THE WAY IT WAS

When the early settlers arrived in Illinois, they were astounded by the beauty of the landscape. Their notes described prairies filled with brilliant wildflowers and “groves of noble oaks” that dotted the land. They spoke of driving their wagons through widely spaced trees, and being able to see for hundreds of yards into the woodlands. The land was a rich mosaic of prairies, savannas, woodlands and wetlands.

Over 1600 species of native plants were grouped in natural communities that had flourished here for thousands of years. Plants grow in habitats to which they are adapted, and the local flora and fauna of our region have been influenced by several major factors. One was the soil formed under the influence of the glaciers that left Illinois just 12-13,000 years ago. As glaciers melted and receded, they deposited the rocks and other debris that had been accumulated as they moved down from Hudson Bay. Those same glaciers left the moraines that encircle Lake Michigan, forming the rolling topography of the region.

Midwestern climate is characterized by extremes of temperature (cold winters and hot summers) and moisture (wet springs, drought periods in summer, lots of snow in winter). The other major natural process shaping the landscape was periodic fire. Some fires resulted from lightening strikes, others were deliberately set by native Americans, who found fire to be a useful tool. The plants and animals that inhabit this region are those that are adapted to (and selected by) not only the underlying mineral soils but also the extremes of weather and to periodic fires.

 

In all my life, I never saw or dreamed of so beautiful a sight as the rolling prairies. Nothing can equal the surpassing beauty of the rounded swells and the sunny hollows, the brilliant green of the grass, the numberless varieties and splendid hues of multitudes of flowers. I gazed in admiration too strong for words.

—Ellen Bigelow, 1835

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