Conservation Wisdom



A Personal Reminiscence
Ruth Riegel

I believe that Euell Gibbons’ books appeared in our house because my older brothers suddenly decided, somewhere in the mid-sixties, that knowing how to live off the land was a useful skill. I’m not sure why, as they seldom went camping, unless it validated an inclination to collect weaponry and pore over George Leonard Herter catalogs. At any rate, I also began to read Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Healthful Herbs with attention, and, to my pleasure, found that my best friend Lisa was also a Gibbons addict. At the age of 11 or so, we decided that we would prepare a wild feast.

One early spring day, armed with Wild Asparagus, we set out to collect whatever we could find to feed ourselves. We were aided, perhaps inspired, by a recent birthday gift: her father had given her a treasure—a tiny camping stove with a fitted lid that became a cookpot, and we were eager to try it out. We both had a slightly better than rudimentary knowledge of local plants, thanks to our parents, but we decided to stick to things that were easily identified and needed no more than boiling to be palatable. In case we were unsuccessful in our quest, we added some store-bought provisions: a large Hershey bar, teabags, and a coconut.

I had been intrigued by Gibbons’ chapter on eating Spring Beauty tubers, and we found an extensive stand of them. Mindful of his admonition to not destroy lovely flowers when other food is more readily available, we carefully dug our samples from a wide area, ending up with just enough tiny tubers to fill the bottom of her cookpot. We were lucky enough to find two or three small morels, the only spring mushroom either of us felt confident in identifying. Rounding off this first attempt at living off the land were the shoots of daylilies, which seemed to be in every roadside ditch. Lisa, a careful planner, had also brought along a stick of butter, which she rightly said would make anything taste better. With only one pot, we had to proceed with our meal in courses. We began with the tubers, first washing, then boiling them on the little stove, and I still remember how lovely and earthy the smelled as they cooked. We had to pop them out of their jackets, just like half-inch--long potatoes, getting the white inside slightly grimy with residual dirt. Doused with butter and salt, they were crunchy, slightly sweet, and delicious. We were wild food converts at that moment. The day lily shoots were next into the pot, and we agreed we’d never tasted a better green vegetable. To end, we tossed the morels in a little more butter and made short work of them. Tea, followed by chocolate, was followed by throwing our coconut at trees until it cracked and we could collect the juice and scrape out the meat. We weren’t hungry by then, but it was fun. We made many other wild food-gathering forays after that, trying, with mixed success, nettles, puffballs, acorns, smilax, sassafras, dandelions, violets, elderberries, persimmon, pawpaw, may-apples, and water lotus to name but a few, but the April spring-beauty-and-day-lily trek became an annual ritual.

I still enjoy gathering wild foods and collect books that discuss the subject. Here’s a recipe from The Weed Cookbook by Adrienne Crowhurst (Lancer Larchmont, 1972):

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Parts used: Young shoots, unopened flower clusters, unripe seed pods. Collect the shoots when young, usually early June. Tie them in bundles and boil 2 minutes in rapidly boiling salted water. Pour off this water, and boil another 10 minutes in fresh salted water. Serve with butter or oil and vinegar dressing. The unopened flower clusters may be served like broccoli, leaving the whole flowerhead intact. Cook the same way as the shoots, pouring off the first water. Unripe pods should be gathered while still green and tender, around the first of August. These should be boiled 20 minutes, changing the water several times. These are good with butter (of course!) but are also nice with a cream sauce, cheese sauce, or sour cream.


His name is familiar even to many lay people with an interest in biology, especially those whose interest runs to ants or to genetics as the basis of the evolution of species. Professor Emeritus at Harvard, the world’s leading expert on ants, author of 25 books, environmental advocate and secular humanist, Wilson is widely known for his insistence on the biological basis of all forms of social behavior among the few species of insects and vertebrates (including humans) that are “eusocial,” or “prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.”

“The Diversity of Life” (1992), traces the biological forces of evolution with examples from numerous species, through the periods of massive species extinctions, to the point where biodiversity reached its peak over the past 100 million years. Its core is a description of how species of common ancestry spread into different niches during the creation and change of ecosystems. Wilson’s most recent book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (2012), focuses on the evolution of what has become Homo sapiens, as well the evolution of eusocial ant species, and explains the creation of species sociality through natural selection. Both books are informative, entertaining experiences for the reader with little background in biology.
For Wilson, scientific humanism as informed by a continuous search for empirical knowledge is the only way to understand our growing knowledge of the world and the laws of nature. Species development is genetic, not altruistic, although it is informed by environmental stimuli. Ignorance of the real forces of nature, as well as acceptance of the myths of organized religion, therefore inhibit our learning because they inhibit the acceptance of science.

Because he is well-known and popular, Wilson is criticized for his science-based approach, religious objectors calling his views scientific materialism because he rejects creationism, and leftists calling his views racist and even misogynist because he does not allow for the dominance of cultural influences in evolution. His short 2006 book, “Creation,” attempts to counter opposition by explaining in a “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor” the science of evolution in language any non-scientist can understand.

His 2010 novel “Anthill,” describes the life of an ant colony from the point of view of the ants themselves as well as that of an amateur naturalist. Wilson appeals in all his writing for laypeople to conserve the biodiversity that is left to us before species die out at an even more rapid rate because of HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, overpopulation and overharvesting. He emphasizes that laws and regulations are too slow because of politics and litigation. The best way to pursue conservation is to locate the world’s hot spots, large areas of biodiversity, and try to protect them.

(Book reviews are by Larry Thorsen unless otherwise noted.)

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees. Discoveries from a Secret World. What They Feel, How They Communicate. Greystone Books, 2016

Do trees communicate with each other? Do they nourish their offspring? Are they “aware” of environmental stimuli? Peter Wohlleben, a forest manager in Germany, doesn’t go as far as claiming that trees “think,” but does suggest that they have sorts of natural, calculating responses as they react to stimuli. Their “communication” is through symbiotic relationships with fungi and other organisms in the underground mat as well as through the air. For example, tree trunks vibrate during water scarcity, expend unusually high amounts of energy to produce blossoms, and communicate with the young of their species that grow nearby through chemical changes and very slow electrical impulses. Acacia trees in Africa give off a gas that warns nearby acacias when giraffes are eating their leaves, and the trees pump toxins into their leaves that are distasteful to the giraffes. Wohlleben’s suggestion that these reactions constitute making choices in a calculating fashion is perhaps a stretch; but we know from recent research that up to half of the forest biomass is underground, and that there is continuous interaction down there. A handful of forest soil contains more life forms than there are humans on earth! Fungi connected to tree roots direct a tree’s cell growth to produce sugar and carbohydrates that nourish the fungi. Trees can tell their own roots from the roots of other species and have synergistic relationships that help them all get nourishment.

Wohlleben says that a forest creates its own ideal habitat as trees, plants, and other organisms that can live well together naturally appear over time. The human manager who thins crowded trees or clears out “unwanted” species is viewing forest “health” over a painfully short time period compared with the long, slow lives of trees, and is therefore working against forest health. The clearing of birch trees in Pacific Northwest Douglas fir forests has resulted in slower growth of the firs, as they no longer receive nutrients from birches though links in their roots. We clear sugar maple from our oak-hickory woodlands in Illinois to reduce shade and allow young oaks to grow where the absence of fire has allowed sugar maples to proliferate. Are we wrong to ignore long-term, natural development in favor of our short-term idea of what a forest should look like?

Our Obsession with the Perfect Lawn Is Not Fooling Mother Nature
by Diane Cole

In an article for the July 2, 1995 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Dennis Rodkin writes of the misguided American quest for the perfect lawn. Every spring the same scenario is played out across this vast nation. We seed, fertilize, and water the grass in hopes that it will grow. When it does, we whack it off. Then we replay the whole cycle. In our desire for the neighborhood lawn of the year award, we spray bug-killers and weed-killers that become ineffective because the bugs and weeds resist and evolve into super strains. Then, of course, we must escalate out methods of warfare, using stronger and stronger chemicals. Our American lawns cannot survive on their own. They are wusses. It seems that we have a need for our tidy lawns and our lawns definitely need us to survive. In the world of therapy, this is known as co-dependence.

The American lawn has its roots in European grasses, brought over in the 1600s. Kentucky bluegrass, the most commonly planted turfgrass in the US, is of European origin. These turfgrasses that we try to grow in our lawns are actually grazing grasses. Their evolution depended on the fact that, because the blades grow from the bottom up, chopping off their tops doesn’t halt their growth and, in return, the grazing animals provided the soil with nitrogen-rich manure. These plants also adapted to a sideways type growth, utilizing rhizomes underground. Another feature that these grasses enjoyed in northern Europe was a cool, very moist climate.

Well, we certainly do not have that cool, moist climate during our summer growing season and possessed men on lawn mowers have replaced the cattle, sheep, deer, and elk that grazed the turfgrasses of long ago. Our lawns cannot absorb water because of shallow root systems, so along with all the rainwater that runs off turfgrass as if it were running off concrete, it also carries all of those chemicals we have to use to make it grow. We don’t have room to discuss the flooding these grasses cause. Now is the time to kill your lawn.

Native prairie ecosystems developed over thousands of generations. Their deep root systems carry large amounts of water down into the soil quickly. During times of drought, those same deep roots tap into underground water systems to sustain themselves. Eventually, after you turn part of your lawn into native prairie, your startled neighbors will notice that birds and many other assorted creatures will be making a beeline to your yard. People who have turned even small areas of their lawns over to native prairie report over 50 different bird species that either nest or eat the countless berries and seeds. Insects, butterflies, and other critters find their own sort of heaven in a prairie habitat. We have killed the insects, friend or foe, in our chemical-dependent lawns. Our sickly lawns cannot support wildlife. Our native wildlife, from the tiniest microorganism to the imposing buffalo, coevolved with the native prairie plants as a complete picture. Each species of plant, animal, and microorganism adapted through time to fit into this particular ecosystem. Because we have displaced the plants that are suited perfectly for this unique place on the earth with a grass that was imported from Europe, we have robbed our wildlife of its food and shelter.

Please consider turning even a small portion of your turfgrass back to what was meant to thrive in central Illinois. It can make a difference. Become a land steward with a highly visible commitment to the health of your environment.

Gerald Durrell, “A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist”
Alfred A. Knopf, 1986

We who are conservation volunteers are amateur naturalists at heart, regardless of how little expertise we might have. Although published 30 years ago, this book by famous naturalist Gerald Durrell is still available and should be on every amateur naturalist’s shelf, for its entertainment value as well as for its practical information.

This is the sort of book you want to keep handy to pick up and read passages at random. Durrell writes in a personal mode, sounding like a knowledgeable uncle walking with you in grasslands, woodlands, deserts, mountains, shores and streams, showing you nature’s wonders. Every page has lore for the nature-lover: worm tunneling, the diffraction of light making a bird’s colors seem to change, how an insect’s mouth parts enable it to eat tough prairie grasses, how pikas stack hay to dry it before storing it for winter, why some aquatic plants have three kinds of leaves, why the number of species in a fertile estuary is low compared to the number in a lake.

Want to know how NOT to watch cliff-nesting birds? Durrell recounts personal experiences like this one. After a brief introduction on evolution and the seminal contributions of naturalists such as Linnaeus and Darwin, there are chapters on various habitats and his adventures in them. There are also chapters on studying and preserving specimens, keeping live animals and species classification. Every page is amply illustrated with photos and drawings.

Gerald Durrell was a one-of-a-kind person, from his unorthodox upbringing (“My family and Other Animals” (1956)) to his lifetime dedication to caring for animals. That his books are still available is testament to his popularity as well as an inspiration to nature lovers.

Johnathon Silvertown, Demons in Eden
University of Chicago Press, 2005

Those of us who work regularly on the removal of exotic species in prairies and woodlands often discuss why multiflora rose, bush and Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive and others not native to our area spread so easily and give us so much trouble. Jonathan Silvertown takes this question one step further, asking why, if natural selection favors such “Darwinian demons,” they have not filled the world. Purple loosestrife, for example, is no demon in its native Europe, but gives us fits in North America because North American insects eat only North American plants, ignoring loosestrife, which has nearly destroyed other species though only in certain, limited locations.

Why is it that, despite the invaders, there remains great species diversity in the world? Silvertown takes us to the Canary Islands, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Florida and England as he develops not just one, but many answers to this comple1x question. One answer is species evolution. If a plant invades, say, the Canary Islands by having its seed carried from the African mainland, it will try to spread as far as it can, eventually splitting off into sub-species as it reaches climates and soils less hospitable than its original landing place. In addition, new species evolve from the refugees of other species that escape the demon invader. Another answer is species dispersal, “the advantage of rarity.” Most offspring of organisms die before reaching maturity, but paradoxically those farthest from the parent plant are more likely to survive because of less competition for resources and more isolation from insects and diseases that prey on that species. Further, poorly competitive species tend to disperse better than do highly competitive species. There are more answers. Grazing turns out to be salutary to species diversity, which is applicable to prairie maintenance in the Midwest as we wonder whether mowing might be more useful than frequent burns. Niche separation due to gradients in soil hydrology also enhances diversity.

There are also more questions. Why is it that aliens turn demonic in North America far more easily than in Europe? What is likely to be the effect of genetic modification on the development of new demons? What is happening to plant communities as human intervention has sharply increased the amount of nitrogen that they receive from the air? Silvertown’s last chapter, entitled “The End of Eden?” leaves the reader with both good and bad news about how trade-offs are affecting the delicate balance that has up to now maintained rich species diversity.

The book combines a personal, travelogue sort of presentation with explanations of biological theories understandable for the careful reader even if, like your reviewer, he or she is devoid of formal training in the discipline. The opportunity to learn about fir waves and how leafcutter ants propagate a fungus are by themselves worth a few hours of the layperson’s time.


Bill McKibben, in his 1990 book, “The End of Nature,” warned us that even then climate change was inevitable and unstoppable. We could, he said, slow it down with technological, social, economic, and political efforts; but such efforts on the scale necessary to do any good were unlikely because of the disinformation spread by fossil fuel interests and the successful efforts by governments to do nothing at all.

McKibben’s new book, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?,” (Henry Holt, 2019), encourages us again to challenge the entrenched power of interests who value financial profit over the prevention of natural disaster and human suffering. We have known the truth for many years: there are now half as many wild animals on earth as there were in 1970; insect populations are crashing; parts of the globe are experiencing unusually frequent rain and others unusual drought; air pollution kills more than nine million people a year; high carbon dioxide levels are causing grains to be less nutritious; an increase in crop pests is cutting yields; all coral reefs will by dead by 2050; 18 of the 19 warmest years on record have been between 2000 and 2018. The recent UN Global Assessment Report tells us that “nature,” (animals, plants, habitats, and the interconnections that make up life on earth), is being destroyed ten times faster than the average over the past ten million years.

There is no valid scientific argument against the fact that the cause of the ongoing disaster is human technological achievement. McKibben’s plea is for us to use the tools available to us for resisting the absence of the political will to combat climate change. Non-violent campaigns like that of Greta Thunberg can work for increased regulation of fossil fuels, conversion to solar and wind energy, and the protection of species. We can remind ourselves that all of us, including climate change deniers and fossil fuel interests, are in this together.

McKibben is right to warn that the human condition is changing rapidly and for the worse, but his plea for action, while uplifting,does not give enough attention to the immense difficulty of combating the profit motive. As he says, humans as a species are short-sighted and greedy. It’s all very well for him to remind us that the Koch brothers and their fellow Ayn Rand disciples have overwhelming influence over those who have the power to bring about change. A far stronger response is necessary to make change happen. It already appears evident that by the time those in power find reason to take action it may be too late to be able to preserve the natural world in its present form. Grass-roots efforts and enlightened leadership have to change our incentives away from greater consumption and population growth, away from fossil fuels, and toward stronger environmental regulation and enforcement.

Richard M. Ketchum, The Secret Life of the Forest. American Heritage, 2017

This is an introduction to the lives and species of North American trees, how they grow, live and reproduce, and their management. It’s written as a non-technical description of the complex interdependence of forest trees, plants, birds, animals and soil-dwelling creatures. Ketchum presents a broad review of the aspects of a tree’s development, the functions of seeds, roots, leaves, bark and water circulation, and a tree’s response to its environment. The section on the decomposition of material in the forest floor is particularly interesting for an understanding of the numbers of creatures that perform it, and of the eventual replacement into the atmosphere of the carbon that trees and plants have absorbed.

Last Child in the Woods
Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

by Richard Louv
Recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal

Richard Louv brings together cutting edge studies that point to direct exposure to nature as essential for healthy physical and emotional health in children. He discusses the link between the lack of nature in a child’s life to increased obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Research is interspersed with anecdotal stories that illustrate his points. One example involved a young boy in 1907 who had been kicked out of school. His parents were at a loss as to what to do. They had noticed that nature engaged and soothed him so for years they took him to forest, dunes, beaches and rivers to allow nature to do its work. That boy was the great photographer Ansel Adams.

The book also contains some practical suggestions for parents or others who work with children. It is an engaging and informative read.

– Debby Tolle


by Tony Johnston

This lovely, gentle book begins on a cold September day as a young girl goes into the woods with her sketchbook. Sitting on her platform in a tree, she becomes a part of nature and chronicles all that she observes. She shares the woodland clearing with red fox, a mother bear and cub, and a family of skunks, deer, and wild turkeys. As weeks pass, the girl notices the coming of winter because she is attentive and participates in the wonder herself. Stunning illustrations and wonderfully crafted text capture the beauty of a young budding naturalist and all of nature welcoming the coming of winter together.

Illustrations by Jim LaMarche. 30 pages
Appropriate for ages 4-8 (and for this 62 year old as well)

- Debby Tolle

MIT Press, 2003

Those of us who humbly give a few hours a week to restoration in the hope of making some small contribution often wonder what it is we are accomplishing. Are we making a difference in the grand scheme of things, and what is it that we are really doing when we “restore?” Eric Higgs answers both questions, but does so by dissecting the restoration process in order to identify for us its component technical, historical, and cultural parts, rather than by simply describing the work of restoration and its successes and failures. Indeed, the book’s key contribution is that Higgs requires us to think of restoration in the context of parameters set out by humans, not just in the context of how well we may be returning things to some “natural” state. Design is the byword, because however much we may hope we are just setting things right so Nature can take its course, we are actually imposing design, and so we need to understand why we do what we do before we can evaluate our relative success.

Higgs is writing about the philosophy of restoration, and that he does so in clear, declarative sentences accompanied by numerous examples from his and others’ field work makes the book quite readable for the layperson. We meet again and again the notion that the term “restoration” describes many practices, and is understood in many ways. Should we see it as a process, or as a product? How does our view of history influence our restoration goals, and, moreover, how does the view of history in different cultures influence their work? North Americans, for example, tend to want a reversion to what we think was a wild, untamed environment; but Europeans prefer the preservation of cultural artifacts such as meadows. Put another way, Americans naturalize, but Italians garden. Taking this idea one step farther, we can realize that the cultural conditioning of restoration means future generations will see it differently than do we.

Higgs wants us to acknowledge that we need not see human intention as getting in the way of whatever we think “real” restoration is. We must instead accept that our intervention is a design practice, for all its flaws. It follows that we must continually hone our restoration skills, including the use of expanding technology. A good design is therefore one that allows for the evolution of human intervention. Higgs knows full well that we are still left with the problem of the clash between design on the one hand and the various views of what constitutes ecological restoration on the other; but he doesn’t offer a solution, implying that just as ecosystems themselves are more complex than we can know, human intervention is so complex as to defy a prescription for success.

David George Haskell, “The Forest Unseen, A Year’s Watch in Nature.”
Penguin Books, 2012

For those of us who avoid learning about the minutiae of nature because they are vast and complex, this book has clear, entertaining descriptions of the natural processes in the lives of plants and animals. From pollination systems in plants and water retention in mosses, to the sex life of snails and digestion in deer, David Haskell writes about them using comparisons with things that are familiar to everyone. Haskell conveys both information and his feelings as he observes life over a year’s time in a one-meter circle of protected old-growth forest in Tennessee.

“Astonishment is the only response,” is the theme throughout the book. The author spent his visits partly lying on the ground looking at life through a hand lens, and partly sitting and observing his surroundings. We learn how ants harvest a hepatica fruit, plants communicate with chemical signals, wasps parasitize caterpillars, and bacteria and nematodes live on our bodies. A half-handful of soil contains a billion microbes that interact with other life in the circle.

The trial and error of natural selection, as plants and animals respond to different environments, produce varieties of ways to reproduce, digest food, discourage predators, survive cold and heat, develop microbial partnerships, and do all the other things that are required for the continuation of life. Haskell describes the many amazing adaptations in snails, shrews, mosses, worms, birds, algae, flowers, insects, trees, and other forest inhabitants.

We are concerned that our forests are changing with fragmentation and a changing mix of plants and animals, but Haskell asks why we should think there is an optimal norm. There was a different mix before human habitation, and many different mixes long before that. It is true that human intervention has caused rapid changes that make it difficult for mutually dependent plants and animals to cope, but we must look at the forest as dynamic, not balanced. Whether it’s the composition of a forest or the difficulty of separating salamander species: “nature does not conform to our desire to draw firm lines.”

A wet salamander: “a cloud condensed into animate matter.” The Tao of a tree yielding to the wind. A wood thrush “capping the dawn with his astounding song.” Haskell’s down-to-earth explanations, combined with his sensitivity to his surroundings, make his prize-winning book a real delight.

John E. Schwegman, The Natural History of Illinois.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2016

John E. Schwegman is the principal author of “The Natural Divisions of Illinois,” a classification of the state’s natural lands that guides the development of the Illinois Nature Preserves system. He established what is now the Division of Natural Heritage at the IDNR, and led the founding of the Natural Areas Association. The 93 essays in this book were originally published for the general reader in newspapers in the 1990s, and are updated to 2015. The essays describe the diversity of land forms, plants and animals, how early European settlers experienced them, and where we can go to experience them. The 24 essays on ecology, conservation, and management of the state’s natural features are especially interesting for those of us who work on conservation.

Scott D. Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Spending time in natural settings supports kids’ emotional, social, and cognitive development. It helps develop problem-solving skills. Frequent exposure to nature helps relieve stress, depression, and improve concentration, coordination, and agility. Think about it: humanity does not really exist ..."outside nature."
This book offers theory and practical ideas for getting kids (and the adults in their lives) involved with "wild places"--in their daily environment as well as designated natural areas.

A three-pronged approach is focused on (1) Experience--often “hands off” by the adults involved; (2) Mentoring; and (3) Understanding. Sampson provides motivation and practical suggestions for ways to "foster nature connection" in early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence.

The author is a dinosaur paleontologist, president and CEO of Science World in Vancouver, and host of PBS KIDS television series "Dinosaur Train."

- Debby Tolle

E.C. Pielou, After the Ice Age: The Return of Life in Glaciated North America.
University of Chicago Press, 1991

The great ice sheets in North America began melting about 20,000 years ago, causing changes in landforms as well as in tree, plant, insect, and animal populations that continue today. Geographical change and the arrival of different species at the edges of the ice was continuous, although not steady, as the climate kept changing. Fossil evidence shows the variety of life and where species lived and migrated.

Pielou’s description of the relationship between the ice and the evolution of life under a great variety of conditions is both science-based and written for the non-scientist, with numerous maps and drawings, to give the reader a picture of causes and effects, and the progression of changes. Her guide to what has been happening helps us understand that there is no “correct” or “optimum” ecological balance. The interactions of land, water, plants, animals and climate constantly change the picture, however slowly from the human point of view.

Different forms of tundra, meadows and forests developed and quickly attracted species, including humans, that could live in them. Huge lakes formed, attracting aquatic plants, fish and animals, then vanished as the ground rose. A sudden warming about 10,000 years ago caused rapid habitat alteration and the extinction of over 50 species of mammals. The reasons for it are not clear.

Surprisingly, there is also evidence that North America has become cooler and wetter than it was as the ice was retreating, and that we are again in a period of slow glaciation.

This kind of evidence about continuous natural fluctuations over millennia and epochs makes us appreciate that, although human destruction of native ecosystems and consequent very fast warming are now disrupting natural processes, the next period of glaciation might mercifully erase our work.


May Berenbaum and Terry Harrison, “Micro-Moths: The Nuts and Bolts of Prairie Communities.” Wings, Vol. 28, No. 2, Sept. 2005, pp. 4-9

Very small moths (microlepidoptera) are of tremendous importance to the prairie ecosystem because of their contribution to species diversity, but they escape our attention because of their size and living habits. May Berenbaum and Terry Harrison of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois have researched these tiny, under-appreciated creatures and the interrelationship between them and a healthy prairie.

Micro-moths make up nearly half of all Lepidoptera, but most are so small that we don’t notice them, the smallest having a wingspan of only about a tenth of an inch. The authors report that “microleps” are important because their caterpillars, unlike butterfly and most larger moth caterpillars, specialize in feeding on certain plants, doing so in secretive ways like boring in stems, mining and skeletonizing leaves and eating roots. Without microleps, certain plants, such as rosinweed, are more likely to take over and crowd out others. They are also important because many larger prairie fauna such as birds and rodents feed on them and many plants need them for pollination. Thus they contribute to a balanced ecosystem.

Hill prairies are particularly important as homes for microleps because their steep slopes make them unsuitable for the row-crop agriculture that has replaced 99 percent of native prairie in the Midwest, so more original hill prairie sites remain than other native prairie types. [Two hill prairies survive in our area, one in Charleston and one near Allenville on Lake Shelbyville.] Many microlep larvae and adults feed on hill prairie plants such as big bluestem, leadplant, coneflowers, asters, goldenrod and wild indigo. Some live on or under the ground, emerging to feed on grass or eating grass roots.

Periodic burns on prairies that we manage are a common means of discouraging woody plants, and it has been determined that burns can be beneficial to the larger Lepidoptera such as butterflies. The impact of burns on microleps, however, is less positive because many of them pupate inside their hostplants instead of underground as do many larger moth species. Not only is a burn likely to destroy microlep larvae, but the small adults may find it difficult to escape the burn area; so microleps are in danger even when we burn only part of a prairie at a time.

Microleps are more important to prairie health than most of realize. Some are even very beautiful. One, Tebenna silphiella, “less than half an inch across, sports a pattern so intricate that it would put the most skilled Persian carpetmaker to shame.” The authors remind us that just as a car can’t run without its smallest nuts and bolts, a prairie community may not survive without its smallest parts.


By Bill Davison

The tallgrass prairie once covered 20 million acres of Illinois and provided habitat to many of the grassland birds that have drastically declined in number over the past century. By 1850, nearly 75% of the prairie in Illinois had been destroyed. As the prairie all but vanished from Illinois and the Midwest, some grassland birds adapted to nesting in agricultural lands, like pastures and hayfields. However, with the advent of modern, mechanized farming, agricultural habitat declined rapidly from 1960 – 1989. This resulted in sharp population declines in most grassland birds.

For my master’s degree at E.I.U., I am studying factors affecting the reproductive success of grassland birds, such as the dickcissel, eastern meadowlark, bobolink, and grasshopper sparrow. A few grassland bird species, such as the dickcissel and meadowlark, can nest in small patches of grassland habitat, including grassed waterways and rowcrop fields, roadsides, and small unplowed areas of agricultural land. But some grassland birds, including many that have declined by more than 80% over the past 23 years, need large areas of habitat. In some cases up to 800 acres are needed for these birds to live in an area. Such large areas of grassland are rare in Illinois. However, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has improved the situation. This program pays landowners to set land aside in grass cover and has resulted in 785,000 acres of grassland habitat in Illinois alone. On the other hand, most CRP fields are small; the average size of a CRP field in Illinois is 39 acres.

I studied some of the largest CRP fields in east-central Illinois, which ranged in size from 68 to 360 acres. I found over 300 nests of 15 bird species in these fields. My results show that most species produced enough young to maintain stable population sizes. However, even in these unusually large fields, many grassland birds were absent because the fields were either too small or had inappropriate plant life. While CRP fields appear to be providing suitable habitat for some grassland birds, they cannot duplicate the vegetative diversity and vast size of the original tallgrass prairie. Consequently, large-scale restoration of native prairie plants is an important method for providing quality habitat for grassland birds.

A few surprisingly large prairie restorations are underway in the state of Illinois. The recently acquired Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Joliet covers 15,000 acres, and extensive restoration of prairie vegetation is planned. Fermi Lab in Batavia has restored over 700 acres of native prairie vegetation. Numerous smaller restorations are scattered throughout the state. One notable restoration close to Charleston is being conducted by the IDNR, which is restoring wetlands and native prairie vegetation in Shelby County.

While most of us cannot set aside large tracts of grassland, the Illinois Volunteer Stewardship Network is one of the largest in the country and consists of over 5,000 volunteers whose combined efforts at restoring prairie can help ensure that future generations will get to enjoy the beauty of grassland birds and their habitat.


Christin L. Pruett, Michael A. Patten, Donald H. Wolfe. It’s Not Easy Being Green: Wind Energy and a Declining Grassland Bird. Bioscience, Vol. 59, No. 3 (March 2009), pp. 245-256

Do wind turbines endanger birds? In a study of the effects of wind turbines on the lesser prairie chicken in a region encompassing western Texas, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado, researchers found that although there is a collision risk for migratory birds and bats, prairie chickens usually fly low enough to avoid wind turbine blades, and they seldom fly at night. They do, however, tend to nest far away from large structures like buildings, transmission lines and wind turbines, so that as more of these structures and other human activity appear, there is a danger that connectivity strips between favored habitats are being blocked.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that wind turbines be erected no closer than eight kilometers to known leks (breeding grounds), but the region has high potential for wind energy development, and developers strongly oppose restrictions on where they may locate their towers.
Possible ways to reduce this invasion of grassland bird habitat include placing turbines in already-disturbed areas such as cultivated fields instead of in undisturbed prairies, and placing turbines in blocks instead of long fencelike lines. In addition, there is a need for increased action to protect existing habitat, such as prescribed fire, removal of trees, marking of fences, and conservation agreements between landowners and the USFWS, as well as reintroduction of birds into previously occupied areas to increase connectivity between populations.


by Mary Oliver

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I'm pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can't keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another -- why don't you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,

I don't even want to come in out of the rain.

Poet Mary Oliver [1935 - ], is an "indefatigable guide to the natural world," wrote Maxine Kumin in Women's Review of Books, "particularly to its lesser-known aspects."

Oliver’s poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England. Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau and for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home in Provincetown, MA: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon and humpback whales. Maxine Krumm calls Oliver "a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms" and "an indefatigable guide to the natural world." Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Although she has been criticized for writing poetry that assumes a dangerously close relationship of women with nature, she finds the self is only strengthened through an immersion with nature. As her creativity is stirred by nature, Oliver is an avid walker, pursuing inspiration on foot. For Oliver, walking is part of the poetic process. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes."

- Ruth Riegel


Mark Davis, et al., “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins,” Nature, 474, 153-154, 9 June 2011

We who are amateur conservationists often use the terms “alien” and “invasive” interchangeably, especially as much of our volunteer work involves combating these plant species in prairies and woodlands. A recent commentary in the prestigious journal Nature admonishes not only amateurs but scientists as well to recognize that not all alien species are harmful.

An example is the tamarisk tree. Many consider it a pest because it consumes large amounts of water, but in the southwest United States it appears to be better-suited to helping water management than are the native cottonwoods and willows. Deciding that the tamarisk does not “belong” in that region because it is not native may be less important than evaluating its impact there.

Midwestern conservationist Stephen Packard, in a recent post to the VSN Stewards website, agrees with this notion, saying that it is counterproductive to regard aliens as our worst problem. Wild carrot and bluegrass, both aliens, provide better turf for seeding prairie species than do native ragweed, goldenrod or dogwood. Further, we sometimes remove the aliens and forget the depredation caused by native invasives. We remove alien buckthorn from oak woodlands because its spread discourages flora and fauna that are part of the balanced ecology there; but if we leave the native maple, ash, box elder and cherry the degradation of the oak forest will continue because of the shade from these species. The buckthorn should not be allowed to spread, but the root problem is not the alien buckthorn, but the absence of fire, to which oaks are resistant but thinner bark species are not.

We are admonished to “watch our language,” and be concerned more with the impact of a species than with its origin.


John Madson, “Where the Sky Began. Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” Houghton Mifflin, 1982

A second-hand book that was in my Christmas stocking turned out to be a most compelling read. John Madson, a Midwestern nature writer, wrote about the tallgrass prairie of his native Iowa, as well as of the other states where it grew. Madson’s descriptive style shows a love of the details of the natural world that is reminiscent of Aldo Leopold. Speaking of the development of the prairie, he writes, “This silent struggle between trees and grass is the grimmest conflict ever joined by two major plant groups in North America.” Relating his “Thoughts while loafing” in the prairie, he writes “Not even Rip Van Winkle could have slept for twenty years on a prairie.” “A grassland crackles and flows with stimuli, charging a man to get on with something.”

Madson describes how prairie developed as the glaciers receded, and the reasons why prairie initially advanced eastward but forest did not advance westward (soils, light, moisture, temperature); but that more recently that advance may have been checked and reversed were it not for the plow. In succeeding chapters, he describes why prairie forbs and grasses are so tough (deep root systems, reinforced cell walls) and pervasive (wind and insect pollination), the roles of fungi, bacteria, earthworms and small animals as well as large animals and birds, the quick-changing and often dangerous weather, the hard lives of the prairie pioneers, and contemporary efforts to restore destroyed prairie.
Even if you think you know a lot about the prairie, Madson’s book is instructive, and is most certainly entertaining. His love for all the small details of the prairie encourages us to look more closely and appreciate.


[In 2003, the Embarras Volunteer Stewards attempted to restore a former prairie at a one acre site between and bike trail and Old State Road just west of Charleston. Despite repeated, careful seeding, very few prairie plants emerged. Several EIU graduate students did a soil study of the site in 2007, under the direction of Professor Janice Coons. They found that the soil was too poor to support prairie species, probably because of the site’s proximity to Old State Road.]

Soil Characteristics and Microbes Influencing Establishment of Prairie Species

M. Jernegan, V. Hustad, M. Tonsor, R. Jadhav, G. Ahrens and J. Coons


Illinois is known as the Prairie State, however prairie that once covered 22 million acres of the state now occupies a mere 0.01% of the original. Restoration of tallgrass prairies often is impeded by failure to establish diverse native prairie species because of soil characteristics including both physical and microbial factors. In Coles County (IL) attempts to establish prairie species in one area between a bike trail and a road have failed, yet prairie remnants and restored prairie exists at other nearby sites. Hence the objective of this study was to determine if soil characteristics or microbes affect emergence of prairie species from soils collected at these three sites (remnant prairie, restored prairie, and attempted restoration site). Soil was collected from each site, and analyzed to determine texture, pH, moisture, organic matter and nutrients. Half of the soil was autoclaved and the other half was not. Three common prairie species (Chamaechrista fasciculata, Dalea purpurea, and Monarda fistulosa) were planted in each type of soil in trays. Weekly observations were made for emergence, leaf number and height of planted species. Plants from seed bank also were counted weekly. After four weeks, mass and leaf area were measured. Soil had more clay, lower organic matter and higher pH at the restoration site than at remnant or restored prairies. The remnant prairie had higher moisture, phosphates and sulfates than the other sites. Plants in autoclaved soil tended to have greater emergence and faster plant development than those in non-autoclaved soil. Grass and forb emergence in autoclaved soil was reduced relative to not autoclaved soil. Plants grown in soil from the remnant prairie developed more rapidly than those in soil from the other two sites. Hence, problems with establishment at the restoration site may relate to soil characteristics.


Very little original tallgrass prairie remains in Illinois. What is left is scattered in small remnants along railroad tracks, in cemeteries and in restored areas. There are many factors that shaped vast prairies of Illinois. Glaciers melted 12,000-15,000 years ago leaving behind large deposits known as terminal moraines making the upper 4/5 of Illinois flat land. Plenty of rain in the spring and a hot dry climate in the summer helped plants to establish. Dormancy over the winter was an adaptation by plants to deal with seasonal weather variability (McClain, 1997). Influences on why Illinois had such large prairies include: high quality dark black soil from organic matter, optimal pH for plants at 5.5-7, and an effective fire regimen. Diminishing prairie began when the Europeans took over and started to build railroads and houses and stopped using fire. Recognizing the fertile soil they turned prairies into agricultural fields (Samson and Knopf, 1996; Miller, 1997). In the 20th century, ecologists came to the realization tallgrass prairies in the Midwest were diminishing (Allison, 2002). If we want tallgrass prairies to be part of our future we have to begin to restore these historic grasslands (Curtis and Greene, 1949). Soil conditions are essential to the vigor of the prairie. Microorganisms both beneficial, mycorhizal fungi and nitrogen fixing bacteria and harmful such as plant pathogens caused by fungi and bacteria are found in soil (McClain, 1997). In Coles County Illinois there are three different areas that are in various prairie stages that are being restored. The purpose of this study is to look at three different stages of prairies in Coles County and to see if microbes are having a positive or negative effect on the prairie restoration efforts by using sterile and non-sterile soil. Knowledge on whether or not the microbes are beneficial will help to make prairie restoration efforts successful.


Are microbes in the prairie soil having a positive or negative effect on restoration efforts?

Material and Methods

  • Collected randomly from each site: fifteen soil cores using a T-bar at a depth of 15-35 cm and a diameter of 2 cm and three shovelfuls of soil placed in 5-gallon buckets.
  • Percent moisture loss for each site found by weighting fresh soil, placing in drying oven at 120ºC for 48 hours and weighing dried soil.
  • Soil analyzed on soil cores for presence or absence of limited nutrients and organic matter using protocol from The Science Source, Waldoboro, Maine, Chemical Composition of Soil #2000.
  • Soil texture determined using 5 ml crushed soil from cores with 30 ml of distilled water and 3 drops of dispersing solution (Lamotte Chetertown, Maryland) placed in jars, shaken and let site for 1 week. Total height taken plus heights of sand, silt and clay used to calculate percentages of each and soil triangle used to determine texture.
  • pH measured with a soil water-slurry mixture using a CORNING pH meter Model 7.
  • Using soil from buckets half of the soil was autoclaved for 3 hours (temp psi?) and half was spread out on newspaper to dry.
  • Three trays (10.2X20.3X6.4 cm) from each site had autoclaved soil and 3 trays had non-autoclaved soil.
  • 20 seeds each Chamaechrista fasciculata, Dalea purpurea, and Monarda fistulosa where planted in 3 separate rows. Chamaechrista fasciculate seeds were scarified to ensure germination.
  • Trays where placed in growth room with light intensity of 78.3±(need lab notebook)µmol/m2/sec and temperature of 25.0±2.1ºC.
  • Weekly planted species were recorded for number that had emerged, height and number of leaves, plants emerging from seed bank where recorded as either grasses or broadleaved forbs and pulled.
  • On the fourth week plants were harvested and development was quantified by measuring leaf area, and fresh and dry weights
  • Data were analyzed using one-way analysis of variance.


Soil traits for Remnant Prairie, Restored Prairie and Attempted Restoration Site)


  Soil Texture Organic Matter(1-5) % Moisture pH Nitrates
Remnant sandy loam 4.8 43.2 5.85 absent
Restored loam/silt loam 4.7 21.8 5.38 absent
Attempted clay/sandy clay 2.5 23.8 5.99 absent


  Carbonates Phosphates Sulfates Ammonium Nitrates
Remnant absent medium/low medium present medium/low
Restored present low low present medium
Attempted absent high low absent low


  Calcium Potassium
Remnant present absent
Restored present absent
Attempted present absent


A denotes Autoclaved soil samples
NA denotes Non Autoclaved soil samples