To all of you: I thank you for reading. Poured my heart into this one. Hope you enjoy.
Last night after work I returned home with an hour or two to use before an evening meeting. With a set of legs still a bit tired just two days after a 5K race and a 40+ mile bike ride the day following, I wanted a recovery run that wasn’t filled with pounding asphalt and roaring traffic. A place to get away and get high on grass(es).
That meant one thing: go run at Dick Young Forest Preserve. The 1100 acres of the park is just a mile and a half from my house. Normally I trot over there and run a loop and run back. But last night I wanted a pure experience, so I drove over, parked the Subaru and stuck the keys in my hiding place. And ran.
The westerly breeze was heavenly. I mean that almost literally. All around were skies tinted my favorite color blue. The paths were not even fully mowed. My feet swished through calf-high grass as the taller fields around slanted in the wind under the brightly shining sun.
A half-mile into the run I spied a small dog poking around in a wet ditch. The owner was up on the trail. When the dog spied me I called out “Hi pup!’ He bounded up the bank and ran right over to me, falling over on its back. I petted his furry belly and he spun around to face his owner as if to say, “Look at what I found! A petty-person!”
I asked the guy to snap a photo of his dog with me. The pup was young, and soft and full of life. His bright white eyes were charming. That set the tone for a very nice run.
However the minute I stood up to run and went to put my phone back in the Nathan carrying strap I use to store my iPhone while running, I accidentally struck the back of the phone with my swinging hand and it flew through the air and landed down the bank where the dog had been sniffing around just moments before. I envisioned that phone a foot deep in the muck.
Fortunately, it fell just short of the deeper water and only got a touch wet. I wiped it off and kept running, relieved that I hadn’t ruined it by letting it fly into the marsh. Technology has its limits, you know.
Digging the marsh
The trail on the north end of the preserve skirts a section of marshy swales where peat mining once created long ponds. Those have since clogged with cattails and phragmites, the tall rushes that grow in ‘disturbed’ wetlands. Once those tall reeds get a foothold, they can rapidly take over an entire area. This past winter the forest preserve district sent a contractor through the phragmite forests with a big marsh buggy and they sprayed to knock back the rushes. It worked. But the big ruts from the marsh buggy are still there, as if a motorized Bigfoot had left its mark. Thus the back-and-forth process of large-scale human intrusion continues at an Illinois Nature Preserve.
The peat mining company ceased operations forty+ years ago, but I well recall the corrugated metal paths the company had installed to allow their long-armed shovel machines to reach out into marsh and dig up peat. Beneath the feet of a mere human, the middle of the marsh soils is springy to the step because the peat there runs feet thick. If we could go back a thousand years to a time before human drainage projects dropped the level of the marsh to its present day level, the entire basin would have been immersed under water. and the cattails, if they existed at all, would have barely rimmed the upper edge of the marsh basin where the oaks rule the hillside.
Since that time, natural succession has done its job of filling in the marsh basin. Now things are coming to an unnatural close in many ways. There are perhaps 100-200 acres of open water left in Nelson Lake, and the cattails are encroaching on that too. I’ve watched all this happen in just forty years of traipsing around this little world that I love. I feel that I have aged along with this treasured friend, and that is a strange but not unpredictable sensation.
Through the woods
But I’m still running, and after circling the north end of the marsh, the trail turns up a small hill rising thirty feet above the level of the basin. This was the actual bank of a lake the glaciers left behind 10,000 or so years ago. We can only imagine what that lake might have been like. Mastodons and wooly mammoths might well be buried under the bed of the lake basin, for they have been found in similar places within five miles of this marsh. There would have been saber-toothed cats perhaps, and giant elk or beaver. All were likely hunted to extinction by human beings, the ever-ravenous consumer of earth’s natural resources.
These days in March, the purple heads of skunk cabbage peek up from the rich black soil in the watery seep at the foot of the hill. Then wildflowers cover the incline in spring, while stolid bur oaks stand guard over the western ridge. Ultimately, even these 150- year-old trees topple and fall over when they rot or grow too old to withstand the west winds that press hard on this little section of the savanna. I have been present in the woods when one of those great trees falls. It begins with a crack and ends with a rush of leaves and branches thrashing the ground. Then all is silent.
The tree takes its rest as if relieved of duty. It takes another fifty years or so of decomposition to complete its journey. Ultimately the massive tree turns to crumbling, decaying wood and then returns to the soil. It’s a long dance from seed to tree to dirt.
Out on the prairie
Emerging from the woods puts me out on the restored prairie that now stretches a full mile out to Bliss Road. This is where the trail opens up and the skies reach down and kiss the grasses. During a lifetime of visiting this preserve, I’ve watched this section of field converted from busy farms fields to tall prairie grasses.
In fact, it has only been twenty-five years since the farm family sold the property to the county forest preserve district. A developer once proposed to build houses right up to the edge of the savanna woods, and those home would certainly have sold quickly. But they would also have destroyed the entire ethos of the place as a functioning preserve. Protecting those woods required some legal wrangling and letters to the editor, of which I sent several in favor of conserving that land rather than turning it into yet another subdivision. It would have been a travesty to let houses close the door on so much natural potential.
Now the restored grasses and forbs and prairie plants prosper under the sun. By July coneflowers will blossom purple, pink and white. Tall pods of prairie dock and compass plant will send their stalks high in the air with bright yellow flowers flickering at the top. The strange little plant called rattlesnake master grows low to the ground, and purple spiderwort keeps it company as well. Cream wild indigo dazzles in the morning sun, and big bluestem grasses grow with leaning fury.
As I trotted north past the parking lot and turned out on the gravel path to head west and south again, I could hear the voices of dickcissel calling. These birds look like small versions of meadowlarks and they repeat their names ad infinitum into the wind…”dick cisss cisss cissl”
The trail loops farther west and a much more rare species of bird, the Henslow’s sparrow, were calling from deep in the grasses. That small sparrow’s voice is almost non-existent, consistent of a short, blunt call translated as ‘tsi-lick..’ It is so unobtrusive a sound it barely qualifies as a territorial call. But those of us who understand the journey that this bird has endured through loss of habitat and a corresponding drop in population numbers appreciate the presence of that sparse vocalization and what it means. “I’m still here. And that matters.”
That could be the emblem for all our lives.
Bobolinks and meadowlarks
More species of grassland birds fly up ahead of me as the trail spins out into the far west side of restored prairie. Both Eastern and Western meadowlarks sing, and telling the two species apart by sound is easy. The Eastern is a simple “tee-ah tee aiiiirrr…” with a descending tone. The Western by contrast warbles its way down a similar pattern. When they launch on the wing it nearly impossible by a quick glance to tell the two apart. They are just meadowlarks, and that is good enough. They spread their outer white tail feathers and fly away.
I ran through a low brushy area of grass and forbs and where both male and female bobolinks jumped up from a plat of exposed soil. The male’s voice while singing on the wing is a rambling, tumbling series of whistles and chucks. With its black belly and buff-colored neck, white patches on the wings and rump, the male looks like a bird formed upside-down. But that coloration functions well on the prairie when the males rise up and circle to define their home turf. Their bold markings are visible from hundreds of yards as they fly in fluttering circles singing their heads off. Let us never forget that its a competition out there.
If you’ve never heard the voice of a bobolink, you should take a moment and listen to it right now. The voice of the bobolink sounds as if the bird were high on grass. As I run through the open fields, I can easily relate to that.
In such company, my spirit soars as well. Even in the early days of my running career, I preferred racing through grass and woods and open spaces to the confines of a stadium where track and field meets typically take place. Of course, both styles of running have their purpose in the life, just as work and play both have important functions in our lives. But for me, running cross country was a form of play. My naturally anxious mind adored that sense of freedom. By contrast, competing in track and field was a form of close-up work, like looking through a microscope or identifying parts of a creature in a lab class. Track was a form of academic discipline, and to excel at that took great study while cross country was a romp in the grass.
That scenario of relative work and play has spread out over the course of my life. At times the dichotomy was profound. During the period after the death of my late wife, I took time off from full-time work to recover from the stress of all those years of caregiving. Technically I employed myself and could set my own schedule. But the obligations of life don’t just dissolve because you’re not “working” full time. As any full-time retiree can tell you, the bills still do arrive. Plus I was still a caregiver to my stroke-ridden father, and would be for another four years before he passed away. I went out for a run that day as well. Running is like the thread that holds the stages of my life together.
It is a fact of life that challenges do not just vanish on their own. Though it functioned as a period of semi-retirement, I knew the future still awaited me. Thus I did not shirk the idea of entering the world in full again. Ultimately I “found work” again, and most notably, also found love again. Like the wind streaming across the prairie, life does indeed go on. Sometimes you run against the wind, and sometimes with it.
It’s much the same with running through grassy fields on a bright blue day. The environment can be heavenly, yet there is still the “work” of moving along that must be accomplished. The miles still tire the legs. That’s the price of getting “out there” and away from the disingenuous impulses of the world.
There truly is a price to pay for all our freedoms. Thus it is the wise soul that sees that price as an investment in the soul, not a burden on the soles.
Christopher Cudworth is the author of this blog. His book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Community can be ordered at Amazon.com.