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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008 06:28 am

Language of the land

A personal glossary of terms to describe unique natural features of central Illinois

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They speed by on Interstate 55, cars a blur, on their way from one metropolis to another. A world outside their windows flashes by, perceived as a uniformly dull patchwork of fields and homogeneous small towns. This landscape is something to be endured, negotiated in as quick a way as possible. Sometimes I ask them, these travelers, what they saw in their travels. Often I’m met with laughter and “Lots of corn, some billboards, a rest area or two.” What else is there to see, to know? “Pick an exit and turn off into the countryside,” I tell them. Whole worlds are missed at 70 mph. Henry Thoreau wrote, “If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these 40 years of learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself. . . . Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there.”
Thoreau understood that the natural world is right there to be examined, lessons there to be learned, in your back yard. His was a call for loving cultivation of a relationship with the local.
I recently picked up a wonderful book, edited by Barry Lopez, titled Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Reflecting Thoreau’s appreciation of the local, this book is essentially a collection of crafted definitions of terms used for the land — not strictly scientific but rather the combination of technical definition with literary and poetic understandings. In this spirit I began to think about the languages of our central-Illinois landscapes. We can all too often see the subdivisions springing up out of the fields like lesions upon the land, mile after mile of monocultural systems of agriculture, general degradation of environment at almost every turn, all of this, I think, fostering a disconnect of many of us from where we live. My belief is that if we look closely, that connection to a sense of being can be reestablished where it has been abandoned, strengthened where it may only marginally exist. Where and how do we being such an undertaking? Taking cues from Thoreau and works like Home Ground, I begin with simple curiosity about the meaning of place, the land, and the language we use to define and come to grips with it. Before you can converse, you must have the tools in place with which to do the talking. Those among us who are “out there in it” understand: We observe, develop descriptors, come to know the rhythms of dialogue with the landscape. The hikers of our forests, hunters, canoeists of streams and rivers, artists, farmers, naturalists, poets, small town locals — those who step off the pavement and onto the dirt do indeed speak a different language. This point was driven home to me during a recent excursion. While walking with the farmer of land my family has in Henry County, I was struck by this gentleman’s breadth of knowledge of this piece of ground. His vocabulary does not include the sorts of words spoken by modern agribusiness — often the cold language of yields and profit — rather, his is another way of seeing and knowing, a way cultivated by 35 years of living in the same spot, working the land year after year, learning its seasons and patterns intimately.
As we walked, the farmer leisurely pointed out each slough, knowing how much rain it took to waterlog it and how much time it would be before it drained, rattling off with aplomb years of previous floods as a baseball fanatic might regale you with Albert Pujols’ career batting average or home-run total. Suddenly he stopped in what to me looked like a patch of weeds, bent over in the way of old farmers, with great deliberation and calm countenance, then plucked from the tangle of grasses a foot-tall reed that looked to me like some sort of bamboo. He showed me the segmentation of this plant, called the reed snake grass, and pulled apart the segments to demonstrate the serpentine qualities of the stem. Strolling through a stand of timber, the farmer could identify every tree and shrub, giving a discourse on the age of particular trees I inquired about, and also their habits, flowering times, and connections to other trees and plants in the woods.
These weren’t the studies of an academic naturalist, but intimate knowings, a sort of precious communion with place honed by years of paying attention to the fields and forests, although this man certainly wouldn’t phrase his abilities in such terms. A simple walk led to a realization that a vocabulary of the land exists if only we seek it out. My inspiration led me to put together a sort of rudimentary glossary of terms that refer to a language of the landscape of my home spot — central Illinois. The terminology comes from my singular experiences, conversations, observations, walks, runs, paddles, reading, and being. They are a starting point and by no means comprehensive. Some of these terms are universal, often general words, but perhaps having meanings here amongst the locals that differ slightly from other variations of the word in another region. I would expect someone living in Little Egypt or suburban Chicago or along the Mississippi to recognize similarities, but perhaps also many differences in how they categorize their places. A “hollow” here differs from a “holler” in Appalachia or even Missouri or one in, say, North Dakota, where the word often refers to a depression in the land that has resulted from glacial melting, not a scooped area of land at a hill intersect. Barrens in southern Illinois take on a specific definition of a land type, much different than around these parts. Even common terms like “ridge” and “terrace” can have vastly different meanings depending on where you are.
Here are some definitions — direct quotes in italics are taken from Home Ground — with my interpretation and commentary in an attempt to tease out more specific meaning as it applies to my personal home ground. And so I ask, “What is the language of your Illinois homeland? Surely ours cannot be entirely similar. These are the beginnings of mine:
Barrens“Open, desolate landscapes of bare rock and sparse vegetation . . . soils usually sandy or rocky, growing thin, stunted and shrubby forests.” True barrens in Illinois are rare, but some are found in the southern part of the state. I hear the term associated in central Illinois mostly with former pasturelands that have sparse vegetation, often of so-called scrub trees, such as locust or Osage orange, and various shrubs.
Bluff “A high bank above a river, a headland of precipitous cliffs.” Refers to the high parts of particularly the Illinois River. In Peoria, neighborhoods are referred to as “east bluff” and “west bluff.”

Bottom — Typically used in this region to describe the floodplain of a river or creek, although the traditional definition is the low spot of whatever feature you’re talking about. Bottoms are also often named for landowners past and present; Steffen’s Bottom is a flat flood-prone area near the Mackinaw River at Congerville.
Bunch — A largely archaic local term that refers to small groves of trees found in the Mackinaw River valley: “Every foot of soil in this township was originally prairie, except a few acres in Section 5, known to the early settlers as ‘Cunningham’s Bunch.’” Cunningham’s Bunch, which later became “Stewart’s Bunch” was located near Anchor, Ill.
Dell “Chiefly a literary term, once used to describe a small, secluded hollow densely overgrown with trees, vines and shrub.” Mackinaw Dells was once the site of village called Slabtown. The settlement was killed when the railroad was put in up the hill at Congerville. A narrow, rough dirt road leads back into this area now, which essentially conforms to the traditional definition, although Mackinaw Dells technically exists more on bluff land rather than in a true hollow. The area is still called by the name.
Draw “A troughlike depression, choked with shrubs, thickets and small trees.” Locally draws are usually talked about as either waterways or small swaths of ground with trees, thick underbrush, or both. To my eye they can be any cluster of trees from under an acre to a few acres in size, standing apart from the surrounding fields. Often associated with “drawing” deer or other game. Cormac McCarthy, in All the Pretty Horses, writes, “The riders were fanned over the open country a mile below him and he counted not four but six of them before they dropped from sight into a draw.”

Fencerow — A row of trees or shrubs used to delineate a property line or, more commonly, a boundary between farm fields. In the 1850s, before the advent of barbed wire, Osage orange trees were imported from Texas and Oklahoma to central Illinois for use as fencerows. Many of these fencerows persisted into the 20th century because fences were often built around them. In the 1970s farmers began the philosophy of farming “fencerow to fencerow,” cutting out the traditional tree lines to add a row or two of corn. This practice continues today, and old-style fencerows, though still around, are harder and harder to find. The Osage orange, however, persists in many of our timbered areas as a reminder of its journey to the prairies.
Filter Strip“A long, narrow strip of undisturbed or planted vegetation to collect sediment in protection of a water course.” Around these parts it refers mostly to government-subsidized grass plantings used as buffers along small creeks and drainage ditches that were previously row cropped. Filter strips are often long grasses, prime habitat for pheasant, quail, coyote, muskrat, and other creatures. It is amazing what profusion of life can exist in a relatively small remnant grass area in comparison to what once was prairie and now is field.
Ford“A shallow place in a river where a man or animal can cross.” Locals here know that Rocky Ford, an almost always shallow, pebble-strewn crossing of the Mackinaw, was used often, starting with settlement in the 19th century, as a shortcut to the village of Bowling Green, which is now a ghost town. Faint tracks in the dirt today indicate where the wagons used to enter the river. Another well-known ford was Wyatt’s Ford, north of Carlock, once the site of the Mackinac Mineral Hotel. Abraham Lincoln also used this ford on his circuit en route to the courthouse at Metamora.
Hill or goat prairie “Prairie occurring on steep, rugged terrain, often a hilltop — a rocky, dry area, a result of glacial drift, often abounds in wildflowers and prairie glasses.” Prairies only a goat would typically venture to. The term I have heard locally is “hill prairie,” and the only pure remnant I know of occurs at Forest Park in Peoria. These are special places of vibrant wildflowers and craggy hillsides.
Hollow — Known as “hollers” in the South and typically “scooped out places in the land, often where two mountains join.” No mountains here; hollows in central Illinois occur mostly in the older glaciated areas. The term is used in geographical nomenclature, and from time to time I hear the term used by someone who’s been around the area for a long while, but younger folks seem to lack this knowledge. Our hollows are areas of greater erosion that has resulted in more scooped and open “valleys” as opposed to steeper, younger ravines. Along the bluffs of the Illinois can be found the Moon, Strawberry, and Harp hollows, along with numerous other unnamed, mostly now developed hollows. Cole Hollow is an example from the east side of the river.
Moraine — Joseph LeConte, writing in 1857: “On the surface, and about the foot of glaciers, are always found immense piles of heterogeneous debris consisting of rock fragments of all sizes, mixed with earth. These are called moraines. Often 20 to 50 feet high.” Oft neglected by passersby, they are found everywhere on our young glacial landscape. Next time you drive through the seemingly nondescript landscape, take another look and try to spot the moraines. Shelbyville, Bloomington, and LeRoy are the most prominent around here; I type this from near the slopes of the Eureka moraine. Often streams cut their way through moraines, giving exposure to the layers beneath the layered topsoil.
Paddock — Cordoned-off section of a pasture; not an actual landform but an area generally set aside for horseback riding.
Ridge or ridgeline — Typically defined as the spines traversing the tops of mountains, but on our depositional landscape these terms often refer to the tops of ravines where the surface has worn away nearly to an edge or point. “Ridgeline” also sometimes refers to the top of a more defined moraine.
Swale — Usually a low area along the contour of a filter strip that holds runoff water after rains; used more to refer to low areas of grass strips.
Terrace — Benchlike surfaces carved from sloping terrain by water. In our vernacular, “terrace” is an agricultural term indicating that something has been built up and molded from soil rather than sliced from rock. Terraces are used on sloping land to prevent erosion and allow agricultural production on land that would otherwise be too hilly. They inadvertently lend contour and line to the sweep of the landscape, although they are strictly human constructs on the former prairie.
Till “As a noun, sediment left behind by a glacier — a mixture of clay, sand, gravel, and boulders. Unlike sediments dropped by moving water, these materials were not sorted by size and weight, which is why those mining the sand-and-gravel pits dotted across the Midwest must do the sorting mechanically.” Woodford County has several such pits, but few know that this is why. As a verb, “till” means “to work the soil by plowing or harrowing.” Both noun and verb are fitting for a local glossary.
Timber — A forested area “filled with trees or woody plants reaching a mature height of at least 20 feet with a single stem or trunk.” Timber — or sometimes “woods” — is the term of choice over “forest” when referring to woodlands. Most timber is now along our streams and more marginal areas that weren’t cultivated. An upland or definable area of timber is sometimes referred to as a grove. Singular groves on the upland once occurred on the prairies of central Illinois but are now fairly rare. Funk’s Grove in particular is a remnant grove: Visit it, but please remember that it was once 2,700 acres. Groves once here but now gone include Old Town Timber (14,200 acres), Cheney’s Grove (13,150 acres), Buckles Grove (7,280 acres), and Blooming Grove (6,280 acres).
Watershed — Here it refers to “an area through which water is drained into a particular watercourse or body of water.” My watershed is the Mackinaw.
Waterway — Similar to filter strip, waterways usually are grassy areas kept between row crops for drainage and not necessarily associated with ditches or streams. In other regions this term often refers more generally to watercourses, creeks, streams, and rivers.
A dialogue with my land has begun, connections have been reestablished, and still many others surely await. Additions are welcome.
Jason Zimmerman is a librarian, writer, and avid hiker and runner who lives in Eureka. He received a master’s degree in history from the University of Illinois at Springfield in 1999. He writes about his explorations at dirttrailrunner.blogspot.com. Contact him at jzimmerman@alphapark.org.
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