Part 4 of 6 - urban or wild, either will work just fine

Lesson 4 -- visit to Somme Prairie

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Lesson 4. Urban or wild, either will work just fine

Efforts in the greater Chicago area prove that great grassland restoration can happen both in rural areas and in the heart of one of the nation's largest cities. SGI aims to bring similar approaches to dozens of communities across our 23 state region, including Austin, TX and Charlotte, NC.

 Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

By the time we left Grigsby Prairie, it was getting past 3:00 p.m. and Tom needed to part ways. Unfortunately, we could not have known that our visit with Tom would be our last. Just a week later, I learned that he passed away peacefully in his sleep. The world lost a special person in Tom Vanderpoel. I only knew him for a few hours that one day and the impression he left upon me and our developing organization and the lessons he unknowingly taught me are things I will carry with me as I attempt to grow and lead the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. I only wish I could have known Tom longer and that I could have been mentored by him.   

After saying goodbye to Tom, Justin called up Stephen Packard to see if he would be up for an impromptu late afternoon visit. Soon we were driving through a quaint neighborhood on our way to Stephen's house. Some of the lawns were shaded with large Bur Oaks, whose heavy spreading crowns and knotty boles indicated to me that the area was once covered in Bur Oak savannas. Philip's painting below suggests what Stephen's neighborhood likely looked like prior to settlement.

  Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.    Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches. 

Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.

Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches. 

Up ahead I saw one yard that stood out at a distance. I could see coneflowers, sunflowers, compass plants, and prairie grasses stretching from the front door to the sidewalk. I knew that must be Stephen's house.

For a while we sat and visited in his living room, eating fresh cherries. I told him about SGI and that the reason I came to Chicago was to see firsthand the conservation and restoration efforts he had spearheaded. He took us back a few decades with a nostalgic tale about how up until the 1970s many people thought that most of the remnants were gone.

While it is true that more than 99.9 percent of the region's original prairies have been eliminated, that didn't stop Stephen and his friends from scouring the land in search of tiny bits that remained. They found little vestiges in old cemeteries, along rural roadbanks, sandwiched between highways and adjacent railroads, or occupying spots too rocky or wet to cultivate. "These tiny remnants that we were rediscovering became the seed source for most of the restorations in the region including those you've seen today at Grigsby and Spring Creek, but," he added, "perhaps the best restoration that you have yet to see is Somme Prairie, a few blocks away."

Although I was tired from having arrived into town about 3:00 a.m. the night before and was running on just a few hours of sleep, I knew I had to see Somme Prairie. We hopped in the car and drove a few blocks away and parked along the curbside of Meadow Road in a 1960-70s-era suburban neighborhood. "Where's the prairie?" I asked incredulously. Stephen pointed towards a four-lane highway about 100 yards down the street.

As a pretty decent ecologist, I pride myself on being able to spot prairie and savanna remnants, yet there was nothing I could see from where we parked that gave me any notion that we were about to see what Stephen described as one of the best prairie restorations in the Midwest. 

  Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

When we got to the intersection I expected to see bunch grasses, wildflowers, something, but all I could see was the highway and a wall of trees on the other side. "Watch for cars," Stephen warned as he started across the highway. Justin and I followed eagerly.

On the other side we weaved our way through head-high vegetation along what resembled a game trail. Stephen dipped through a gap in the thicket. My tall frame ducked and dodged tree limbs and briers. From the highway I had mistaken it for a dense forest, but when I finally got through the wall of vegetation after only a few yards, I straightened my back and lifted my head. The passing cars just 50 feet away now seemed barely audible against the chattering and chirping sounds of songbirds and the rattling of the tall grasses and wildflowers waving in the breeze. This was Somme Prairie....  I felt as though I had stepped into the Garden of Eden. 

 

Stephen proceeded to give me a brief overview of the site, explaining that 30 years ago it had been a dense, brushy thicket. He and a dozen volunteers from the community began a long-term, sustained effort to restore Somme. You can hear Stephen tell this story by watching his TedX Talk titled "Nature is Counting on Us."

As he gave me an overview of the site, I interrupted occasionally to ask a question about a new plant I spotted. I was like a kid in a candy store and I could hardly contain my excitement. To Justin, my exuberant, clambering style must have contrasted sharply with Stephen's quiet, soft-spoken ways.

"Whoa Stephen, is that such and such? Wow. Did it come back after removing the brush or did you have to reintroduce it?"  He assured me that most of what I was seeing had been brought back using locally harvested seeds because most of the original seedbank had been depleted in the decades that the site lay shrouded in forest. When they began their restoration, they found the site still had several of those ancient bur oaks but the rich diversity of grasses and forbs that centuries ago dominated the ground floor were gone. 

 A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

Stephen seemed pleased to be in my company for he could see that as a professional botanist with an expertise in high-quality grassland communities that I just couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that what I was seeing had been almost totally rebuilt with seeds from more than 450 species. As Stephen's TedX Talk reveals, they even have been successful in restoring populations of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), one of the rarest orchids in the eastern U.S., whose white flower stands out almost like a ghost to remind us of the past.

As we wound our way through the trail system at Somme, I enjoyed testing Stephen. We stopped at one point a couple dozen yards ahead of a low, wet swale. I said, "now if I were in a totally natural remnant I would expect to walk up to that swale and see a whole suite of species [I rattled off a short list of those I most expected]." I was dumbfounded when as we approached it I found them all, right as I had predicted and growing intermixed as if they had been there for hundreds of years. The same happened several more times as we hit various microhabitats such as shrub thickets, wet meadows, and dry oak woodland. They even had found ways to restore short grasslands, which really blew me away.

Lesson 4: My fourth lesson of the day came from brief visit to Somme Prairie. In addition to being inspired beyond belief, I learned that even in the middle of dense urban areas, it is possible to rebuild grassland communities such that, even though they can never return to their original condition, they can be re-created in such a way as to fool professionals into believing that they are natural remnants. That is a very difficult thing to do and is a true testament to the quality of the restorations of the Chicago area and to Stephen's leadership and vision. SGI is currently working near downtown Nashville with several partners with the intent of restoring approximately 350 acres of grassland on a new 900 acre city park. Somme Prairie proves that we don't have to escape the city to rebuild something incredible. 

Somme Prairie in Chicago is in the heart of one of America's largest cities. More than 450 species grow in this urban refuge. This example provides hope to dozens of major cities across the Southeast that once supported important grasslands that we can restore high-quality grasslands in both wild and urban landscapes.