As our family drove west through Ohio and Indiana toward our new home in Illinois, the land flattened out and the trees disappeared into distant blue clumps dotting the horizon. I’d been to Chicago once as a small child, but had no real memories of the trip. This time around, at the age of twelve years old, I struggled to process the change in landscape. It all looked so different.
The first thing I recall while pulling off Route 38 onto Route 47 at the north end of Elburn was the color of the soil. Back east in Pennsylvania the dirt was reddish brown. The Amish farmers grew tobacco on the reddish soils of Lancaster County. The smell of that crop drying in the factory just past the steel bridge over the Conestoga River south of town reminded me of the breakfast cereal Cheerios.
By contrast, the Illinois soil was dark and sullen. But as the corn and beans grew thick it disappeared beneath a layer of agricultural homogeny. We would not see the soil again until November when the farmers tilled under that season’s crop detritus. Come spring the soil might get turned yet again, revealing the shining faces of black chunks of near-perfect dirt.
Years later I’d learn that the soils in Illinois were created by the roots of prairie grasses. When settlers arrived, the farmers broke wooden plows trying to cut those roots. But when steel plows were invented the entire state fell victim to the ravenous desires of farm production. Today, less than 1/10th of one percent of the original Illinois prairie remains. I’ve visited small pieces of original prairie alongside railroad tracks and rural cemetaries. These feel like botanical graveyards, and yet prairie restoration projects are preserving the legacy of many amazing plants. I helped start such a project in 1973 under the tutelage of Bob Horlock, the high school biology teacher and birdwatching buddy of mine that passed away during a prairie burn in 1993. He was fifty-three years old.
Just fifty years after I first recall seeing those rich, black soils on our move to Illinois, farmers here are acknowledging that they’ve laid waste to some of the best soils on earth. Over the last 100 years, thanks to aggressive farming techniques that amounted to a rape of the land, much of the best soil on earth either blew away or washed downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. In some regions of the Midwest, more than six feet of rich, loamy topsoil is now missing in action.
These days, while running the paths of the restored prairie at Dick Young Forest Preserve, I cross a two-foot high rise in the earth where a fenceline once crossed the property. You can see the rise in the landscape because the plows didn’t cut close to the fenceline. The height difference between that rise in the earth and the land around it is a clearcut illustration of topsoil loss everywhere across the Midwest. Trillions of tons of topsoil is now gone. The pale brown caps of earth mounds once covered by rich prairie soils now remind us that sustainability is important.
The restored prairie where I run now goes about the slow business of rebuilding that soil. It will take thousands of years to raise the soil profile, but if left alone, that’s how it works. The prairie built great loamy soil after the glaciers ground stone into loess and left the land behind for grassland plants to own.
One of the first things my brothers and I did upon moving to Illinois was seek out natural places to engage in birdwatching. We’d taken up the avocation thanks to my eldest brother’s experience in a college ornithology class, and we were on fire to find new species. The closest forest preserve was just a mile west from our house in Elburn, and we spent many mornings searching for birds while walking the gravel road that looped through that preserve.
We found owls and flycatchers, several species of woodpeckers, dozens of warblers in spring, and a pair of resident red-tailed hawks that soared over the thick oak woodlands. That preserve became our “home away from home” because it most resembled the woods we’d left behind back east.
The Oregon Trail
At the front of the preserve, there was an odd “ditch” of sorts where the entrance road crested a small hill. One day I finally noticed a sign indicating that this drop in the land profile was a feeder route leading to the famous Oregon Trail. The “ditch” had been cut into the earth by the movement of covered wagons and other human migration through the area 150 years before. I stood there one day thinking about that trail and how it represented both a scar on the landscape and also the mark of so many dreams.
Two years later, as a freshman member of the Kaneland Cross Country team, I’d run races right past that deep cut in the earth. We’d start on the bottomland of the preserve, race up the broad glacial hill on the south end of the woods, tarry through the oak forest on a winding gravel road, and pop back out front next to the section of the Oregon Trail. Sadly, the county has allowed trees to grow in the groove in the landscape. That should never have been allowed. Much of the cross-country course is also “wooded over” and the large open grassy area that served as the starting point of the race has been allowed to revert to wetland. Those are all good things, mind you. I’m comfortable allowing my high school memories to dissolve into those natural areas. Nothing lasts forever if nature has its say.
Becoming a Midwestern Boy
I never knew when we moved to Illinois that there would be so much to learn about the land and its history. It might have been great to remain in Pennsylvania, but perhaps I was meant to expand and experience the many things the Midwest has to offer. I moved back to Philadelphia for a short period during my early 20s, but by then I felt out of place. The landscape back East felt crowded and intense compared to the open skies of Illinois. I’d also grown to love the diversity of birds and the open-faced nature of Midwestern people. While I’ll always think of that Pennsylvania house and yard as my original boyhood home, I grew to make the best of it here in Illinois. I’m a Midwestern Boy for sure.
I’ve always loved running where you could see ahead, and dream a bit on the way. And yet, as I ran at Luther College, I also loved winding between cedar-covered bluffs on dirt farm roads. The mystery of that I also loved. But it is uniquely Midwestern as well. The Driftless Region is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Perhaps I wasn’t so different than those travelers on the Oregon Trail, each seeking their own version of a new frontier. Learning to call a new place home is a valuable part of life, indeed.