There are people who talk, and there are people who do. George Fell was a doer—in spades. There are people who do, but can’t stop talking about themselves and the credit they deserve. Not George Fell. There are people who quit when the powers that be tell them no or who simply run out of energy in their quest to make the world a better place. Not George Fell.
So, who is George Fell? He was the founder of The Nature Conservancy (which, by some measures, has become the largest environmental organization in the world), the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and other environmental organizations. He was a tireless environmental advocate who protected the last bits of pristine land in Illinois and other places.
When you traverse the immensely beautiful quaking bog at Volo Bog State Natural Area, thank George Fell. When you hike the stunning glacial esker and visit wildflower-packed Visitation Prairie in the wildest place in Cook County at Cap Sauers Holding, thank George Fell. And when you marvel at the stunning prairies, oak savannas, and woodlands at Sand Ridge Nature Center, thank George Fell. Because he and other environmentalists had the vision and organizational acumen to save some of the most-beautiful places in our state and elsewhere. His life is proof that one person can make a difference in the world (although I should add that his wife Barbara was a fantastic partner during his environmental efforts). This is an encouraging thought in our disheartening times, when it’s easy to feel like our best efforts are lost in a sea of anger and conflict; where truth seems to be fighting a losing battle with fake news; and the environment is constantly under attack by our president and many of our elected officials.
After reading Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), by Arthur Melville Pearson, I was sad that I never got the chance to meet Fell. But by reading Force of Nature, I received (and so will you) a chance to learn about this fascinating visionary, whose tireless efforts made Illinois a more beautiful place. If you’re a nature lover in Illinois, this is a must read. I recently discussed Force of Nature with Arthur Melville Pearson. He recently stepped down as the director of the Chicago Program at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which helps protect and restore natural lands in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His writing has appeared in Chicago Wilderness, Outdoor Illinois, and other publications.
Q. If you had to summarize Force of Nature in 50 to 100 words, how would you do so?
A. The unlikeliest of heroes, George Fell not only protected more natural land in Illinois than anyone before or since, he also launched a legacy of institutions that will continue to protect nature for generations to come: The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the Natural Land Institute, and the Natural Areas Association, to name a few.
Q. What fascinated you about George Fell and made you want to tell his story?
A. George revolutionized the American Conservation Movement, yet hardly anyone knows his name because he went out of his way not to call attention to himself. But he was the living embodiment of “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” George and his wife, Barbara, had no money, no experience, no job, no pedigree, no connections. They faced huge obstacles and endured painful failures. But they never gave up. Thanks to them, we enjoy more than 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, some of the most beautiful places in the Prairie State, harboring disproportionately large numbers of rare, threatened, and endangered plants and animals. Thanks to them, The Nature Conservancy grew into the largest conservation organization on the planet.
Q. Are there any other under-the-radar figures in Illinois or Midwest conservation that you think people should know about?
A. Yes. So many. Conservationists tend not to be good self-promoters, for good and understandable reasons. But here are a couple of exceptions:
Stephen Packard. The subject of a book, himself—Miracle Under the Oaks—Stephen maintains an active blog and is a good writer in addition to being an exceptional restorationist. He’s the long-time driving force behind the volunteer stewardship movement in the Chicago region, particularly within the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Here’s a link to his blog.
Christopher David Benda (aka Illinois Botanizer). Part of the new generation of conservationists, he is an expert botanist, a great tour guide of our natural lands, and pretty good at sharing his passion via Facebook and Instagram. Here’s his website.
Every volunteer steward. Truly. Anyone who take a few hours—once a month, once a season, even once a year—to help heal our natural lands is a hero in my book. Of course, each volunteer, each hero, gets the reward of a little healing in return. It’s good for the heart and soul and body to cut some buckthorn or pull garlic mustard, allowing our native plants and animals—our ecological heritage—to flourish.
Q. What is your favorite nature destination in Chicagoland, and why?
A. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie fires my imagination for several reasons. All told, there remains only 2,500 acres of prairie left in the Prairie State, scattered in small isolated parcels, some only a single acre in size. Once fully restored, Midewin will boast about 20,000 acres—big enough to harbor healthy populations of grassland birds and even a growing bison herd. Equally exciting is the human history of Midewin—generations of Native Americans inhabited its lands before the first generation of pioneer farmers arrive to plow up the prairie. Then the U.S. Army compelled all the farmers to sell their land to establish the Joliet Arsenal—the world’s largest and most sophisticated munitions plant in the world during World War II. And then miraculously, upon decommissioning the arsenal, most of the land was reserved not for development, but for establishing the nation’s first tallgrass prairie. The tie-in to George Fell is that much of the restoration underway at Midewin is based on the adjacent Grant Creek Nature Preserve. How cool is that?
Force of Nature is available through University of Wisconsin Press, Amazon, and wherever books are sold.
Copyright (article opening text) Andrew Morkes; Arthur Pearson retains the copyright to his interview
Copyright (book cover photo) Arthur Pearson
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