In the past couple of weeks, I’ve actually had a chance to do something I have not done much in recent years: get out and take a hike. Two of them actually.
There are plenty of reasons for my absence from the trails. Actually, they sound too much like excuses. But the simple truth is that I have missed walking in places where nature is closer. My outside treks have mainly been in pursuit of Illinois landscapes, parking the car and walking up and down country roads to see what’s out there in the distance, and occasionally, closer in. My treks across the Illinois backroads have yielded thousands of photos. Some of them are pretty good. I am glad I took them.
But I am ready for a change.
My first back-to-nature walk was a group endeavor with the Prairie Land Conservancy at our lovely Stony Hills Nature Preserve. It was a fabulous October day, warmish, cloudless blue sky like you see in only the fall around here, and with friends who appreciate nature. It was a guided hike, and I needed it to be reminded of what I know and what I need to know.
For much of my life, even when I was a kid, I have been fortunate to hang around with the outdoorsy folks who have taught me so much about the natural world. Other than a biology class or two along the way, I have not had much formal training in things ecological. Perhaps that is unfortunate.
But I made a career choice to become a social scientist with the goal of picking up a deeper understanding of human life and its relationship with the natural environment. So, I have worked closely with conservationists and environmentalists over the years, soaking up their knowledge. I have read extensively, and I do mean extensively, in the literature of conservation thought and practices. I think I’ve come to understand what motivates careful land use. I can see whether an agriculture practice is good or bad and whether a forest is healthy, and usually can tell when a body of water is being treated well or badly.
Yet, when I cross a landscape, I still realize how much I need to learn. I have spent much time viewing the landscape with a wider view. What I do not have enough of, and want to pick up before long, is the naturalist’s eye for the smaller things, what’s going on with the critters—the garbage scavengers, the pollinators, the species that do the work of sustaining the landscape.
Maybe I had smaller things in mind when, a week after the Stony Hills walk, I visited the 4,363-acre Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area on the Peoria-Fulton County line near the Illinois River. This land, reclaimed from farming and coal mining, is dotted with more than 200 lakes of various sizes. It was much cooler the week before, mostly overcast, with a breeze. This day, I walked by myself, and saw only three other people, all of them fishing, in a little over two hours.
The landscape was lonely with its gray sky above, dark waters, and tan grasslands marked by brushy areas. Most of the trees, except for some plums, willows, and autumn olive, had lost their leaves already. A few scattered maples and oaks on the distant bluffs splashed the area with tiny patches of orange and yellow and deep bronze-red.
The light wasn’t all that good for photography, but at first I concentrated, as usual, on the landscape and where I was going, since this was a first-time visit with no map. This type of hiking/exploration is fun for me. It forces me to learn the landscape, the shape of the water bodies, the direction of the paths in relation to the watershed, and to remember landmarks along the way.
But part of my exploration later included trying to recognize differences in plants that go with changes in elevation and soil moisture. A naturalist can detect these changes easily and quite quickly name the plants that occur in these different ecologies. Some of us are happy that we just know there are changes, and that’s fine. I sense I’m getting to the point where I want to learn a little bit more.
For example, was the aster I photographed, more as a document than anything else, an endangered decurrent false aster? Possible. Were all of those really tall phragmites that blocked the view of the water in so many places the invasive kind (phragmites australis)? Was I really seeing dogwoods with white berries, possibly cornus sericea? (I am surprised to be looking up Latin terms, here; this is new to me.)
What I missed at Banner Marsh was the bird activity. I did see what I thought might be a pelican, possibly a swan, and definitely a heron and a gull. But the brushy areas seemed quiet, and I didn’t hear or see much birdlife. Perhaps I didn’t stand still long enough. I saw plenty of small grasshoppers, heard a few crickets, and a few moths and butterflies that I did not know the names of.
There is so much to learn. I hope my memory, where filed items so often go to get lost, is up to the task of learning some of the finer details of these glorious webs of different ecologies that support all of our life on Earth.
Appreciation for the land runs deep in my life, almost longer than I can remember. Something about the broader landscapes—prairies, forests, river valleys, lakes, and shorelines—is calling to me to understand them more deeply, perhaps not as an expert, but as someone who seeks to comprehend how inextricably linked all life on Earth is. Banner Marsh is just one piece of crucial wetlands along the Illinois River that includes Emiquon and the new Prairie Hills Wetland Reserve. They are close to my backyard, but they are part of a broader ecology that beckons my curiosity.
We are challenged by global and local ecological problems. We are challenged by people who neither understand nor care about the inherent necessity of natural landscapes that are relatively untouched or reclaimed from the ravages of misuse. Fortunately, others care deeply and wake up in the morning with a passion for the Earth’s beauties, bounties, and mysteries.
For my part, I just want to know more. To understand better. To discuss. To revel in the beauty that is so deeply interwoven with our shared lives. To make sure that the record shows that I spoke out gratefully for reconciliation with the planet that supports us.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a newly released fiction book, Memories of Santa Claus.