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Monday, April 27, 2020

Discovering America

A Founding Story of the Midwest Conservation Community

Never doubt that thoughtful people can make a difference. Their actions may bend the future, fortunately. 

Our community has some inspiring “founding stories.” There’s Aldo Leopold's “green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf. There’s Dot Wade founding the first prairie nursery – and with it the rural community that would spawn Nachusa Grasslands. Urban areas have forest preserves today because some “nobodies” sat in a living room in Evanston and thought up the idea. At the time, few had heard of Dwight Perkins, Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jens Jensen and others in their crowd. They were young professionals, just starting out. They said: Chicago is new and raw; this will be a major metropolis someday; it needs a culture.
The leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa) was thought to be extinct in Illinois for decades.
It would be re-discovered, through an unlikely chain of blessings. 
They started a group, “Friends of Our Native Landscape” – advised by influential early ecologist Henry Chandler Cowles, a man who published little, but taught and inspired much. One of his students, May Theilgaard Watts, then spent her life spreading that sense of wonder and stewardship. In a letter to the Tribune recommending preservation of a threatened remnant, she warned, "Many bulldozers are drooling." The woman could write.

A community was growing around these ideas. The Morton Arboretum hired her along with conservationists Ray Schulenberg and Floyd Swink and together they became the epicenter of a new culture of nature. And, because of them, it came to pass that an unlikely epiphany occurred – one that resonates and inspires to this day.

In 1971, recent biology graduate Jerry Wilhelm was drafted into the Army and expected soon to find himself in the treacherous jungles of Viet Nam. Instead, miraculously, the Army Corps of Engineers sent him to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment for a canal project in Lockport, Illinois. His task was to evaluate fifty designated "spoil sites" to determine whether dredged material from the project could be dumped there without doing irreversible harm to wildlife.
A young Wilhelm
There was one problem though. Wilhelm’s area of expertise was the fishes, algae, and mollusks of northwest Florida, not the prairie vegetation of Illinois. To help him identify plants at the potential spoil sites, he was put in touch with Morton Arboretum botanists Swink and Schulenberg. Wilhelm later wrote, “They changed my life as they changed the lives of many.”

On a cold, autumn day in the field, the Army scientist was awed by Swink’s uncanny ability to identify vast numbers of plant species from wisps of dried leaves and stems. Soon Swink, “a lithe, living encyclopedia of natural history,” was burying the bewildered note-taker under long lists of difficult Latin names. But even with these long lists, Wilhelm was unclear on what could be "spoiled" and what couldn't.

The following day Swink was unavailable, so Wilhelm visited sites with Ray Schulenberg. As with Swink, Schulenberg would take a cursory glance at the area and start rattling off Latin names, with Wilhelm writing furiously. As they progressed, he noticed it got easier, as the species were the same at all sites: tall goldenrod, box elder, black mustard, bluegrass. As for determining what was "spoilable," after each visit, Schulenberg would conveniently give Wilhelm the same short assessment: “'You can spoil here, Jerry. You cannot hurt it. It could grow back.'”

Things were much the same the next day. "Tall goldenrod, box elder, black mustard…You can spoil here." Wilhelm was perplexed. Influenced by the anti-industrial attitudes of the 1960's, the young biologist’s default principle was: all "nature" is good nature. Scientists at that time generally considered plants growing without human interference to be “a value-neutral point" in a succession from pond scum to mature forest. Yet here was someone who obviously loved nature and loved plants, enough to identify hundreds of them by their dried-up leaves, telling him it was OK to destroy the wildlife growing at every single one of the sites they had visited. What gives?

Finally, at a site just south of Division Street, all that changed. Approaching "Spoil Site L2", as it was marked on the aerial map, Schulenberg stopped in his tracks. He held his arm out to stop Wilhelm from proceeding, and began reverently pronouncing Latin names the Army scientist had never heard: "Andropogon scoparius [little bluestem], Bouteloua curtipendula [side-oats grama], Muhlenbergia cuspidata [prairie satin grass]…" Schulenberg turned to put his hand on Wilhelm's shoulder and said gently: "Don't spoil here Jerry. This is America, and it will not grow back." As Wilhelm tells it in Joel Greenburg’s A Natural History of the Chicago Region:

“I got weak in the knees. Oh lord, I looked at the place and saw America. I knew that this guy was able to identify America by its plants. I collapsed emotionally and decided right then and there that I didn’t want to live another day without knowing whether I was in America.”

The stunned scientist realized that, for all his training, he’d been blind. Patriotic in many ways, in this other he fundamentally couldn’t recognize the country he loved. After so many sites covered with common weeds, the ecological community now before him was a relic, tucked away in quiet vigil since the time of Black Hawk.

Presently he reported to his superior, a “square jawed” civil engineer named Major Emge. Unsurprisingly, this straight-laced officer was not receptive to new ideas about what constituted America. His currency was lists and numbers. Luckily for posterity, the canal project was abandoned, and "Spoil Site L2" eventually became part of the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve.

When his stint in the Army ended, Wilhelm found his way back to Illinois to work at the Arboretum with Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg. He did indeed learn a lot of plants. He learned them so well that he and Swink co-authored the influential 1994 edition of Plants of the Chicago Region. The introduction to this book introduced the “Floristic Quality Assessment” – a revolution in deciding, among other questions, how to convey to the Major Emges of the world what’s ecologically important and what’s not. It’s now used widely from coast to coast by scientists, conservationists, and government, including, fittingly, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Two influential and powerfully useful books

Wilhelm records lists of plants, to this day.

In the process of becoming one of the region's most expert botanists, Wilhelm discovered a large population of the highly-endangered leafy prairie clover, then preserved at Lockport Prairie.  Schulenberg's interdiction was also lucky for the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly. As it turns out, "Spoil Site L2" is one of its last known habitats.Wilhelm has ever since shared his passion for the beautiful, "mind-numbing diversity" of native plants and biological communities. His epiphany inspired others, a link in a chain that goes back through Schulenberg and May Theilgaard Watts, and forward to the tallgrass region conservation community that is appreciated as a model for the planet today.

Never doubt that people make a difference.


Greenburg, Joel. The Natural History of the Chicago Region. 2002. University of Chicago Press.

Swink, Floyd, and Gerould Wilhelm. Plants of the Chicago Region. 1994. Indiana Academy of Science.

Wilhelm, Gerould and Laura Rericha. Flora of the Chicago Region. 2017. Indiana Academy of Science.

Wilhem's talk on consilience


This version of the “Discovering America” story was assembled by Christos Economou and Stephen Packard. Principal sources: The Natural History of the Chicago Region and Flora of the Chicago Region.

Thanks for proofing and edits to Cathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.

Photo credits
Early Wilhelm: Morton Arboretum
Late Wilhelm: DuPage County Wild Ones
Dalea foliosa: Bill Glass through U.S.Forest Service
Hine's emerald dragonfly: P. Burton through U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Wilhelm's own telling of this great story is now available on line at the Conservation Research Institute website.

Hine's emerald dragonfly
(Somatochlora hineana)
Many rare plants and animals depend on rare high-quality habitats, and each other.


  1. This is the year I get to that site :)

    Jim Vanderpoel

    1. I suppose you mean Lockport Prairie. We should do a post on it. It's a huge sprawling site, much of which is of only fair or good quality. But it has gems here and there. A trail with a sign takes you through interesting areas.

    2. Yes, Lockport Prairie. My goal this year is to visit some of the great local preserves that I have never been to. A couple of weeks ago I went to Black Partridge Woods for the first time-Wow! CFC restorations are on the right track but we still have a lot of work to do!

      Jim V.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Roger and I were delighted to be two small cogs in this apparatus of environmentalists.

    1. You and Roger were major contributors. The Palos region owes so much to you both. So many of us in this vital community have made important differences!