The real meaning of prairie

ConeflowerIn 1973 our high school biology Robert Horlock put the word out to students that he would like to have help on a visionary project to re-establish a prairie at the Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles, Illinois. The project began with humble scratching in the dirt. Each of us was assigned a 15′ X 15′ plot from which we removed all grass and weeds. We worked in summer’s heat and then turned the soil enough to make way for a seed stock of prairie plants that our teacher had gleaned with permission from remnant prairies.

These were precious tools and a vision that was both far ahead of its time and far too late to recover the true scope and scale of the Illinois prairie. What remained of that once massive ecosystem was 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie. The wet and tallgrass prairie had once flowed west from the dunes of Chicago beyond the Mississippi all the way to eastern Colorado. Settlers described it as an ocean of grass, but it was more than that. It was flowers blooming from June through October. Tough flowers with deep roots and flame tolerance.

The prairie was indeed both a beautiful and unforgiving place. It was filled with snakes that bit and wolves that roamed. Reaching back 10-15,000 years in earth’s geological history, the prairie grew on soils crumbled and dumped by retreating glaciers. Onto this expanse roamed large animals and small ones too. The diversity was enormous, and prairie chickens were common as hens.

Rattlesnake masterBut it was all gone thanks to development and the fertile soils created by the prairies. These riches were sectioned and cordoned by barbed wire and agribusiness. The prairie was shoved into tiny corners next to railroad tracks.

Our teacher Bob Horlock ushered us to these treasured remnants. We stared in awe at lilies taller than our heads, and sensitive plants that recoiled when touched. We learned about prairie dock and compass plant, coneflowers and shooting stars. These we saw in pictures, for the most part.

But then we planted, and waited. Within a year the first nibs of real prairie plants came up. We had to weed to keep the ugly plants at bay. But our plots bore prairie plants that had not seen the light of day in that part of Illinois for 150 years. And we were proud.

We learned the different between big bluestem and little bluestem. We watched as those greenish blue stems turned to russet red in fall. From a distance the prairie in autumn is a rusty orange, The husks of dark prairie dock leaves are speckled like aging skin.

In spring, we burned the prairie to knock back weedy plants and allow the prairie its full strength in competition.

One year’s efforts was followed by another. The “prairie” we were growing expanded in size and depth. Treasured rare species of plants like cream and blue wild indigo were brought in. Many Butterfly weedof these were negotiated for introduction by Horlock and his cohorts at the Morton Arboretum and Fermi Lab. Ray Schulenberg and Gerould Wilhelm were instrumental in this new prairie movement. So was the peripatetic plant specialist Dick Young, whose book about wild plants in Kane County is considered a bible for many to this day.

Bob Horlock was a visionary who motivated many young people to enter the sciences. I tried that path myself before recognizing that my lack of aptitude in the study of genetics and chemistry would likely be a  problem. But our many birding jaunts with Bob Horlock fueled that interest and my pursuit of art in college combined to turn me into a wildlife artist.

To this day while walking through a prairie I cannot help thinking of Bob Horlock. He actually passed away from a heart attack doing what he loved. He was supervising the burn of the Garfield Farm Prairie when his heart gave out. Unfortunately Bob was a smoker for years. But despite the fact that the physical presence of Bob Horlock left this world in 1993, when he was just over 50 years old, his legacy exists in every prairie plant that graces today’s gardens throughout the Midwest. Men like Bob Horlock popularized the use of native plants in Illinois and beyond. Entire nurseries are now dedicated to perennials that grow in urban and suburban gardens. We see them in planting beds in the City of Chicago. We see them at the entryway to golf courses, and on the golf courses themselves. The prairie may be a whisper of what it once was, but it is still talking to us.

But I loved the man Bob Horlock because his voice was not always a whisper. At his funeral many great stories of his leadership were told, and I learned that he was an avid singer in his church choir. He had a deep base voice and he used it to good effect while teaching and instructing. You knew he was a man of both authority and good judgment. His students respected the fact that he fully expected them to learn what he shared with them.

Cardinal FlowerAnd yet he knew when the learning was through. During one afternoon field trip our class had worked in the sun and heat for three hours when one of the more raucous boys in our class pushed a female classmate into a cold running stream. She emerged with a see-through shirt and Bob turned on his heel and told me, “You tell everyone to come back to the bus. I have to leave right now. Go find that girl an extra shirt.” We did what he told us.

Yet Bob was no phony saint. During his funeral one former student stood up and said, “Well, Mrs. Horlock, I agree with all the great things these people have said about your husband Bob. But I have to say that every dirty joke I ever learned was from your husband.”

The entire crowd of people roared at that anecdote. Because it was true. In fact I always knew our birding trip was through for the day when Bob turned his head with a grin on his face and said, “Say, did you the hear the one about the…” and from there it was all laughter and relaxation.

There is a stone commemorating Bob’s life at the Horlock Hill Prairie in St. Charles. I speak to it every time I run or ride by, for it sits at the head of the Great Western Trail, a converted railroad bed that runs from St. Charles to Sycamore 17 miles west.

And I walk by my personal prairie plot and think of how deep those roots now fun into the ground. It has been 40 years since they were planted. So many spring and summer and fall days those plants have faced the sky. And winter’s too. The prairie will never be what it once was, but for me, it will always be what it became again. A place to sink down roots, and to remember: All great things start with an idea and a vision.

Yet the prairie is truly a community. It is not one plant or one thing. It is many plants and many things working together. That’s the most important lesson of all.

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