I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.
Edward Everett Hale The Book of Good Cheer
Strong winds. Gray skies. A cold drizzle. Not an optimal day to go for a prairie hike. But you hike when you have time to hike, and weather be hanged. Today, Hinsdale Prairie steward Kath Thomas has promised me a tour of a prairie remnant, just down the street from her house. Not much more than an acre, it’s a tiny remnant island adrift in a sea of development.
What’s a prairie remnant? Simply put, it’s a piece of the original tallgrass prairie that has not been plowed or destroyed. Illinois once had 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie; only about 2,300 high quality acres remain. Other Midwestern states have even more dismal statistics. These remnants are often tucked into old cemeteries, or the corners of farm fields. Along railroad tracks. On rocky hilltops unsuitable for plowing. Or, places like this alongside a freeway that escaped notice.
Mowers have knocked back the prairie on the freeway side and it’s been trimmed back along the sidewalk which flanks it on the west. There’s a roar of traffic from the freeway. The din is overwhelming. A prairie—here? Really? If there is birdsong, it’s erased by the sounds of trucks. And yet…you feel it. This is a special place.
As we hike, Kath points out the bluebird houses. Anybody home? Nope, not today. Too late in the season. As we brush aside the tallgrass and hike deeper into the prairie, the real treasures emerge. Over here, spent prairie gentians. To the left, prairie dropseed, lime-colored for autumn. Just ahead, the bloomed-out spikes of Liatris, blazing star, with a few ballet-skirted seedheads of Echinacea; pale purple coneflower.
Other treasures appear as we walk. Prairie dock. Some rough-cut leaves of compass plant. All of these tell us we’re walking through prairie, not an old field. Signs of a survivor. The rain starts up again. Wind and wet blur the grasses into a watercolor of motion.
The rain also brings out the globe-dark silhouettes of rattlesnake master and pops of black-eyed Susan seedheads. I imagine these two plants in summer; their flashes of silvery white and lemon yellow.
Reality, in the form of more cold drizzle, brings me back to the present. Kath will be the first to tell you this little prairie remnant is here because of Dr. Robert Betz, who identified prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) here in the 1970s and championed the prairie’s survival. We don’t find the prairie bush clover as we hike today, but we do find round-headed bush clover. Not nearly so unusual, but still intriguing.
Look around and discover a jewelry box full of plant gems. New Jersey tea with its blown-out seedheads and curl of last leaves. Bee balm, with its powdered leaves at the end of the season, exhaling an astringent scent. Big bluestem, the Illinois state grass, waves its turkey-footed seedhead against the gray sky.
The Hinsdale Prairie refuses to give up the ghost, despite inroads from utility work, encroachment by development, and occasional mowing on the east and west side that shaves off precious portions of the tallgrass. Crown vetch, teasel, and daylilies threaten to dispossess the Indian grass, little bluestem, and wild quinine.
Kath does everything she can to raise awareness of this remnant. She founded “Friends of Hinsdale Prairie,” dedicated to advocating for the prairie on social media and with local government. She intercedes for the prairie when she sees unusual activity, like utility trucks parking on the grasses or neighbors throwing yard waste into the wildflowers. She picks up trash. Each day brings a new challenge. And Kath is only one person.
But she’s one person changing the world, making a difference. Right where she lives. Kath inspires me that change is possible—if only we will step up. Take care of the places right in front of us. Tell others why something matters.
How will you change your world? There’s never been a better time to find out.