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RPC Eco-letter 0.2: prairie

Looking at our Particular Place

Talk about “creation care” or “saving the planet” can get too abstract. We can't really have a meaningful relationship with the planet as a whole. To help us get more grounded, activist theologian Ched Myers calls on churches to pay attention to the specific places that we inhabit. I hope to help us do that in this newsletter. In this post, I’ll look at prairies—why they are valuable, how we lost them, and ways to protect and restore them.

Past Prairies

At one time, the land west of Chicago was part of a 170 million acre prairie. Less than 1% remains today. It’s hard to imagine the immensity of that missing landscape. Early settlers risked getting lost in what they described as a hypnotic, mesmerizing sea of grass. These prairies hosted a highly diverse web of life with complicated, dynamic interactions. Fire, started by lightning or intentionally set by Native Americans, played a major role in shaping the land. Plants survived and thrived in these fires because 75-80% of the organic material grew underground, with some roots reaching 10-15 feet deep. Prairies were resilient landscapes

Losing the Prairie

John Deere’s steel plow provided settlers with the technical ability to cut through the dense prairie, but I’m more interested in the mindset that led them to convert almost all of that land for agricultural use. My Mennonite ancestors came to Indiana and Iowa in the mid-1800s, less than ten years after the native people were forcibly removed (Potawatomi in Indiana, Sauk and Fox in Iowa). They undoubtedly thought they were following God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” In their mind, their farming would improve and redeem the land. But just as they failed to recognize the native inhabitants as fully human, the settlers must not have seen that the prairie was sacred creation already, not requiring improvement. Or perhaps, no matter the feelings of individual settlers, the grain market had a life of its own, requiring the maximization of profit like a demanding,h insatiable god. In what ways are we like these settler families? How are we different? How can we begin to remedy the damage done? I don’t have the full answer and I will continue to revisit these bigger questions. For now, I will suggest three ways to preserve and restore the prairie.

Conserve what’s left

The first step is to save what still exists. The Chicago-Rockford Airport plans on an expansion that will destroy the Bell Bowl Prairie. The site is small, about 5 acres, but “contains some of the most intact and undisturbed natural plant communities found anywhere in the state of Illinois.” Advocates have delayed the construction until March 1st, but the airport still plans on bulldozing the prairie. Please consider contacting your elected officials and ask them to work with the airport to find a solution that preserves this rare ecosystem.

Thanks to Kate Pannella for the above photo of Midewin!

Volunteer to Restore

In addition to conservation, we can restore habitat. Naturalists and volunteers have been doing amazing work to bring the prairie back. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “It’s not enough to just remember, we have to re-member, reclaim the lost members of the family of life.” One of the more interesting restoration projects in the region is the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The site was once owned by the Joliet Arsenal, makers of mines, bombs, and ammunition since WWII. Since then, volunteers and staff have done amazing work--collecting seeds, planting, and setting controlled fires. It now supports a diversity of plants, birds, butterflies and even an introduced herd of bison. Returning agricultural land to prairie doesn’t mean we can’t still feed people. According to Kimmerer, “Today, less than 10% of the US corn crop finds its way directly to your plate. More than half is used to produce ethanol and the rest is fed to livestock.” We can still produce enough food and restore natural habitats. And please note that prairie restoration does not replace the need for conservation. The diversity found in a prairie remnant like Bell Bowl took thousands of years to form and is not easily replaced. If you want to get involved in this kind of work locally, consider volunteering to help restore prairie, savanna, and forest habitats in the Cook County Forest Preserves.

Convert Lawn to a Micro-Prairie

My last suggestion is to plant native plants on a portion of our lawns. A single yard cannot support the life of the a large prairie, but it can certainly make an impact if enough people catch the vision. Doug Tallamy is calling for a property owners to plant 20 million acres of native plants to add up to what he calls a homegrown national park. The effort would help regenerate biodiversity, sequester carbon, support pollinators, and manage water. Best of all, it’s a way we can engage now (or in the spring at least) with our hands and bodies even in our urban setting. And maybe it's a way we can carve out space for wilderness among us, a place to recognize creation as sacred gift.

Other Recommended Reading and News

  • Faith in Place is holding a lobby day February 18th. This is a great opportunity to speak to legislators about environmental justice concerns.

  • Feminist author bell hooks, who passed away in December, wrote this article for Orion in 1996. A quote: “Collective black self-recovery takes place when we begin to renew our relationship to the earth, when we remember the way of our ancestors. When the earth is sacred to us, our bodies can also be sacred to us.”

  • A recent study says chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary.” This is grim news.

  • This RoundTable article highlights the environmental justice issue of lead pipes in Evanston.

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