Nature Rambles | The common connection



As a blustery March gives way to the hope of spring, we look forward to an April of warmer temperatures and some greenery in an otherwise sleeping landscape. Already, birds are migrating in support of the coming changes in the season. This year, there has been a record number of Snow Geese in migration and they have been thrilling birders who make the trek to The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County. On March 11, Illinois Natural History Survey’s aerial team counted 260,000 Snow Geese in the vicinity of Emiquon. This is a monumental number of birds and a real testament to the resilience of nature. It has only been a little over a decade since the restoration of Thompson and Flag was initiated, and already it has become one of the nation’s environmental success stories.

It goes to show that there is room for optimism when it comes to the environment. A look at the timeline of the history of the Emiquon Preserve tells an interesting tale. There are several things that stand out on this timeline. One being in the 1920s when the levee system was constructed to separate several thousands of acres of bottomland from the Illinois River and the area was drained for row-crop agriculture. When the pumps were turned on in 1924 and Thompson and Flag lakes were drained, over 1,800,000 pounds of fish were destroyed, along with their habitat. A bookend to this is when in 2007, after a lot of land acquisitions by both The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the pumps were turned off and the restoration of Thompson and Flag Lakes began.

There are also several entries along the timeline where staff from the Illinois State Museum are researching archeological sites in the region. It shows that there has been human use of the region since the last ice-age over 10,000 years ago. We know something of the past civilizations of Emiquon from the tools and artifacts they left behind; Tools of stone, bits of pottery made from clay, wood used in the construction of dwellings, sculptures carved from stone that are evidence to a creative culture and mindset. But we are still in the dark as to the daily thoughts, dreams and desires of those countless generations of inhabitants of the Emiquon region. If we could have a reunion of every culture or civilization that has existed at Emiquon, what would the discussion around the dinner table be like? We would all have a common thread of our humanity in a location, but would we be able to relate and appreciate the varying viewpoints?

This is a question that some in Illinois are attempting to answer. In Jo Daviess County, in northwest Illinois, there are several effigy mounds that are being protected by the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF), a local land trust that is involved with the acquisition and preservation of several natural areas in that region. Steve Barg, JDCF executive director, had the idea to connect and contrast the generations of native culture with those of the recent euro-culture. Steve feels that a land trust’s responsibility goes beyond simply acquiring and protecting land. In a recent talk at the Vital Lands Illinois Summit in January, he said, “Our efforts as a land trust fall flat if we don’t explore the culture and spiritual connections to the land.” In doing so, he reached out to the nearby Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Together the JDCF and the Ho-Chunk Nation developed a series of field and lecture experiences to explore our shared connections with the land.

The past president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Chloris Lowe, became a real resource and champion of this effort. Beyond the cultural exchange that is taking place between the native cultures and the euro culture in the region, there is an emerging dialogue of the human condition. Why are people falling in love with a landscape regardless of their origin? At the January Vital Lands Illinois Summit, he also presented with Steve Barg. Cloris pointed out a couple of profound ideas. He said, “The current people in the land trust community are the latest generation, in a long line of generations, that are the caretakers of the land.” Further, he presented an idea that gets to the root of all of our shared existence. “There are no inanimate objects in nature. The earth is a closed system. Human Beings are ultimately reorganizers of everything that earth gives us.”

This is true of everything we have today. Whether it is a stone that is reshaped into a spear point, or the carbon, precious metals, and sand that are reshaped into a smart-phone. We are manipulating the earth into tools that we need, or desire. The same thing happens with the land. Emiquon was once a land that provided sustenance in the form of fish. It was reshaped into a land that grew crops, and today it is now being reshaped back into a land that provides habitat. It seems obvious to me, when looking back at the history of Emiquon, where we have allowed for a spiritual and cultural connection to the land, we become caretakers. The times when we do not foster this connection are the times when hubris thrives. Like it or not, we are the latest generation that are the caretakers of the land. How will future generations describe our connection to the land? Will we be angels or demons?

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