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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Wild Things: an updated history

So far as we’ve heard, there’s nothing else like it on the planet – well over a thousand experts volunteer stewards, citizen scientists, activists, conservation professionals, and "the ecologically curious" getting together for a region’s nature – a grass roots conference – organized by the grass roots.

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

This biennial “happening” was started by two students of Aldo Leopold and Jens Jensen in 1975. These early leaders, Doug and Dot Wade, also happen to have been the first people to advocate for what’s now called Nachusa Grasslands.

Doug Wade was 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 Schulenberg 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 that first workshop – 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.

The third workshop was held at Fermilab in 1978. This was the first one in the Chicago region and the first to combine the Wade volunteers with the Betz (NEIU) and Schulenberg (Morton Arb) 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.

The Fermilab event inspired and changed many Chicago area lives. Every two years thereafter, Doug campaigned in the planning committee meetings (as did others) that we needed discussion, creativity, interchange in the sessions. The workshops creatively changed with the times. One celebrated the newly completed the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and the campaign to save those last 610 natural areas -  now including not just prairies but also wetlands, forests, and 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.)

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 biennum 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 much the same format. That is, after one big “keynote” – we would divide into many (these days a dozen) simultaneous “breakout 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. 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 the workshop/conference “Wild Things – a Chicago Wilderness conference for people and nature.”

Then Audubon, like Nature Conservancy, went in a different direction. 2015 was 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’d organized everything in recent years rose to the occasion. They found Friends of the Forest Preserves to be the fiscal agent for 2015 and again in 2017.

In 2015, 1,300 people attended. In 2017 we moved to a larger venue and, for the first time, registration was closed when 1700 tickets had been sold – a limit imposed by the fire marshal. Many people who wanted to come could not. Indeed we stopped advertising. It would not be unreasonable to speculate that 2,500 people would have attended if space had been available.

As the conference has expanded, many of the breakout sessions, often including 100 or more people, have been less able to follow up presentations with seminar/workshop participatory discussions. We look forward to a future with more evolution and changes. If you would like to offer suggestions or help plan the next conference, please do. You can leave suggestions as comments on this post. Or you can leave them directly with the Wild Things community at: 


  1. A change I would suggest is to have a track directed toward younger audiences and advertising toward this demographic. My nine year old really enjoyed the presentations on snakes/ants and mussels/sponges. He then really enjoyed the presentation on the card game about restoration. It would be good if the presentations for a track geared toward younger audiences were located in an adjacent building. While trying to keep my son from getting lost in the crowd I did notice that I had done a faux pas by disturbing people’s meditation and socializing time.

  2. This can be what it wants. However there is also need for a "nature fair" geared toward drawing the general public and introducing them to all the things in nature and what they can do to participate in nature.

  3. The difficulty I have with my son is he is immature and does not act in the manner that is expected at a professional conference. However, he really benefits from and enjoys the kind of in depth topics offered at Wild Things.

    I've known for a long time my son knows more about dinosaurs than most people (including myself). Now I know he also knows more about ants. My son also helps newer adult volunteers identify species as invasive or native at workdays which always impresses people.

    It would be good if children's interest in nature at a very young age (which most nature fairs are geared toward) could be bridged with the education they could not otherwise receive until they enter college. I think this type of opportunity is important regardless of whether this occurred at the Wild Things conference or another venue.

  4. Good to see this close-to-the-ground account of the shaping of this great program. Nicely done. It's important for an effort like this to have a history, and an historical consciousness.