Book Review: ‘Exploring Nature in Illinois’ unveils the natural beauties in our own back yard
By Susan Johnson
If you’ve ever thought of taking a vacation (or even a weekend camping trip or excursion) in the state of Illinois, you should check out Exploring Nature in Illinois: A Field Guide to the Prairie State by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post. While our neighboring states have many natural attractions that draw numerous visitors every year, it’s easy to overlook the beauties that may lie undiscovered in our own back yard.
Exploring Nature in Illinois can be the gateway to previously unseen and underappreciated areas of this Midwestern state, whose nickname reflects just a minuscule part of the area it encompasses. As the authors state in their preface, “we have come to appreciate not necessarily the wilderness of our state (there is little or none of that left); but the wildness. The difference between the two lies only in perception.”
They point out that, though Illinois ranks 49th among the states in land that remains in relatively natural condition (pre-1800), with development covering 99.93 percent of its area, still there are spots that serve as windows to the past. Jeffords and Post have traversed the state to identify nearly 100 different habitat types and more than 54,000 species of organisms. Some of these are in protected nature preserves, state and national landmarks, or simply forgotten corners of farm fields, rail corridors or in pioneer cemeteries.
Originally, Illinois consisted of approximately 60 percent prairie (from very wet to very dry) and 40 percent forest. Its location on the North American continent has allowed for considerable habitat diversity and an unusually large number of species. It has been marked by glaciers, the two most recent being the Illinois Glacial Episode, which melted about 130,000 years ago and covered 90 percent of the state, and the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, which melted about 12,000 years ago and covered the state’s northeastern quarter.
This is a truly gorgeous, informative, educational volume. In the 49 chapters, each devoted to a different natural area of the state, you will find an overview of the history of each area, a mini map showing its location by the nearest highways, descriptions of flora and fauna, visitor attractions, and an introductory paragraph addressing some highlight of the area in that chapter. This book is divided into three sections: North, Central and South, plus an epilogue of “Your Own Backyard,” two appendices and an index. Exploring Nature in Illinois is loaded with an amazing variety of incredibly beautiful color photographs of scenic vistas, close-up vignettes of wildflowers in bloom, wildlife of all varieties, throughout the seasons of spring, summer and fall.
Two areas that are closest to us in northern Illinois are Harlem Hills Nature Preserve and Nachusa Grasslands. As they say, “Harlem Hills is not only the state’s best example of a gravel terrace prairie, but it is also the largest, containing two-thirds of the state’s remaining gravel prairie habitat.” This chapter has photos of prairie smoke seed heads, purple coneflowers and pasque flowers in early spring.
Nachusa Grasslands was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 1986, starting with 250 acres. Today, it consists of 3,500 acres on the county line between Ogle and Lee counties. It is bordered on the south by Franklin Creek Natural Area, on the north by Castle Rock State Park and Lowden-Miller State Forest, owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It isn’t entirely a prairie, and the landscape shows what Illinois was like during pre-European settlement. It has remnants of rolling prairies, oak woodlands and wetlands. One of its distinguishing features is areas of bedrock outcrops (knobs), rounded, erosional remnants of St. Peter’s sandstone. Nachusa Grasslands contains 60 percent grassland, 30 percent woodland, and 10 percent wetland and stream habitats. It supports nearly 550 native species of plants.
Michael Jeffords is the retired education/outreach director for the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) and was staff photographer for The Illinois Steward magazine. Susan Post is a retired INHS research scientist and staff writer for The Illinois Steward and author of Hiking Illinois. They are co-authors of Illinois Wilds.
Exploring Nature in Illinois: A Field Guide to the Prairie State (ISBN: 978-0-252-07990-0) retails for $24.95. It is available at press.uillinois.edu, at amazon.com or can be ordered through a bookstore.
From the Sept. 3-9, 2014, issue