Thursday, July 26, 2012


Or would a better title be “Under Construction”?

In fact, here we have “pastoral beauty” and “work zone” at the same time. The tension between to two is part of the kick.

If we had a few-years quick-video prelude to this sunrise scene, we’d witness heavy equipment ripping out drainage tiles and whacking trees and brush with more of a “macho” than “touchy feely” look. We’d see hundreds of happy people working hard in all seasons – building brush piles, burning them with towering flame, pulling weeds, gathering and broadcasting rare seeds.

This morning a few of us show up at 6 A.M. to be cool, with long-bladed scythes, to slay vegetation. The Heat Index will top 100 in a few hours; we’ll be gone by then. At 6 the air is the temperature of Heaven.

Looking like a Monet haystack, the brush pile was heaped up last winter with a grappling machine by John Yapelli, our beloved and gonzo eco-restoration tractor jockey.

See those whitish tall tree trunks in the distance? They’re an invading species. Two years ago those beautiful invaders extended all the way to the foreground and then on behind us. After next winter, there will be fewer. Perhaps you can tell, they’re on both sides of a slough, and they lined it for over a mile.

We cut them only after debate. Some rhapsodized about the sounds of their leaves. One expert cautioned that bats landed in them. But this landscape for thousands of years had been a mosaic of prairie and oak woodlands. It was beautiful then. It was also beautiful when the farmers turned the land to farm fields and wooded pasture. Monet could have painted either scene with equal beauty. But the aesthetic actually started going down hill when the Forest Preserve District “preserved” it to let it “go back to nature.”

Brush and weeds may have an integrity of their own, but there’s more to beauty than meets the eye. When colorful waves of purple loosestrife started wiping out the wetlands and destroying all habitat for ducks, turtles, terns, orchids, sweet flags and the rest of wetland richness, people used to say to me, “Well, you’ll have to admit it’s beautiful.”

“No I don’t,” I’d wearily reply. “I have to admit it’s colorful. But a black eye can be colorful, or an infected wound. When you know the meaning of what you see, it can inform your appreciation.”

This recovering prairie-wetland-woodland mosaic is beautiful to the ear through the calls of recently returned sandhill cranes, crested flycatchers, bobolinks, and meadowlarks. It’s beautiful to the mind in part through knowledge of all the smart and dedicated people who are restoring eco-health here. Blanding’s turtles have almost vanished in most places. We hope they’ll breed successfully again when less raccoon-filled brush stands between the slough and the uplands, where they want to lay their eggs.

Today with scythes we battle sweet clover, a malignant species that could wreck the habitat for diverse plants and animals. We stewards are a force of nature and, oddly, sweet clover is not.

Later more big machines will return to herbicide wide swaths of evil crown vetch and reed canary grass. Other big machines will haul trash and clear invasive trees so the sunlight can filter unimpeded through the scattered oaks and hickories. Nature is beautiful. And the restoration of nature has a drama and aesthetic of its own.

This is a vision. Can you see it?

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