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Monday, June 28, 2021

Prairies, and the people who shape them

By Christos Economou 

I love prairies. So when I caught wind of a new exhibit (Endnote 1) at the Chicago Botanic Garden featuring stunning paintings of Illinois prairies by renowned artist and grassland ecologist Philip Juras, I couldn’t resist the urge to go on the same day it opened. 

And of course, who do I run into on opening day? 

That's Philip in the center, me on the right, and frequent writer of this blog Stephen Packard on the left. It was a privilege to examine these paintings with commentary from the artist himself (and from Stephen, who authored an essay to accompany Philip's annotated book-compilation of these paintings). The exhibit and the book are called Picturing the Prairie, with the compelling subtitle, A Vision of Restoration.
Painting is probably the perfect medium for depicting the original prairie landscape – an Illinois no one alive today has ever seen or experienced. Take, for example, the ethereal horizon in the painting below. As Philip explained, it was difficult to know exactly how to capture the color and mood of a treeless prairie horizon. They simply don't exist around here anymore. Finding an unobstructed view that could serve as a visual model was a challenge, but luckily for us, driving a little north of Champaign one afternoon, Philip found a break in the tree line just deep enough to give him what he needed. The result was the painting below. 

I find it haunting. 

This painting is titled Late Afternoon on the Grand Prairie of Illinois, c. 1491. Despite the heat and humidity I feel just looking at this piece, I should very much like to spend an afternoon in a place just like this, if it exists, someday. 

Consider the profusion and arrangement of plants in the foreground. I recognize many from this distance: blazing stars, coneflowers, leadplant. By design they are realistically depicted, Philip says, yet without the accuracy of a botanical illustration, which would distract from the piece as a landscape painting. The result is a complex mosaic that gives the impression of an original prairie. Yet the true complexity of healthy original prairies (and all ecosystems, really) is emergentand defies our understanding. Every square inch contains a unique combination of thousands of interacting pieces; every niche available, both aboveground and below, participates in sustaining the maximum life possible. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Illinois' original Grand Prairie, the one evinced in the painting, once contained billions upon billions of these special inches of life stretching on unbroken to the horizon. Nowadays of course, mature, original prairies in Illinois survive only in tiny pockets covering less than 0.01% of their original extent, and not one of those fragments has escaped some form of degradation. In this context, the subtitle A Vision of Restoration is simply inspirational. To think of this painting as a vision of the future is to say: "this life-full thing is what prairies were, and what they could be again." What today exists only in art Philip implies can one day become reality, if we work for it. 

Remnant prairie at Pellsville Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Rankin, Vermillion County. Each prairie remnant is the irreproducible product of a trillion happy accidents, millennia in the making. Restoring this level of diversity to the landscape is by necessity a long-term project, akin to building a cathedral. Photo courtesy of John Boldt. 

However, now that I can visualize it, I confess that the very vastness of the landscape which I find so appealing is at the same time intimidating – scary even. The earliest Euro-American commentators were at such a loss to describe the endless stretches of grass and flowers they were newly witnessing that the only fitting comparison they could think up was of being adrift at sea. More than one complained of disorientation, the oppressive heat, the cold, the sun, lack of firewood, the insects and rattlesnakes.  Descriptions of getting caught in the open during a storm or prairie fire are chilling.  

So while we rightly lament the utter destruction of the prairie landscape, seeing Philip's two paintings of the Grand Prairie, a part of me sympathizes with the white settlers' instinct to ‘tame’ it. Perhaps I don't love prairies enough – or perhaps too much of that wildness is missing from our daily lives. We who love the prairies of today, with all our modern comforts, are not accustomed to thinking of them as powerful, desolate, or deadly places, yet they certainly were all those things. They were also majestic, intensely alive, and painfully beautiful. The paintings challenge us to reconcile these two contradictory viewpoints, to enrich our understanding of the prairie ecosystem and our potential place within it.  

In the exhibit, Night Fire on the Grand Prairie of Illinois, c. 1491 is situated directly across from the previous painting. Perhaps they show the same place in different times, here in early November, when big bluestem towers over all. There is danger – and magic – in that horizon. 

When I read these settler experiences, I invariably turn to wondering : how did indigenous people of the time – who, by 1491, had lived with them for millennia – experience the prairies (Endnote 2)? What did they think they were good for? Did they find them desolate, or scary? We have some idea as to the answers, which we unfortunately arrive at exclusively through secondary sources. Unlike numerous settler accounts, contemporary indigenous eyewitness perspectives have not survived (or if they have, they are hard to find, and have shamefully not entered the general discourse in a meaningful way). This is an awful gap in our prairie knowledge, one I'd like to see filled from more than idle curiosity. I want to know because having that perspective would put us inside the minds of the people who actually shaped the prairies into those we know today. Knowing what they knew would give us powerful insights into how best to bring our native landscapes back. 

Since the retreat of the last glacier, we now know, prairies in Illinois developed under the care of people. While "scientific" debates on the spread of prairies raged in Euro-American academia for a long time, the idea that native people were sophisticated enough to shape their environment on the landscape scale was largely discounted. But the simple fact that the Ojibwe words for ‘prairie’ and ‘fire’ are nearly identical ought to have said something. Today we think differently, and recognize the centrality of indigenous peoples' purposeful, near-annual, dormant-season burning in maintaining and spreading prairies.  

Sunrise, based on one Philip experienced at Nachusa Grasslands in Lee and Ogle counties. Perhaps it's no surprise that many of Philip's paintings are inspired by Nachusa, one of the world's premier landscape-scale restoration efforts. These paintings celebrate the past along with the work of restorationists everywhere. 

The wide grasslands and park-like open woodlands that white settlers marveled at as ‘virgin wilderness’ was anything but. For millennia, through fire and other means, indigenous people shaped the prairies, savannas, wetlands, and forests of Illinois for their own use – and managed to benefit a mind-numbingly diverse array of life in the process. As Philip points out in the book, this rightly makes the prairie a cultural landscape, in a sense on par with the corn and soybean fields that have replaced it. But this realization profoundly challenges traditional Western conceptions of nature, blurring the artificial line they draw between the ‘human’ and the ‘wild’. 

So the idea that prairies were to an extent ‘human-made’ as much as evolved might make some uncomfortable – but to many others, it serves as an inspiration. It’s like an invitation to take up an old but cast-aside calling as positive participants in nature. The long history of human influence on prairies ought to encourage all of us who ‘intervene’ to bring them back from the brink, and the precedent of a happy interdependence of people and nature should be celebrated. I hope Philip's paintings – and we as viewers, thinkers, and doers – can inspire many more people to have a similar Vision of Restoration. 

It’s eerie to me how much the prairies Philip has painted are exactly the prairies I would paint, if I could paint, despite neither of us having ever truly witnessed them. I'm reminded of Benedict Anderson's book Imagined CommunitiesPrairie lovers today have a common 'prairie vocabulary' from our experience of small remnants, historical accounts, and our growing understanding of the science and cultural ecology of prairies. Together, these form an ever-evolving collective conception of this forgotten landscape, which today exists only on canvas, and in our dreams. Perhaps we might call them imagined plant communities – and our imaginations converge in this thrilling series of paintings. While we'll never fully grasp the true, complex language of the prairies, Philip with his brush, and restorationists with seed and fire, are developing the vocabulary' every day, bringing more and more of the prairie out from the imagination and into the harsh July sun. 


Endnote 1
The exhibition lasts until September 12 at the Chicago Botanic Garden (reservations needed). See these excellent and inspiring paintings (only a few of which are included here) while you can.

Endnote 2 
Reader Abigail Derby Lewis rightly points out that indigenous peoples in Illinois, especially in the Chicago region, continue to practice their ecological knowledge and cultural traditions to this day. Their voices and perspectives deserve as much amplification as the historical perspectives from which we draw inspiration. In our present society, conservation and restoration must be supported by all local community members to really triumph.


As always, I’m indebted to Stephen Packard for excellent editing, and again to Philip for the wonderful discussion, and the tremendous effort that went into these paintings.

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