I’m driving my usual route to the prairie, which requires that I first tango with a slew of semi-trucks. Ironic, perhaps, but it comes with the package of twenty-first-century postindustrial land redevelopment, which includes a bit of industrialization. The truck traffic belongs mostly to CenterPoint Intermodal, what is now our nation’s largest multimodal inland port. I put up with the road rage and diesel fumes for the sake of volunteering at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which I’ve been doing for a year now. Just a couple of decades ago, this entire area was the site of two major Superfund clean-ups, following the decommissioning of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, described on the EPA’s Superfund website as “one of the largest and most productive ordnance complexes ever built.”
I weave through the wolf packs of eighteen-wheelers, continuing south on Route 53. Once I’ve passed the village of Elwood, traffic thins out significantly. The warehouse development wanes, too, a signal that I’m in the outer reaches of CenterPoint sprawl. Between Joliet and Elwood, enormous rectangular buildings have replaced entire cornfields, rising up behind old farmhouses and alongside semirural neighborhoods. Just as the last warehouse passes my side view mirror, the road gives way to gently rolling countryside marked with an unobtrusive U.S. Forest Service welcome sign.
As the road clears, my mind wanders. In this far southwest corner of Chicagoland, there have been, and still are, some unique “largests.” I consider the meaning of this word as I transition from one vast compartment of land use to the next. Midewin is another local giant: the largest protected piece of contiguous open space in northeastern Illinois, spanning roughly 30 square miles. With all of its industrious neighbors, though, there are times when Midwein feels smaller than its actual dimensions. Besides CenterPoint to the north, Midewin is also hemmed in by an active landfill (befittingly named Prairie View) as well as the ASIP Local 150 training center to the south, I-55 to the west, and conventional farmland to the east.
I pull into Midewin’s headquarters and report for duty with the other restoration crew members. This morning’s task is seed harvesting, which takes us to the far eastern side of the property to a section that’s not fully restored and off-limits to the public. On the way there, one of the staff tips us to the possibility of spotting an eagle’s nest with two fledglings. For many of us in the crew, the eagle’s nest is an unconfirmed rumor. We shift anxiously in our seats at the possibility of actually seeing it.
We emerge from our white forest service trucks to a hodgepodge landscape of invasive shrubs, mature trees, and semi-restored fields. Unmistakable, in the limbs of a bare tree, the king-sized nest is in plain view from where we’re parked, maybe a quarter mile away. A pair of binoculars would be handy, but we’re able to squint out the shape of what could be a large bird perched on the nest’s edge. A few of us venture several steps into the brush, hoping for a better view. Our suspicions are confirmed as a great winged figure breaks away from the mass of branches, taking off and out of sight—an understandably skittish response to the presence of people in this seldom-visited area.
With the eagle gone from view, we turn and go about seed harvesting. We work harmoniously together, with heartfelt love for this historical piece of land and our home, the Prairie State. Though the hours we put in on a single day are but a blink in the decades-long restoration plan, a sense of reward is already palpable among us volunteers and staff.
Personally, contributing time to Midewin has brought me a strong sense of place, and an even stronger sense of belonging to a place—that is, northeastern Illinois. Growing up a nature-lover in a nearby blue collar city with smokestacks in the skyline, I struggled with my own local identity. Having a hand in the restoration process here has taught me more than the particulars of prairie ecology; the overall experience has connected me to an authentic landscape and to a broad community of caring citizens and professionals who want to ensure Midewin’s future as a fully restored tallgrass prairie. It is a vision that extends beyond many of our lifetimes, but one that we share faith in.
With the morning’s first round of seed collecting complete, we pile back into the trucks and pull slowly away, hoping to spot the eagle again. Sure enough, the bird perches in a tree not far off the road, and had been keeping tabs the whole time, making sure of our departure. This close, we can see the white head, almost invisible against the cloudy autumn sky. Just as soon as our short caravan passes, the cautious sentinel lifts and flies homeward. I guess our visit to this neck of the woods was too close for comfort, for a bird whose species was once on the brink of extinction and is now making a home and livelihood here on a fragment of habitat amidst a sprawling human domain.
I want to know if the eagle will continue to stay here or not. I want it to feel that it belongs here. I want it to know that there were times in my life when I felt skittish, too.
How odd it is that a place can feel, simultaneously, cramped and open. Nevertheless, a moment like this, within eyeshot of a bald eagle, suggests that even a trapezoid of postindustrial, partially restored grassland may someday flourish beyond the sum of its parts. I’ll count the eagle’s presence as a hopeful sign.