With all of the disarray and confusion that we seem to be experiencing each day, have you ever wondered “is it worth it?” COVID-19 has forced us to focus on what normally would be something quite esoteric. Did I wash my hands? Am I too close to that person? Did I remember my facemask?
I think we all are suffering a bit from trying to survive in this “new normal” that we are faced with. Coping with the reality of a pandemic has affected each of us in one way or another. We all long for a release from these new preoccupations.
Last week, I had an opportunity to take a group of young adults out to what was likely the first native, Illinois prairie they had ever been to. Like everyone, they had been dealing with trying to live their lives under the threat of a pandemic. For people their age (between 18-24), this COVID time is particularly tough. How do I go to college? Are my parents healthy? Can I find a job?
This group of young adults were all crew members from AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). They have been doing work in our parks and conservation areas for the last couple of weeks. The work is hard, but meaningful. They had just put in a long couple of days building firebreaks at Singing Woods Nature Preserve. They needed a break themselves, so it was off to see a real Illinois prairie.
We left Singing Woods and traveled west through Peoria County. It was a beautiful fall day, and the trip was full of fall color and the activity of harvest. Corn and soybeans are aplenty in western Peoria County. After several miles through the rolling farm fields, we come to Brimfield Rail Road Prairie Nature Preserve. This is a narrow strip of long-abandoned railroad right-of-way that is about 100 feet wide and ½ mile long. It is surrounded by farm fields. It is the one piece of earth within the expansive view that has not been disturbed by the plow. It is adorned with hundreds of species of native prairie plants –– the last remnant of what once stretched form horizon to horizon. We all sat along the country road at the edge of the prairie and talked about the history and ecology of the prairie. We guessed what it must have been like for the first humans who experienced an ocean of wildflowers. Yet this last narrow alley of prairie between two corn fields is all that is left. It was kind of sad, really. To have only this tiny speck of “what used to be” to show these young people. How could past generations have been so greedy to take almost all of it?
Our small group walked into the prairie. Warm autumn breezes were making the grasses dance and ripple like waves on the water. I gave them a challenge at this point. I wanted them to do a little mindful meditation in the prairie. Each person found a spot in the prairie that they liked. They sat down among the tall grasses, and for the next 10 minutes, they did nothing but experience the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that the prairie offered them. The solitude offered by the prairie was something that they had never experienced. Each came away with something that they didn’t expect. Some of the comments they shared at the end of the experience will stay with me forever.
One shared how grounded he felt with the experience. How the silence gave way to a new understanding of sound. Wind, rattling grass stalks, rustling plants, and birds all filled the void and brought a feeling of connection to the prairie.
Another shared how she felt like she was on top of a mountain. Nestled in the prairie grasses, there was no limit to her view from horizon to horizon. She felt like the tallest being on the landscape. With the corn and beans out of her view, it was like the prairie went on forever.
Yet another shared how much he realized that his mind was a noisy place. It took a while for his thoughts to relax. He said that the experience was the most peaceful he has felt in a long time. It was the quietest his brain has ever been.
Another of the youth let the warm sunlight and gentle breeze relax him into a slumber. Within a minute he was fast asleep. Coming from a big-city, he regretted never having taken the time to relax, cradled in the arms of prairie plants, and let the warm sun and wind put him to sleep. It is something that kids from the city never get a chance to do.
Each experienced something different. Each walked away with a new connection to the Illinois Prairie. But all had one thought in common. They all wanted to thank whoever had the forethought to save this little patch of prairie. I’m sure that Hal Gardner, the person who saved this little patch of prairie, would be grateful to know that his efforts to save the prairie would have such impact on these visitors. I’m also confident that these young people will be inspired to carry forward the inspiration they experienced. One told me, “This is why we do what we do.” Indeed it is!