to polish glass, among other industrial uses. The only known deposits of it occur in Union and Alexander counties, where it has been mined since early in this century. "Those rocks in other parts of the state tend to contain lots of cherty materials," explains John Masters of the Geological Survey. "For some reason that material has been altered in that local area, perhaps as a result of a very ancient period of weathering."
Fluorspar is another unique mineral extensively used in the manufacture of steel, aluminum, and chemicals. Only Mexico and China have larger deposits than the United States, and most U.S. output comes from Hardin and Pope counties. The deposits were created when fluorine-rich solutions seeped into limestone from deep in the earth, dissolving the host stone and replacing it with fluorite. "The process is fairly common," says Masters, "but the occurrence of deposits of minable quantity is not."
Mineral extraction was southern Illinois's first industry, and remains its largest. In the mid-19th century, salt was evaporated from brackish spring water along the Saline River for export up and down the Ohio River. Today the river barges carry coal, not salt. There is coal under most of Illinois, but in few other spots are the deposits so thick at minable depths. Springfield and Herrin coals occur here within reach of giant strip mine shovels, in veins as thick as 8 to 15 feet. At greater depths lie most of the few sizable deposits of relatively low-sulfur coal in Illinois. As a result, coal is mined in nine of the 16 southernmost counties. Combined, their mines account for nearly two-thirds of the state's total output in recent years.
Our Southern brethren
Such natural wealth, along with its network of river highways, explains why southern Illinois has a record of continuous human habitation stretching back at least 15,000 years. Archaeological surveys of the Shawnee National Forest grounds alone have so far found more than 900 prehistoric sites. The Indians, such as those who repeatedly camped at the rock shelter at Modoc as long as 10,000 years ago, found plentiful game, nuts, and fish. The French, whose 18th century occupation of the region is revealed in the names of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres and the architecture of Kaskaskia and Cahokia, grew rich trading in grains and furs.
The French were only the first phase of European settlement in the region. In the 19th century, white settlement began in earnest. Most of the newcomers came across the Ohio from Kentucky and the mid-Atlantic states to the east in the years before the Erie Canal and then the railroads opened up the flatter, more fertile parts of the state. Local culture historically reflects the traits of hill people everywhere, including independence, clannishness, and skepticism of outsiders. (For example, poaching on public land is considered less a crime than a tradition.) Even today, many southern Illinoisans speak with more of a drawl than a twang. It should not surprise the visitor that some southern Illinoisans are more southern than lllinoisan. Marion, after all, lies 150 miles south of the old Mason-Dixon Line.
The French came as artisans. missionaries, and traders and they prospered. Later arrivals were largely poor and unskilled, and thus were doomed, at least at first, to subsistence farming. Making a living in southern Illinois has never been easy. For as long as there has been a rest of the state, the southern part of Illinois has lagged behind it in income and employment. Farms in southern Illinois have been smaller than elsewhere in Illinois, and earn less. Sorghum and wheat are more drought-tolerant than corn and soybeans but they do not earn as much. The hills and heavy clay soils leave much of the region ill-suited to Illinois's more familiar farm staples. Instead, fruit orchards profitably combine agriculture and forestry in some areas. Union and Saline counties lead Illinois in the production of such horticultural exotica as cucumbers, sweet peppers, and popcorn.
A Fragile Delta
As the region became more heavily populated, the fertility of this new Egypt quickly proved to be fragile. Over-hunting decimated the birds and large game which had astonished travelers such as the young Audubon. Huge tracts of timber were cleared for farming, building, and fuel. (At the height of the salt industry, for instance, the state legislature set aside 180,000 acres of timber just to keep the salt-maker's kettles boiling.)
Unfortunately soil which can sustain a forest often cannot sustain a farm. The soils of southern Illinois were only a few inches thick in places. Exposed to weather for 60,000 years (far longer than the newer soil of the north), they were often acid and nutrient-poor as a result of leaching. Erosion quickly chewed away the hillsides once the protective cover of trees was removed. The clay pan which lies just beneath the surface across much of the region keeps rain and melting snow from soaking into deeper soil layers. Surface water runs off quickly, leaving many areas prone to flooding when it rains too much and prone to drought when it doesn't rain enough.
As a result, the attempt to wrestle a living from land not well suited for it damaged both the farms and the farmers. By the 1930's the region was littered with thousands of acres of fields which had been abandoned because either the soil or the farmer was too poor ('"You can't grow corn on bedrock," observes Berg.) Timberland had been over-cut in places and pasture overgrazed. The federal government bought up nearly 90,000 acres of spent land, the nucleus of what is today the more than quarter-million-acre Shawnee National Forest.
As forests go, the Shawnee is an oddity, and its oddness tells a lot about the often careless human occupation of southern Illinois. To save the soil federal agencies planted some 46,000 acres in pine populations, which some ecologists today regard as weeds in the garden compared to the native deciduous woods they replaced. The wooded tracts are not continuous in any event, being interspersed with towns, farms, and mines.
The wholesale despoliation of land inside the forest boundaries has ceased, of course, but elsewhere the region's natural resources are still often misused. Forested private land is still being cleared to plant highly erodible row crops. Man-made fires are fairly common, and unrestricted grazing of woods by livestock has killed off native understory plant species and left woods open to invasion by non-native weeds.
And the future? How long the coal will last can't be predicted, and agriculture may never be dependably profitable. But southern Illinois's terrain and wildlife are proving to be a profitable base for expanding tourism and recreation industries. Cairo may or may not be the "Goose Capital of the World," as it has claimed, but it certainly is the goose capital of Illinois Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl such as Canada geese make their homes in the region's many wildlife refuges. Settings of such striking beauty are making the region a refuge for humans too. specifically the ex-urbanites who began moving to the region to live in the 1970s. Not for the first time, the past of southern Illinois may well be its future. ●