Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Spoiler alert: for those seeking an adrenaline-charged nature experience, skip this post. There are some encounters with nature that are quiet, reflective wonders. This was one.

We have been looking forward to this visit for at least five years, ever since hearing that the National Forest Service was restoring 28 square miles of land 60 mi south of Chicago to the tall grass prairie that predominated before the 1840’s. They are perhaps 25% into a full restoration of the acreage and grazing by wild buffalo, but there is still a lot to see here.

Our own little foray into prairie restoration back home consists of 6 acres of savannah prairie restored to wildflowers and little bluestem grasses. It is an attractive habitat to butterflies, bees, birds and wild turkeys, and we love walking it. In the coming years we hope to restore a wet meadow to similar grandeur.

Midewin (pronounced Mi-day-win, with the second syllable accented) was established in 1996 and named in honor of the Potawatomi tribe for their “Grand Medicine Society.” It has 34 miles of trails, and we encountered three groups on horseback enjoying the trails, as well as a handful of walkers and bikers, even in this shoulder season.

The bison are magnificent. Osage orange trees are prevalent. But the real stars of the show are the 9-foot-tall Big Bluestem grasses, the Side Oats Gramma, Indian Grasses and the thousands of prairie wildflowers. Thousands of acres of them. They hold the dirt, enrich it every year with organic decaying matter, house millions of field and woodland creatures, and host a profusion of winged animals.

It is gratifying to see a place that contains a many-layered ecosystem in the process of healing the earth. All this from a site that formerly housed ammunition plants for WWII and VietNam. The smells on the howling wind are great, and the eye delights in the rolling hills of waving grain that needed no Roundup, fertilizer or harvesting equipment to do what nature intends. We hope that the bison are successful in thriving here, so that they can be rotationally grazing on the prairie. As nature intends. Congrats, NFS, so far, so good.

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