By Jerry Sullivan
I have been studying what was here before we current inhabitants of Chicagoland arrived, what lived on the land before we transformed it into cornfields, pastures, Norwood Park, Floodplain Manor, the Ford assembly plant, and the Proviso rail yard.
Early accounts of life in the Prairie State often described the landscape in general terms. The most detailed come from the survey reports of the U.S. government's land office made between about 1820 and 1840. In those days the federal government was essentially a real estate agency. Taxes were almost nonexistent, because much of the revenue the government needed came from land sales. But before they could sell it they had to survey it. Using a system devised by Thomas Jefferson, the land office subdivided every survey tract into six-mile-square townships and one-mile-square sections.
The surveyors had one of the worst jobs in the world. They waded through swamps under clouds of mosquitoes, lived on hardtack and bacon when they couldn't get game, and had to work hard to meet their quota of section lines surveyed. They also had one of the best jobs in the world. They wandered over northeastern Illinois through prairies decorated with blazing stars and bobolinks, stopped for lunch under the gnarled limbs of giant bur oaks, nodded off to sleep while wolves sang in the distance. It would beat the hell out of staring at a computer screen all day.
An ecologist looking to learn as much as he could and as fast as he could about a new place would set up transects, straight lines like those Jefferson's system demanded. Our ecologist would then study the vegetation along the transect lines, assembling a picture of the whole landscape by extrapolating from that sample.
The surveyors did essentially the same thing, walking Jefferson's lines and recording every significant shift in vegetation along the way. So we read of section lines that were so many chains of "prairie fit for cultivation" (chains were the surveyors' standard unit of measure; each chain was 88 feet long, and there were 60 chains to the mile), followed by "well-timbered" land for a few more chains and then maybe some marshland. The surveyors marked each section corner and the half-mile point on each section line by locating it in relation to nearby "witness trees." These trees were marked with blazes, and the surveyors' notes record their species, size, and direction and distance from the point.
We can learn a lot about what was here then by studying these witness trees. The surveyors would pick the largest and nearest trees, so if they had to go 50 feet and the tree they chose was only eight inches in diameter we can safely conclude that timber was sparse and trees were small on that spot. On prairies where there were no trees at all the points were marked with heaps of charcoal.
The species of the witness trees tell us something about the kind of woods that surrounded these points. In a paper presented at the fifth Midwest Prairie Conference in 1976 Robbin Moran constructed a map of the presettlement vegetation of Lake County, Illinois, based on surveyors' reports. The surveyors recorded 2,240 witness trees of 21 species in the county, though 90 percent of those were bur, black, and white oak. Trees that are now common, such as black cherries and basswoods, were evidently quite scarce then. Only 11 basswoods show up as witness trees and just two black cherries.
The map strongly supports the idea of a landscape shaped by fire, with the fire-resistant oaks dominating the wooded lands and the fire-sensitive cherries and basswoods confined to areas where the topography provided fire protection. Much of the county was open savanna. The surveyors use terms like "scattering timber" to describe these open groves. On average they had to go 30 meters from the surveyed point to find a witness tree in this sort of surroundings.
Philip Hanson of the Field Museum did a study similar to Moran's of the Chicago lake plain, the flat former lake bottom where most of the city stands. Early travelers wrote that you could see the trees along the Des Plaines River from the lakeshore at the mouth of the Chicago River, and Hanson's map bears out that description.
If you had started west from the lakefront along the section line that became North Avenue you would have begun in a black oak savanna on the sands near the shore. The savanna would continue west to a point just past Clybourn. There, on low ground protected from fire by the river just to the west, you would enter a floodplain forest of silver maple and basswood. When you reached the bank of the sparkling clear Chicago River you could look ahead at prairie--much of it wet--stretching to the Des Plaines River.
Crossing that prairie, you could look north to around Foster and Pulaski where the Bohemian National Cemetery is now and see what was probably the only patch of sugar maple forest on the plain. Beyond it, stretching all the way to Wilmette, was an oak-hickory woods.
The local history I was taught paid little attention to the native landscape. We were given a vision of darkness illuminated briefly and intermittently by the writings of Marquette and Jolliet, La Salle, and an assortment of other French, English, and American visitors who gave us glimpses of what was here between 1673 and about 1800. Real history began with Fort Dearborn and ended in massacre. It rose again in the 1830s when an assortment of hustlers--all convinced that Chicago was going to be a very lively location--began buying and selling large tracts of underwater real estate.
In places where the major scenic attractions are 10,000-foot pointed rocks you can get away with some reckless disregard for the rest of nature. Here in northeastern Illinois local history nearly obliterated the local landscape. We lost all but one of our big mammals. Only white-tailed deer survive from a fauna that included bison, elk, black bear, timber wolf, and puma. We lost wild turkeys, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, passenger pigeons, bald eagles, ravens, and swallow-tailed kites. No one could begin to guess how many insects departed. Many of our native plants have been reduced to the status of rarities. They hang on in a few lucky spots that have escaped the general carnage, but are missing from hundreds of locations where they used to thrive.
As a culture, we haven't even kept that landscape alive as memory. Indeed, it vanished so quickly we don't have any memories to keep alive. We look on fields of Hungarian brome and Queen Anne's lace and white sweet clover and begin to see these botanical refugee camps as nature. Having no memories or attachments to the particularities of this place, we look on trees and fields as generic. Bur oak or Lombardy poplar, a tree is a tree. The people with memories--the Native Americans--were rounded up and shipped off to reservations west of the Mississippi. Aside from the moral quality of that act, intellectually it was the equivalent of burning down a library.
We now, belatedly, realize that the beautiful, rich, enormously diverse natural landscape of northeastern Illinois depended on human actions for its survival. The fires that shaped the land were, to a considerable extent, set by human beings. The Potawatomi and their predecessors on this land were engaged in managing natural areas. The pernicious national myth that North America was an empty continent just waiting for us to supply it with people has prevented us from seeing this.
We also think of nature as a thing we encounter only on the battlefield. We are at war with nature. We intervene only to destroy. Our ignorance of a local history before the French came combines with our bellicose attitudes about humanity and nature to create a fatal estrangement. Our attempts to reestablish the connection that used to exist between people and the rest of nature in northeastern Illinois, and in the process rescue the great natural beauty and diversity that ought to be our heritage, can become a matter of controversy. When plans are announced to restore savanna conditions to a forest preserve, people in the area often start screaming, mostly because they don't have any idea what savanna conditions are. They demand to know why restorers seem to worry so much about oak trees, which is like demanding to know why northern Californians get so worked up about redwoods or why people in Tucson get excited about saguaro cactus.
My own biases in this area should be clear to anybody who has been reading my columns over the years. I have been involved in ecological restoration for close to 20 years, sometimes as a paid worker but mostly as a volunteer. I have seen the results of restoration in preserves all over this region. I would invite everyone to go look at the land. Restoration works, and if you take the time to look you can see it working.