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Thursday, May 18, 2017 12:21 am

Oh, for a Thucydides of the prairie

Illinois’ nature was shaped by people – and vice versa



In 2013, a too-small audience gathered on the U of I main campus to listen to the first of a series of lectures offered by the Prairie Research Institute, as our state’s scientific surveys are now collectively known. It began like this: “On a bright summer morning more than 50 years ago, my father said, ‘Get in the truck.’ We headed out across the flat open countryside south of Springfield. . . . ” The two, we learn, were heading to witness a brutal execution – a 100-foot cottonwood in the middle of a field was to be dynamited and burned to make way for the “zillionth stalk of corn.” (The lecture can been seen via YouTube. Google “John White: The Illinois Prairie and its People.”)

The speaker was Jack White, who has become a near-legend among ecological cognoscenti only in part because he is widely considered the foremost authority on the environmental history of the Illinois prairie. I met him in the 1990s, and even then he had been at work for years compiling a record of Illinois’ presettlement ecosystems, and talk was that a book – a survey? an atlas? – might result.

One hopes. Much is now known about the effect of humans on natural systems in Illinois, but little has been put into the hands of the interested public. John Madson’s classic Where the Sky Begins: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie (Random House, Inc., 1982) talks about the war between grasses and trees for dominion hereabouts, but we also need accounts of the war between both and another form of nature – human nature.

What an epic – it would demand another Thucydides. The virtual eradication of the prairie and the hardwood groves. The extirpation of the gray wolf and the bison and pillaging of the Illinois River fishes. The re-engineering of whole rivers like the Illinois and the Chicago, the takeover of Lake Michigan by alien species. Then there is Indians’ use of fire to manipulate the landscape for essentially economic ends, and their folly in denuding the bluffs around the American Bottom, which is thought to have been a factor in the demise of the great metropolis of Cahokia.

These tales are known, and the subject of laments. Less is known about the effect of natural systems on modern Illinois. The old Grand Prairie in east-central Illinois is as distinct from the old the old Military Tract between the big rivers in western Illinois as a salamander is from a toad. The latter’s soils are older, less fertile, more eroded. Settlement patterns were different too, mostly because of geography, which meant that the people who lighted there – Southerners at first, mostly – had different ideas about how to treat the land than did their Grand Prairie counterparts who came from the eastern U.S. and northern Europe. In all these regions the farm economy, and even the local politics differed in subtle but real ways.

Good books have taken up aspects of the story but a general eco-history of Illinois remains to be written. Madson’s book is about an ecosystem, not a place; William Cronon’s magisterial Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009) and A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg (University of Chicago Press, 2002) have a local focus, and Greenberg (unlike Cronon) persisted in conceiving humans as outside nature.

Placeness in all its aspects lies within the province of geography, and two of the better Illinois history books to touch upon nature were written by professors of geography. Northwestern’s John C. Hudson wrote Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture (Indiana University Press, 1994). The late John Thompson, emeritus professor of geography at the U of I, took up the ecological decimation of the state’s namesake stream from 1890 to 1930 in Wetlands Drainage, River Modification, and Sectoral Conflict in the Lower Illinois Valley (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002).

While not environmental histories per se, several excellent recent works are informed by consciousness of the role that environment played in history. One such is Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country by Robert Michael Morrissey (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). Morrissey, who teaches at the U of I at Urbana, is especially good on the ways that climate shift altered the lifestyles of the Illini nation, obliging them to adopt ways of hunting, indeed a whole economy, from Indians from the drier grasslands to the west.

Histories take a lot of time to write and don’t sell especially well. Subsidizing their creation is precisely the sort of thing an advanced state government would be funding as part of its bicentennial celebrations. This was done in 1918 for the State of Illinois centennial. Gov. Bruce Rauner, unfortunately, thinks of Illinois as a political-economic system but does not appear to be very interested in it as a place.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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