Arts & Culture » Book Review

What Have We Done?

A look at our impact on nature in Illinois--both good and bad--chronicles the unavoidable clash between those who seek to save the wilderness and those who seek to subdue it.

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The first settlers in the wilderness that became Evanston, Wilmette, and Winnetka bought their land for a dollar an acre in the 1820s. Then they started cutting down the trees, clearing space to farm and making money at the same time. They could sell a cord of oak firewood for 75 cents in Chicago. And they could stack stumps ten feet high, let them burn for weeks, and sell the resulting charcoal for five cents a bushel. After a century or so of hard labor, the "Big Woods" of oak and hickory and other trees was all but gone.

In 1918 architect Dwight Perkins arranged for the Cook County Forest Preserve District to buy a 7.8-acre tract of trees between Grant, Colfax, Bennett, and Ewing streets in north Evanston, now known as Perkins Woods. Even though it's never been cut or built on, this last fragment of the Big Woods is "too small and disturbed to be included in the [Illinois] Natural Areas Inventory," writes Joel Greenberg in A Natural History of the Chicago Region. Still, it may well be the closest thing to a hardwood swamp left in the state--"the last living vestige of something that was once huge, dark, mysterious, daunting, and so very full of life."

In three centuries of interacting with Chicago-area animals, vegetables, and minerals, we've made a lot of bad choices and a few good ones. Greenberg has filled 595 pages with stories about the bad and the good. He suggests some lessons we can learn from them, though he doesn't address the most important issue of all: how to make good choices when we have to strike a balance between nature and other things we value.

In some of his stories the natural and human worlds intermix with little apparent harm to either. In the 1840s residents of Three Oaks, in Berrien County, Michigan, produced maple sugar from their forest trees on an almost industrial scale without killing them off. More recently, a beaver on Farmer Creek in suburban Des Plaines was seen building a dam using, among other things, "a sofa and plastic bags full of lawn waste." In 1879 inventor and businessman Edward Warren bought 150 acres of forest in Berrien County and chose to leave it mostly alone. Warren Woods is now considered one of the finest beech-maple forests on earth.

In other stories the natural world overwhelms the human. On December 18, 1837, John Piper left the Barkley settlement in Indiana to file his land claim 30 miles away in La Porte. Caught in a snowstorm, he walked in a circle until he died of exhaustion. In the Veteran's Day storm of 1940, freezing temperatures and high winds killed 66 people in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota and drowned another 59 in Lake Michigan.

Most common in Greenberg's book are stories in which the human overwhelms the natural. Some episodes are at least mercifully quick, like the demise of the lakeside daisy, a chipper-looking flower that grows on bare or nearly bare dolomitic bedrock. Greenberg writes that botanists had found it in "two locations in Ontario, a quarry in Ohio, Tazewell County, Illinois (an old station [survey site] never relocated), the Des Plaines River Valley, and nowhere else on earth." In the 1970s prairie guru Robert Betz located the last patch of lakeside daisies in Illinois, growing on the grounds of a Commonwealth Edison power plant south of Joliet. But when he revisited the spot in 1981, he told Greenberg, he found only "mounds of coal which looked like giant whales. There was one big mountain of coal over the whole thing."

Other episodes are painful and prolonged, as when Beaver Lake in Newton County, Indiana--part of the Kankakee River's Great Marsh--was drained about a century ago. Greenberg quotes a 1925 account: "There were tens of thousands of these big, soft, fuzzy goslings suddenly bereft of their native element--water....They walked and rolled and dragged themselves painfully to the few depressions in the marsh bottom where water still remained and crowded these places to suffocation." Also stranded were buffalofish and pickerel "of enormous size, patriarchs of these primeval waters, whose carcasses littered the bottom of the lake so thickly that one could step from one to another in any direction, like upon so many stepping-stones." The late Gordon Graves told Greenberg that his grandfather could smell the stench 40 miles away.

Greenberg also tells classic conservation stories, in which one group of humans battles another to prevent the destruction of some piece of nature. He describes how the struggle over the Indiana Dunes devolved into a stalemate in the 1960s. Senator Paul Douglas and the conservationists had the clout to prevent the building of a deep-water port on Lake Michigan, Greenberg writes, and the port advocates behind Congressman Charles Halleck had the power to block the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. "While factions within the government fought, the steel companies took matters into their own hands: in early 1963 they leveled the central dunes, thereby denying the conservationists their most desired treasure. Although the destruction was horrendous, it enabled a compromise to emerge," including the bifurcated national lakeshore that exists today. You don't have to take Greenberg's word for how bad the destruction was; two and a half pages of the book are devoted to heartbreaking before-and-after photographs taken by Herbert Read of the Save the Dunes Council.

Greenberg tells these stories with skill and sophistication. An avid birder who once ditched work to go see a rare brown pelican at Montrose Harbor, he knows that nature is neither cute nor kind: "On New Year's Eve 1963, two birders watched a snowy owl gnaw on a live mallard frozen in Belmont Harbor. Eventually, the owl flew off with the duck's top portion, leaving the remainder still encased in ice."

He also knows that the line between what's natural and what's been tampered with can be hard to define, especially in the not-so-pristine past. Native Americans set prairie fires to shape the landscape and may well have hunted a few large animals to extinction. The midwest that the first European-American pioneers saw wasn't, as many imagine, untouched by human hands. Greenberg makes this point, but he underplays it and occasionally even falls into the trap of describing the presettlement landscape as "original."

He tells stories of wanton destruction--one of the worst is of a steamboat chasing a bear swimming in Lake Michigan--but he's sophisticated enough to recognize that the big story is about something more complex than humans deliberately saving or destroying nature. The effects of human activity are often unintended and unexpected. Nobody knows, for instance, which improvement in Great Lakes navigation enabled the sea lamprey to make its way from Lake Ontario to Lake Michigan. And even when the sea lamprey did arrive, there was little reason to expect that it would decimate the lake trout and other native fish as it has.

In addition, the size of the effect humans can have varies. Greenberg notes that the brassy minnow has "declined precipitously" as formerly clear waterways have become choked with silt. Once found at 20 sites in Illinois, it's now down to 2, and it hasn't been seen in southeast Wisconsin since the 1970s, though it's said to remain secure in other parts of that state. This situation may not be ideal, but since we're not talking extirpation here, the brassy minnow isn't our most critical conservation problem. Greenberg, who rarely tries to set priorities, is mute on this point. A more recent example can be found in a publication of the Illinois Natural History Survey in which Steve Hill reports that of the 64 native plants no longer found in Illinois, 59 were at the edge of their ranges anyway; one could conclude that their disappearance from the state isn't as serious a problem as it first sounds either.

In an entirely different category are the stories of extinction. Greenberg doesn't slight the oft told tale of the passenger pigeon: "I believe that its demise may represent the greatest act of vandalism ever perpetrated by our species against another." He also calls attention to lesser-known episodes, such as the extinction of four species of the deepwater fish known as the cisco in Lake Michigan, finished off by decades of overfishing and sea lamprey predation: "The last johannae was caught in Lake Huron off of Wolfsell, Ontario, on August 4, 1952. The last blackfin cisco was caught in Lake Michigan off of Marinette, Wisconsin, on May 26, 1969. The last longjaw cisco was caught in Georgian Bay, Ontario, on June 12, 1975. And finally, to conclude this litany of obituaries, the last shortnose cisco was caught in Lake Huron in 1985."

Even after natural areas have been bought by private or public conservationists--presumably saving them from coal piles or suburban piles--managing them can be fraught with ambiguity, trade-offs, and unexpected effects, as Greenberg explains. Burning prairies can eliminate undesired weedy species and revive long-dormant native seeds; but if fire is used overenthusiastically it can also kill the extremely rare prairie moth Papaipema eryngii. Glossy buckthorn, an exotic species conservationists love to hate because it crowds out native plants, is said to offer protection to the rare massasauga rattlesnake.

Because hardly anything is always good or always bad, caution makes a good rule in managing natural areas. Yet even cautious management can't always escape controversy. Cutting weed trees and killing excess deer are regarded by most conservationists as unfortunate necessities. But in recent years some people who venerate deer and trees and claim to be conservationists have mounted grassroots campaigns that stymied some prairie restoration and pest-control efforts.

Greenberg presents this as a confrontation between knowledge and ignorance, and in large part it is, though it may also represent a clash between philosophies of nature. Those who want to leave things alone believe that whatever comes up on an untended piece of ground is natural. Most conservationists, Greenberg included, define "natural" as what comes up if we actively manage that piece of land to mimic presettlement conditions, which includes setting regular fires and curbing or eliminating "exotics," i.e., plants and animals that didn't live in the midwest in 1700. But since we know that the landscape back then had already been altered by Native American burning and hunting, it's not obvious why we should choose this point in time as the benchmark for what's natural. And Greenberg doesn't explain the rationale for this choice.

Few Chicagoans know these stories. Openlands Project director Jerry Adelmann writes in a publicity blurb that Greenberg's book will help educate the many who don't. I hope so, because we need to know more about the green, crawly, scaly, and furry things we live with.

But knowing more about nature isn't enough. We also have to know how to value it in relation to other things, how to weigh it against human priorities. Many Americans know little about nature and undervalue what they do know. At the 1990 press conference where Mayor Daley first announced his surprise proposal to build a Lake Calumet airport, Greenberg writes, "not one newsperson asked one question about the loss of marshland or endangered species," though that loss would have been substantial.

Environmentalists tend to react against this devaluing of nature by asserting (or implying) that the value of nature is infinite or absolute. But the historical fact is that we have traded a lot of nature for other kinds of wealth and well-being. Americans today enjoy unprecedented material wealth, Greenberg writes, and "we sacrificed certain valuable things to attain that distinction. One of these was the unbroken prairie. Prairie lands were among the most beautiful of all." Similarly, the early settlers of Evanston made a living by cutting and burning the venerable trees of the Big Woods. The largest of the Indiana dunes, the Hoosier Slide near Michigan City, "stood at two hundred feet but, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had been hauled away to become jars and plate glass."

Was this sacrifice worth it? That's the question anyone who cares about the environment has to answer, yet Greenberg and the conservationists he interviewed seem reluctant to address it directly. Clearly we've compromised great expanses of nature to be able to enjoy fast cars, flush toilets, lifesaving drugs, and satellite TV. Can we improve the terms of that trade, so that we get more nature without becoming poorer? Sure. We already have. No one in Evanston clear-cuts the backyard for charcoal anymore. And we can do much better. No Com Ed customer would have suffered had the company dropped its coal somewhere other than on top of the last lakeside daisies in Illinois. As Greenberg observes, home owners on inland lakes would have perfectly nice places--and create a much better natural habitat--if they gave up their obsession with killing the underwater "weeds" that shelter small fish, clams, and insects. And so on. But can we have unbroken prairie, forest, and swamp from sea to shining sea? Not likely.

Given his sophistication on other matters, Greenberg has surprisingly little to say about the proper terms of these trade-offs. And what he does say is unhelpful. For example, he spends five pages explaining some of the manifold wonders and beauties of bog ecosystems, making it easy for his readers to applaud the fact that Volo and Pistakee bogs in Lake County, Illinois, were saved from development in 1970 and have since been dedicated as state nature preserves. Well, they weren't completely saved, since the Illinois Department of Transportation still holds an easement that would allow it to construct a major highway through the bogs. "Surely the agency could formulate a new alignment and bypass the bogs," Greenberg writes, "assuming, of course, that the construction of the road is not stopped altogether."

This is a strange and revealing passage. Having made the case that Volo Bog is worth more than four lanes of pavement and that the new road should go a different way, Greenberg adds that gratuitous final shot, implying that the road isn't needed at all. Yet he offers no evidence that it isn't. If the state were threatening to replace Volo Bog with a light-rail commuter line, or a library, or a homeless shelter, of course he would object vigorously, but would he go on to hope that these projects wouldn't be built at all, anywhere? I doubt it. He just assumes that the construction of a new highway anywhere is an unnecessary evil.

I think that most of the local naturalists Greenberg interviewed would make the same assumption, which reflects their mission to protect nature wherever and whenever it can be found. And that's a central problem. In researching his book Greenberg immersed himself in their world, and by the time he started writing he couldn't see it from the outside. His immersion shows in small ways, as in his use of words such as "depauperate" and "ruderal" without defining them. And it shows in large ways, as in his unexamined assumptions. This limits the value of his otherwise excellent book. There's no logical connection between loving bogs and hating highways. One can value a bog over a highway--and still think that we may need more of both.

In our daily lives and routine decisions most of us do value both. The trick is to balance them properly. Learning more about the intricacies of bogs is an essential part of the process that most of us have skipped. Greenberg's great contribution is that he makes understanding nature easier for those of us who can't key out a plant to save our lives. Unfortunately he hasn't used his knowledge to show us how to take the next step.

Greenberg misses his chance again when he describes how drained marshes can be restored, which he favors. He reports that the states of Illinois and Indiana are at last cooperating in a multiyear Corps of Engineers study of the Great Kankakee Marsh, which once covered between 400,000 and 1,000,000 acres of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. The study includes proposals for a wildlife refuge and reconnecting the river with parts of its old meandering course. "If these and other conservation proposals reach fruition," he writes, "nearly a hundred thousand acres of the old marsh would be protected and subject to restoration. While no one is contemplating re-creating the marsh to its former size, the lollygagging river that looped its way through marshland and forest may once again become a reality and not merely the stuff of dreams."

Having made a reasonable case that too much of the Kankakee valley was drained to make farmland, Greenberg offers no help in deciding how much marsh would be enough. That's a shame. Weighing farmland against lollygagging rivers is hard to do, and few people even bother to try. For instance, on its Web site (www.twp.org) the Wildlands Project calls for "networks of wildlands from Central America to Alaska and from Nova Scotia to California" and looks forward to "the day when grizzlies in Chihuahua have an unbroken connection to grizzlies in Alaska; when wolf populations are restored from Mexico to the Yukon." The whole Great Kankakee Marsh wouldn't be big enough for them. Taking the other side on the issue, several northwest Indiana county boards objected to any restoration at all in the late 1990s, because they didn't want to lose any farmland. Evidently Greenberg has struck some balance between these extremes in his own mind, but how did he do it?

Greenberg praises suburban "cluster developments" in the Chicago area such as Prairie Crossing in Lake County, Illinois, and Coffee Creek in Porter County, Indiana. "Each of these developments," he writes, "will retain at least 40 percent of their areas as open space, and each treats and retains stormwater runoff on site to minimize flows into nearby waterways." He sees these developments as examples of how people can share space with nature. But of course they're also green-field developments with a very low density of people per acre--one definition of "sprawl." If they were developed more densely, or created on vacant urban land instead, they would have shared space with nature in a different and perhaps more significant way--by reducing the pressure to expand the suburban fringe. This is another kind of trade-off, and again, Greenberg doesn't discuss it.

Nature is still the underdog these days. Politically and economically, the dice are loaded in favor of highways and grain farmers and green-field developments. But if those of us who know and love caterpillars fail to think about trade-offs, then we won't be able to deal intelligently with those who know and love only Caterpillars.

A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg, University of Chicago Press, $40.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.

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