By Don Miller
I have always given credit to my parents for creating an interest in the natural world in me. When I was young, my family went on a few spectacular trips to the scenic west. However, it was the visits to local areas that allowed me to develop a strong sense of place and grow up with an appreciation for the natural world. Paul Gruchow in his book, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, shows the difference between scenery and place: “scenery is something you have merely looked at, place is something you have experienced.” A sense of place is an extension of home.
We need to cultivate the concept of home and broaden it to the surrounding natural communities. By getting to know an area, becoming familiar with it in all its inhabitants and through all the seasons, an awareness can be developed that leads to a sense of place. Richard Nelson in his book The Island Within states, “There may be more to learn by climbing one mountain one hundred times, than by climbing one hundred different mountains.” We must take time to explore our “backyards.” We essential to learn to pace our lives, relax and absorb what is around us. There are plenty of adventures to undertake close to home.
How fortunate we who live in this north-central Illinois region are and how few really know how lucky in an ecological and recreational way we are to be in this area. If we can extend our backyard opportunities that exist to explore we would find over 10,000 acres located in the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. Rockford Park District owns 5,000 total acres of land that includes 900 acres of forested natural area. Rock Cut State Park covers 3,000 acres, enveloping over 200 acres of open water in the form of Pierce Lake and Olson Lake, and the Natural Land Institute owns 1,200 acres just in Winnebago and Ogle Counties. There are also close to 2,200 acres included within the Byron Forest Preserve District and over 3,200 acres located in Boone County Conservation District properties. A person can find themselves paddling over 90 miles on five riverways in the region. There are many other great public and private spots to experience nature encounters.
In today’s world of fast paced, high tech and instant gratification, one must make time for the elemental pleasures. There is way too much TV, computer, and so on. Only when we attain a sense of place will we realize the value of our natural communities. We need to extend our backyards to recognize the significance of our local rivers, prairies, woods and other open areas in our community. I hope that more of us realize these treasures we have in our region. Those areas allow us to slow up and calm down, to create memories, to see the beauty around us. They allow us to feel a connection, to learn and appreciate the other life forms we share it with. Ultimately they teach us to live in a region that we have a sense of place with and that we can be proud to call home. I have seen it written that a “place” is a spot with a story. We need to start making those stories happen.
I invite you to get out of your house and attend one or all the “2017 Wildflower Walkabouts – Explore North Central Illinois,” starting in April and continuing into June. The walks are co-sponsored by Severson Dells Nature Center and Natural Land Institute, check their websites to see the calendar. Hope to see you on the trail or on the river.
Don Miller is a nature educator and has lived his entire life in north central Illinois. He has explored by foot and canoe this area for over 55 years. He has received the distinguished “Atwood Award” and the Illinois Environmental Education Association’s “Malcolm D. Swan Award for Outstanding Service Award.”