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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wild Things - a history

It seems there’s nothing else like it on the planet – a thousand experts and activists getting together for nature.

These days it’s called “WILD THINGS – a Chicago Wilderness conference for people and nature.” But it goes back to the mid seventies and, under various names, has been run with volunteer leadership every two years ever since, decade after decade.

Two students of Aldo Leopold and Jens Jensen started this treasured biennial “happening.” (These early leaders, Doug and Dot Wade, also happen to have been the first people to advocate for what’s now called Nachusa Grasslands – the subject of this year’s keynote.)

Doug Wade carried on the Leopold legacy as director of Northern Illinois University’s “Taft Field Campus” near Oregon, Illinois. He liked the North American Prairie Conference (also first held in north central Illinois) but thought it was too academic and removed from the public. So in 1975, he and a few others launched something humbly called “The Northern Illinois Prairie Workshop.” They gave it a modest name on purpose. Wade and friends did not want it to be an exercise of lofty professors reading papers. They did want both professors and people with dirt under their fingers thinking together. They sought give and take among whoever had the most to offer. 

It was a time when people like Robert Betz and Ray Schulenburg were inspiring people with “prairie fever.” Activists were motivating colleges, public schools, forest preserves, and individuals to find, save, and plant prairies.

Wade convinced his field campus to sponsor the first one – but they hit a snag with the administration on projected numbers. The price was designed to just break even- and include lunch – but the administrators said that then he had to promise at least fifty participants. He was nervous about whether anyone would come, but made the commitment, and when the registration reached 150 people he was told to close registration. That was all the lunches the facility could handle. Wade then broadcast the news: “Registration is still open. But from now on, bring your own lunch,” and a phenomenon began.

But it the real breakthrough came with the third workshop, held at Fermilab in 1978. This was the first one held in the Chicago region and the first to combine the Wade volunteers with the Betz and Schulenburg crowd. Part of the magic was the fancy Fermilab amphitheatre and facilities. The spirit of the day was as ancient as nature and as new as smashing electrons. Floyd Swink gave the keynote – learned, hilarious, filled with local expertise, and given urgency by how fast the prairie was being lost.

One key to the spirit of the workshops was the coming together of communities. Dot Wade had established Illinois’ first prairie nursery and bookstore. She and many dedicated volunteers sold the books, erected displays, and made new people feel welcome. Another motive force carried on from the first meetings was the participatory “workshop” mentality.

It worked. It inspired and changed lives. Every two years thereafter, Doug campaigned in the planning committees (and others picked carried on that spirit) that we needed discussion, creativity, interchange in the sessions. And the workshops did creatively change with the times and focused on the cutting edge. One celebrated the newly completed the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and the campaign to save those last 610 natural areas, which now included not just prairies but also wetlands, forests, and sand savannas. This workshop was called “The Precious Few” starting a pattern of name changes as needed.

(I wonder if anyone has a complete collection of “Proceedings” and programs. It would lend itself to some interesting analysis. I suppose I may, but how long would it take me to find them.)

When some people figured out that our tallgrass savannas and open oak woodlands had been misunderstood and largely missed by the Inventory, the conference for one biennium became the Midwest Oak Savanna Conference. 

Another big change came when The Nature Conservancy hired some of the leaders and began to provide staff help. Crucially, the staff involved came out of the Wade-inspired movement, and the biennial workshops/conferences continued in the same format. That is, after one big “keynote” – we would divide into many (these days a dozen) simultaneous “concurrent sessions” that allowed discussion and interaction.

One challenge came when the Conservancy’s grass roots staff mostly moved to Audubon and Chicago Wilderness was being encouraged to take leadership. But CW turned out to be more interested in conferences for professionals on weekdays. Those are good, but the events that served both pros and volunteers – and nourished the community and constituency – were still important. During those times, Audubon staff and others scrambled to hold together the volunteer stewards groups, educational programs, intern support, and many other components of the broader community, including the big grass roots conferences. Audubon renamed them “Wild Things – a Chicago Wilderness conference for people and nature.” And on they went.

This year is the first time in many years that the conference didn’t have staff support from Audubon or the Conservancy. But many of the people who’ve organized everything in recent years rose to the occasion. They found Friends of the Forest Preserves to be the fiscal agent, and we’ll see the result this Saturday, January 31, 2015.

There’s a lot more of this history that’s worth telling, but perhaps this is a start. Here’s hoping for continued creative initiative – as we look toward 2017 and beyond.


  1. I am still hoping for printed or videoed info shared at these sessions when the conference is over. maybe articles for Chicago Wilderness magazine reinvention. i just recently reviewed info I gathered from two years ago and find it pertinent during the no-work bad weather days.I still have my Midwest Oak Savanna mug! Jacqui

  2. Jacqui, I hear you. (And my savanna conference mug is one of my favorites.) Some years there have been excellent proceedings and/or videos. It all depends on how many effective volunteers there are on that part of the team. But sometimes we could do better at spreading the word on what's needed and how this community works. That is another challenge for after the conference.

  3. This history is valuable. I have run into and studied online materials from some of the earlier incarnations, but never realized the common thread ran from there to Wild Things. Here's to the next forty years of advocacy and stewardship!