Field & Street | Our Town | Chicago Reader

City Life » Our Town

Field & Street


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


In the 70s, when Rufino Osorio was just a teenager, he used to take the Montrose Avenue bus west out to the Des Plaines River. He would scout the woodland openings for remnants of the vast prairie that once spread out there, before O'Hare and Woodfield and Morton Grove existed. That is what Osorio liked to do, comb the groves for native plants and grasses, newts and foxes. On one of these searches he found an isolated colony of orchids, lovely, creamy white, showy things raising up their stalks in a sun-spattered opening. Later he called the Audubon Society, told them about his discovery, and asked if they couldn't help protect it.

By chance, Steve Packard had been foraging the Audubon around that time for workers to join his North Branch Prairie Project, a fledgling initiative to train lay naturalists in the art of natural areas restorations by participating in long-term planning, research, and labor at sites along the Chicago River. The person at Audubon who had taken Osorio's call and filed it on the stack of requests and inquiries gave the number to Packard. The two connected, and the young man described the orchid.

It turned out to be Platanthera leucophaea, the eastern prairie fringed orchid, a rare and threatened native. P. leucophaea reportedly had widespread distribution in our area at one time, from the Mississippi on the west up a peninsula-shaped range that stretched to Maine in the east.

But by the 70s the species had been reduced to scattered remnants in nature preserves and a few depauperate wasteland areas, and was waiting for the ax of extinction to fall, ending its moment on earth. It became a project for Osorio, Packard, and the NBPP. They studied and consulted with scientists to learn as much about the plant's ecology as possible.

Part of the problem was that P. leucophaea was having a hard time finding its pollinator, moths of the Sphingidaea, or hawkmoth, family. (I wrote about one member of that family last month, Manduca quinquemaculata, the common tomato hornworm.) The hawkmoths have evolved in intimate association with orchids. Their long proboscis and powerful flight muscles allow them to hover before the blossom and reach down into the long orchid column for a sweet dollop of nectar. The proboscis comes out with the orchid's pollen-bearing organs, the pollinia, attached, ready to dust the next blossom. Shrinking prairie habitat had reduced populations of both species to the point where they weren't accomplishing the rendezvous, and most P. leucophaea plants were failing to produce seed.

Packard worked at the Natural Land Institute, an ecological research and advocacy organization based in Rockford. He learned how to pollinate the orchid from a colleague there, Marlin Bowles. The technique involved carefully inserting wooden toothpicks down the orchid's blossom columns to dislodge the sticky pollinia. The toothpicks were then transported by poking their other ends into a Styrofoam cup or hamburger box. The pollen was used to cross-fertilize neighboring plants. The technique produced a bounty of ripe seed capsules in the fall, each containing up to 10,000 microscopic seeds.

P. leucophaea was on the state's endangered species list. But no plan existed to restore the population. No implementation mechanism was in existence. The list functioned like a roll call of the doomed, those waiting to be moved to the "extirpated" list.

A biologist from the University of Chicago speaking at the Chicago Botanic Garden said he felt that techniques were well developed for the greenhouse raising of orchids. Saving endangered species, in his view, amounted to finding seed or plant individuals and raising batches of them, by the thousands, under controlled conditions, away from the prairie. Packard was there, and later supplied the biologist with some of the precious seed capsules. Germination was accomplished but the plants failed to thrive, the complexities of their life history inadequately understood.

In the meantime Packard performed what seemed to him a modest and practical experiment. He mixed the tiny seeds with coarse cornmeal to separate them, scooped them up with a teaspoon, and flung them out at protected prairie sites among plants typically associated with the orchid. Two years later the first successfully restored P. leucophaea plants ever reported were found where he had broadcast the seed.

By 1989 the plant qualified for federal protected status as a threatened species. Under the federal law a recovery plan was required, and it was subsequently written by Bowles and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is being implemented under a small grant to the Volunteer Stewardship Network, a statewide initiative of the Nature Conservancy modeled on the North Branch Prairie Project. Packard, now science director at the Nature Conservancy, and Laurel Ross, northern Illinois field representative, have organized a band of human hawkmoths to hand-pollinate the blossoms, collect and broadcast seed, gather data, and survey sites for new plants and old colonies. The plan aims to bolster existing orchid population numbers through the techniques described above; to establish new colonies on the basis of Packard's successful efforts; to protect privately owned sites that are subject to the vagaries of economic pressure and land use; and to initiate ecological management at selected sites: brush removal, weed management, and controlled burning to maintain habitat that will support the species.

What a happy story! But not all happy. One of the quiet dramas being acted out is the friction between the academic-research community, traditionally looked to for answers about nature, and the nascent movement of lay natural-land workers--"citizen scientists" as Gerould Wilhelm, research field taxonomist at the Morton Arboretum, calls them. In an address to volunteers of the North Branch Prairie Project, reprinted in its journal Prairie Projections, Wilhelm gave his reckoning of what was happening:

"Initially, Land Stewards relied heavily upon expert ecologists and natural scientists to advise them on how to manage and curate these natural areas of the North Branch. But it soon became apparent that these latter-day shamans had only a limited awareness and fragmented knowledge of the realities of the place. Products themselves of modern civilization, these scientists often seemed to lack an empathy for the land, and their training had not equipped them to integrate the Human Being with the land. There was much disagreement among them and much dogma which seemed to conflict with what the Land Stewards observed. As the years passed, the Land Stewards attended to the place of the North Branch. They studied it and learned about the life there. They saw how the land responded to their care, noting what kinds of attention brought forth life and what kinds caused the lands to give up life.

"The Human Beings of the North Branch began to assume a gentle dominion over the land, not a dominance or Godlike rule, but a stewardship. Ever more shrewd in their observations, they began to manage the land according to their own experience. They studied the land and its life intently. They drew from the knowledge of scientists. They drew from the stories of the native plants and animals themselves. The Stewards indexed success by the extent to which life flourished and the fecundity of the lands of the North Branch burgeoned."

Orchid restoration is only one small part of the fecund success enjoyed by Packard and Ross and the Volunteer Stewardship Network, now numbering almost 5,000 workers in Illinois. Thirty thousand acres in the state are under volunteer stewardship. Over 200 sites have established plans for restoring diversity and a sense of sacred connection to the land. These stewardship activities, based on mentoring relationships and cooperative work, are part classroom learning, part laboratory research, part poetry and song in the prairies and savannas. Among the other miracles accomplished is the growth of cooperative relations between the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Preserve District, an organism with phylogenetic links to the Cook County patronage system.

These not-too-shabby accomplishments were reported in the July 1993 issue of Science, the journal of the American Academy of Sciences.

But the praise evoked a piqued response from some restorationists whose approach is more embedded in the temple of science.

"Packard's efforts are not scientific studies in the same way that farming is not agricultural research. Even if he is able to establish something resembling a savanna, there will be scant objective information to tell us how to proceed with the next restoration."

The letter signed onto by a quartet of real scientists headed up by Roger C. Anderson, biologist at Illinois State University at Normal, continues by saying that real scientific restoration efforts have already been worked out by real scientists, as a result of which "today we can restore prairies with relative ease."

William Jordan III, editor of Restoration and Management Notes at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, answered these charges in a letter to Science: "It is important to recognize that much valuable work is done and valuable insights are achieved by practitioners working under conditions that make formal research and publication difficult. This is true...especially in such a field as ecology, where the subjects of study tend to be highly variable and insight often depends on the kind of intimacy that is readily available to the craftsman but may elude the researcher.

"Packard's work is a case in point. It is well documented and reflects not only meticulous attention to the outcome of innumerable experiments but also a close relationship with large numbers of projects carried out under a variety of conditions and over considerable periods of time.

"These conditions are notoriously difficult to achieve in a traditional research setting..."

Perhaps these squabbles are the inevitable by-product of growth, and precursors of an accommodation between the two groups. Of course, as in nature, nobody fits squarely in either group.

Packard's own mentor was Robert Betz, of Northeastern Illinois University, a visionary biochemist who's credited as founder of the prairie restoration movement.

Says Packard, "Betz is a professor. But he didn't think academics had all the answers. In fact he encouraged any serious person to go out into the field and see what he could do. His passion and openness inspired a lot of people to accomplish fine things in science and conservation. He gave us confidence, which is a kind of liberation."

In August, as you stand in the prairie on a sunshiny day, especially after a rain, a scent rises up from the ground warm and sweet as your lover's breath, mountain mint and yarrow. In those prairie openings people like Rufino Osorio and plants like the prairie fringed orchid find open ground to take root and thrive. Prairie restoration is not only about plants and butterflies and coyotes. People are being restored there, too.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment